Insights · September 23rd, 2011

Few issues shaping the future stand out in the U.S. more than the future of housing. We tend to think just of the mortgage meltdown of the past three years when considering housing. No real solutions have appeared yet to really address this problem. But there are three additional forces, beyond the mortgage mess, that have also converged to change the way we need to think about housing going forward – the aging population, the need for affordable and “right-sized” housing for the demographics and values of the future, and the need for energy and thus economic efficiency.

This week I learned about an encouraging effort to leverage the mortgage mess and to address these three issues, in a bell-weather development on the outskirts of Houston. It is Cypresswood Estates.

I had the opportunity to discuss the project with Horace Allison, Chief Development Officer for the Harris County Housing Authority. This is a governmental non-profit corporation that promotes, and develops, quality affordable housing.

The mortgage meltdown has resulted in many foreclosed properties. Mr. Allison and the Authority set out to re-develop one such tract, while also addressing the three dominant trends mentioned – aging, affordability, and economic energy efficiency. I have to say I have not seen a more impressive effort in the nation.

They were able to tap a combination of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds along with contributions from the State of Texas and the County to build their project. This multifamily development has been named by the National Association of Home Builders as a finalist for the “Multifamily Pillars of the Industry Award” and in my view they certainly should be in the running. You can check out Cypresswood online, but here are some of the basics that I learned from Mr. Allison.

First, the project is aimed at active adults in the +55 age bracket. Second, while some of the 88 units are market rate, most require low-income qualification. Rents range from as little as $560 in the subsidized units to as much as $1200 in market rate units. They are small, starting at 850 square feet and going to up 1050 sf. It really looks perfect for addressing what will become a huge issue in the coming two decades – providing some 70 million aging adults with housing alternatives that are smaller, and cheaper, than the large homes that people will want to, or need to, move out of.

What stands out even more is the way that this project addresses the need for economic, sustainable, and energy efficient housing. The project is the nation’s first affordable housing project that exceeds the criteria for Platinum LEED and Emerald Green certification, the highest possible.

Super levels of insulation combined with a unique way of enclosing ductwork and sealing the exterior of the buildings begins the process of saving on both air conditioning (this is Houston!) and heating costs. Insulation is so good that many units seem able to keep cool with just the ceiling fans, barely needing to run their AC. Energy star appliances in every unit are the next step, along with the use of high end, sustainable materials. Solar panels on the roofs of several of the units provide 30% of the energy needed in this all-electric development, and enables some of the units to be “Net 0” in energy usage. Water is efficiently conserved through low-flow fixtures, rainwater reclamation, and drought-tolerant landscaping.

Since the location is not walkable for shopping, the development offers walking trails for recreation, and takes on sustainable transportation needs in three ways. First, a set of shared bicycles are available for use. Second, several high-grade automobile charging stations are built in for plug-in cars. And third the project maintains an on-site vehicle available to take residents to local stores and appointments. This attention to sustainable transportation was, for me, a significant factor in judging this development as a bell weather.

When I asked Mr. Allison about their plans for the future (this project is 50% leased and will be full by year end), he said they are eyeing four more possible projects, and that they hoped to apply several lessons learned. For example, the Authority will not do any future projects that are not at LEED standards. The cost for this project was only marginally higher, about 8-10% more per square foot, than comparable projects that do not meet the same standards. The payback on the extra investment is estimated to be as short as 5-10 years, while the sustainable benefits will last for decades. Other lessons…

  • There were reservations about the cost and feasibility of adding solar energy, but they found solar more available, affordable, and easier to install and to maintain than anticipated. Several companies competed for the contract.
  • In future projects the hope is to get into more passive cooling designs, such as ground geothermal.
  • The hope is to do a full-on Net 0 project, as compared to a couple of Net 0 buildings in this project.
    The Housing Authority expects that Net 0 will become a standard for HUD, and eventually for other agencies (such as the U.S. Army, as I learned this year when I did projects for the Corps of Engineers).

Gorgeous looking place. Talk about being on-trend with future needs! Check it out.

Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video producer and Founder of To arrange for a speech contact

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Nikolas Badminton

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