First Community Housing reaches for Net Positive in affordable housing

By Gilee Corral, April 14th 2015


“Net positive” isn’t just buzz - it’s the goal of the Living Building Challenge, an ambitious program of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) that’s daring developers to push the envelope of green building. To say the Living Building Challenge standards are strict is understated, as to date only six buildings have earned the coveted title “Living Buildings”. Yet clearly the Challenge is inspiring developers; according to a November 2014 report by the ILFI, 230+ projects worldwide are signed on to the certification process.

Silicon Valley nonprofit First Community Housing is using a pilot project to test the Living Building Challenge in the area of affordable housing.


What is the Living Building Challenge?

Called “the world’s most advanced and rigorous green building certification program” in ILFI’s November 2014 report, the Living Building Challenge sets stretch goals for projects - non-hazardous materials, net positive energy creation, on-site water capture and reuse - and provides a framework and expertise to support developers in meeting them. (Click here for more on the Living Building Challenge on EcoCloud.)

ILFI’s standards aren’t based on projected energy efficiency outcomes; buildings can’t get Living Building Challenge certification until at least 12 months of occupancy. This focus on actual results raises the bar for green certification and thus for the “greenness” of the building meeting the Challenge.

ILFI is adapting the Living Building Challenge to an affordable housing framework, using pilot projects to work out the kinks. One of these projects is First Community Housing’s Second Street Studios in San Jose, now in the planning phase.


Net positive energy goals for pilot projects. Source: International Living Future Institute


Reaching for Net Positive: Second Street Studios

To find out more about this exciting project, Sustainable Silicon Valley spoke with Hilary Noll, Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow working with First Community Housing (FCH). First Community Housing is no stranger to sustainable development. When it comes to green building in the affordable housing sector, FCH “has lead California and nationally for the last 12 years,” striving for “healthy outcomes for residents,” said Noll. Five years ago, the San Jose-based nonprofit elected to build to Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum standards in all of its projects.

Now FCH is using the approximately 91,000 sq. ft. mixed-use infill project as a “test case” to identify barriers and see how close it can get to the Living Building certification in affordable housing. Although the project is not slated to reach full Living Building certification, the process has stretched FCH to test boundaries and “inform upcoming projects,” according to Noll. The $32 million project cost will be supported by a mix of loan and grant sources such as: Low Income Housing Tax Credits, City of San Jose, state Housing and Community Development funds, and the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco’s Affordable Housing Program.



Source: International Living Future Institute and First Community Housing


To track how well Second Street Studios will meet its energy goals and estimate its return on investment for efficiency features, FCH will use WegoWise utility tracking. Units will be individually metered, meaning the tenants will reap the benefits of energy savings. As Noll attests, “every cost burden adds up” and energy efficiency is a way to increase affordability for lower income residents. Second Street Studios is slated to achieve LEED Platinum efficiency standards.


Challenges and Barriers

Logistics and technology

Working through the Living Building Challenge framework required some out-of-the box thinking around logistics and illuminated regulatory barriers that will need revamping to achieve net positive results in energy and water efficiency. As a “general rule of thumb” multi-family buildings above 3 1/2 stories “don’t have enough roof area to supply entire building energy needs with solar,” Noll said. Technically, Noll said it’s possible for the Second Street building to produce more energy than it consumes with solar photovoltaics by adding a secondary racking structure, but due to financial barriers and the space required for solar thermal hot water panels, the solar system isn’t feasible. However, the building will be solar-ready in addition to the solar thermal hot water system and a living roof.


Second Street Studios perspective rendering. Source: First Community Housing and Rob Quigley Architects



Second Street Studios perspective rendering. Source: First Community Housing and Rob Quigley Architects



The main barrier to meeting the Challenge, Noll said, was the construction cost containment requirement established by the statewide Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) allocation committee. Higher cost improvements, such as the solar system, dual plumbing, and Forest Stewardship Council certified lumber would throw the total construction cost over this bar and thus make it ineligible for LIHTC, a bread-and-butter funding source in affordable housing.

Another financial barrier, according to Noll, is the local utility allowance set by Santa Clara county’s public housing authority. The allowances are set without taking into consideration the high initial costs of making energy efficiency improvements. A lower allowance would increase FCH’s share of rental payments, allowing it to recoup more of its upfront investment in infrastructure, thus increasing capacity to make efficiency retrofits and improvements down the road.


Going net zero on water capture and reuse is a considerable challenge in San Jose’s arid climate. The Challenge allows developers to “scale jump”- e.g. collect rainwater from neighboring buildings or use solar panels on adjacent property - to meet water and energy efficiency goals. In considering this option, FCH ran into issues with the California plumbing code, which restricts rainwater collection to property boundary lines. However, Noll said there’s room within the code for adjustment and the “possibility of scalability beyond the building to the block or district” for future projects. She noted that Second Street Studios will be “purple pipe ready” with the potential to connect to a municipal recycling system when available.


Lessons Learned

  • The Living Building Challenge framework is technically possible to achieve in affordable housing if financial, regulatory, and policy barriers are lifted to meet it.

  • As Noll noted, municipalities could help developers “scale jump” to net positive by including coordination and legal assistance in neighborhood redevelopment plans for this purpose.

  • Neighborhood-scale coordination, such as Net Positive East Palo Alto, can make in-fill projects logistically less burdensome for developers.

  • Funding regulatory bodies and local governing authorities can work with organizations like FCH to reimagine a system in which policies not only remove barriers, but provide incentives and leadership to encourage net positive construction.


Sources and Further Reading:

First Community Housing homepage

ILFI Living Building Challenge Framework for Affordable Housing (

Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship program

ILFI partners with the San Francisco Planning Dept. to envision a net positive San Francisco: