Public Housing Redevelopment Leads Sustainability Efforts in Savannah, Georgia
Sustainable Fellwood incorporates many building design features that will reduce costs for residents and reduce the development's impact on the environment, including a rooftop solar array Credit: The Woda Group Savannah, Georgia is widely recognized for its historic architecture and distinctive approach to city planning. In recent years, Savannah has garnered new attention with the redevelopment of the Fellwood Homes public housing development into the first LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND)-certified project in Georgia. Located approximately one mile west of historic downtown Savannah, Sustainable Fellwood is a result of partnerships forged by the Housing Authority of Savannah, private and nonprofit developers, and the city. The project raises the bar for affordable housing developed throughout Savannah and the state of Georgia by demonstrating the considerable benefits of sustainable design.
Cost-Effective Sustainable Design
The design of Sustainable Fellwood invokes the historic plan for the original Savannah established by James Oglethorpe in 1733. The Oglethorpe Plan is maintained in the form of the country’s largest national historic district, which includes pedestrian-scaled blocks and public and private buildings organized around a series of public squares. Sustainable Fellwood follows a similar design, with 220 mixed-income housing units, a 100-unit senior housing complex, and 13 single-family homeownership units organized around a 4-acre park at the center of the site. Mature oak trees were preserved throughout the 27-acre parcel, and the pedestrian-scaled street network is designed to promote continuity and connectivity for various types of transportation. These design features, combined with its redevelopment status and proximity to public transit, helped the project earn a Silver rating as part of the LEED-ND Pilot Program.
In addition to setting standards for neighborhood design, LEED-ND also requires that buildings be designed and constructed to promote resource efficiency and sustainability. The housing at Sustainable Fellwood exceeds these standards. The first phase of the project, consisting of 110 mixed-income units, was the first affordable housing in the state to receive a LEED for Homes Gold certification (phase two is also LEED Gold-certified), while the third phase of the project, a 100-unit senior housing complex, recently became the first LEED Platinum-certified affordable housing in the city.
The development establishes a walkable design that provides access to numerous child-friendly amenities, including park areas. Credit: The Woda Group Building to LEED standards did come with additional costs, but those were balanced by savings achieved elsewhere on the project. For example, the cost of high efficiency heat pumps and cellulose and spray foam insulation — approximately $1,400 to $1,600 for each unit — was offset by savings realized through efficient unit design, reductions in off-street parking, and eliminating outdoor balconies on the mixed-income housing units. As a result, the inclusion of sustainable features amounted to a fraction of the total project costs (approximately $200,000 or about 0.25%). Importantly, the investments made in efficiency provide considerable financial benefits to residents. According to Tommy Linstroth, principal at Trident Sustainability Group — which served as the green building consultant for the project — the housing units are 21 to 30 percent more efficient than a typical ASHRAE baseline building. Increased efficiency will reduce operating costs and thus lower the cost of living for residents.
Denis Blackburne, a LEED-accredited professional with The Woda Group, describes the progression toward an increasingly green building standard as an iterative process. “We don’t set out to build a [LEED] ‘platinum’ building. Our goal is to meet the [LEED] ‘silver’ standard and then as the process plays out, we include features that best suit the design and budget.” One such feature is the 85kW photovoltaic array included on the senior housing complex. The solar panels helped the project secure its platinum rating, and as Blackburne notes, was made possible in part by the building’s large flat roof and the affordability of the technology.
Adaptable Financing Needed
Securing the financing for Sustainable Fellwood presented its share of challenges. While the first phase of the project was financed primarily with $10 million in low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC), the second and third phases of the project were nearly derailed by the weakened LIHTC market. According to Blackburne, the Tax Credit Assistance Program (TCAP), a provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, played a critical role in keeping the project on track by providing approximately $5.9 million in grants to make up for the financing gap caused by the shortfall of LIHTC investment. In addition to the TCAP funds and $26.2 million in tax credit financing, the city of Savannah provided approximately $3.5 million in Special Option Local Sales Tax funds toward infrastructure improvements, and the Housing Authority of Savannah contributed approximately $7 million in replacement housing capital funds. Thirty-five percent of the units are reserved for those earning less than 30 percent of area median income (AMI), forty-five percent of the units for those earning up to 60 percent of AMI, and the remainder are market-rate units.
Now nearly complete, Sustainable Fellwood demonstrates the benefits of sustainable design and construction, as well as the important role of partnerships and collaboration in forging innovative housing and community development strategies.