Reducing Resource Use to Enhance Health and
Well-being

Affordability, health and equity through carbon reduction in public and other low- to moderate-income housing

Connecting energy consumption and human potential

Southface was founded to provide alternative energy solutions to homeowners during the fuel embargoes of the 1970s. As we worked on ways to scale energy efficiency measures, we began to understand the relationship between healthy environments and healthy people. From climate change mitigation and social equity to human health, the potential for the built environment to deliver positive outcomes across a range of fundamental human needs is a guiding philosophy of our work. The regenerative economy recognizes people must live within balanced, living systems, and the home is the most meaningful example of humanity’s intimate reliance on a healthy, affordable built environment that optimizes human potential while minimizing environmental impact. If the built environment isn’t healthy, neither are any of us who live within it.

Launching the first green building program

In the following years, Southface proved the importance of these concepts and their potential far-reaching impacts through our first-to-market green building certification program—EarthCraft—launched in 1999 with The Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. By leveraging the building boom in the South, we sought to drive demand for new green technologies, more efficient regulation of mechanical systems and renewable energy. Still, these novel technologies and methodologies were a luxury, affordable only for those willing to pay a premium.

Our EarthCraft program laid the foundation for the fundamental connection between resource efficiency and building environments that can better support health and well-being. Southface next turned its focus to how these principles could benefit more people—and have a broader impact.

Expanding access to resource-efficient affordable housing

In 2017, thanks to a partnership with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and the Georgia Health Policy Center and funded by the Kresge Foundation, Southface began providing technical advice on incorporating resource efficiency measure retrofits in 10 public housing developments across Georgia to increase affordability for the residents through lower utility bills. Our partners are taking the lead to prove out the health and well-being impacts of these buildings through rigorous data collection and analysis.

Because two-thirds of today’s buildings will still be in use in 2050, and only a small percentage—1% or less—are renovated each year, it is critical to reduce the carbon impact of existing structures while ensuring they are meeting the needs of the community for safe, healthy, affordable shelter.

Creating maximum social equity benefit

Running even further with this concept, Southface began partnering in 2020 with the Sarasota Housing Authority and Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation to apply these same techniques holistically to existing public housing units, where the health, social and resource benefits can increase quality of life for disadvantaged communities. Based on our initial findings, we expect to reduce energy and water use by 30-60% through energy and water efficiency retrofits, dramatically reducing costs for residents, helping to increase social mobility and freeing up critical dollars for other needs.

The same strategies that enable efficiency—like improved insulation, the electrification and installation of Energy Star-rated appliances, dedicated fresh air ventilation and materials choices—all create improved conditions for indoor health. Southface will gather data from before and after the retrofits to document any improvements in missed days of school or work, number of trips to the ER, inhaler refills, reduced distress impacts from better soundproofing and other indicators of health and well-being.

We intentionally work in areas where there is high energy burden, where those least able to afford the cost of utilities pay a disproportionate share of the costs within a community. Southern cities, including Memphis and Atlanta, consistently rank among the highest rates of energy burden in the nation. We seek to support economic mobility, equity and opportunity by increasing the affordability of homes for low wage-earning families while delivering on the promise of a low-carbon future.

The path to scale

To expand our impact to the private sector, we launched a partnership in 2020 with The Callaway Foundation in LaGrange, Georgia, to retrofit privately owned low- and moderate-income housing. In a community that is largely comprised of renters of aging housing, we are finding tremendous opportunities to increase energy and water efficiency while improving conditions for health and improving resilience at the community scale. In collaboration with Groundswell and EEtility, which are implementing a Pay As You Save (PAYS) program in this same community, Southface is making updates that prevent water intrusion and mold growth, reducing indoor air pollution, removing materials that contribute to asthma and allergies, and improving affordability while supporting improved health and well-being outcomes for the residents.

Looking forward, we have developed a bold plan to partner with public housing agencies to amplify our impact even further. We can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by hundreds of thousands of metric tons over 10 years while improving the affordability, health and well-being of residents of these communities, some of which shoulder the highest energy burden in the nation. We have applied for seed funding for this project through the 2030 Climate Challenge and are awaiting results of the contest. We will continue to seek funding to scale this work.

 

Resources

Case Study
Report

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