Housing USA: Reaching Carbon Neutrality in Salt Lake City

5 min read

You don’t often hear “affordable” and “zero-carbon” in the same sentence, because for housing development these goals are seen as being in tension. But in Salt Lake City, one progressive project is addressing both goals simultaneously, in a city that could use such outcomes.

Two factors motivated GIV Group (GIV), a local development firm, to launch Project Open in Utah’s capital city. First, the city is growing quickly, creating affordable housing challenges. For example, median home prices in the Guadalupe neighborhood, where Project Open is being built, have nearly doubled in a few years to $300,000, says company founder Chris Parker. Second is that Salt Lake City struggles with air quality, due to mountainous topography that keeps pollutants trapped over this 1.2 million  metro population center.

GIV sought in Project Open to build apartments that use green energy but remain affordable. The first two phases of the three-phase project offer 207 units, 70 to 80 percent of which are affordable to those making 25 to 55 percent area median income. This was made possible through a $1 million Low Income Housing Tax Credit allocation and a loan from the state of Utah. The substantial set-aside means Project Open will provide much-needed affordable housing in a historically Hispanic neighborhood that is close to downtown and feeling gentrification pressures. Some parts of the site, which will provide 233 units total, also have old factories that GIV will reuse adaptively (however the company did not leverage Historic Tax Credits).

But the most impressive thing about Project Open is the carbon neutral component, which will do a small part in improving Salt Lake City’s air quality problem, and America’s larger environmental problems. “Carbon neutral” here refers to buildings that achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions through on-site elimination, or offsetting.

Parker says developers normally avoid adopting low- or zero-emissions technology because they believe the finances won’t work, and are too risk-averse to try. But, he says more carbon-neutral units have been built in Utah in the last two years than in the last decade altogether, and that Project Open provides a blueprint for how it’s done. The development involves four cutting-edge ideas:

Solar and wind energy: Where developers often run into trouble concerning carbon neutral projects is scalability.

To power a whole building from a rooftop, says Parker, the building height would need to be limited to three stories – which would of course limit density and hit the developer’s bottom line. For a taller building to be energized by wind and solar, an external source is needed. So, GIV partnered with Rocky Mountain Energy, a utility with access to renewable sources. This included GIV’s purchase of 3.5 acres on a solar farm, where the cost at the level of generation is less than $1/watt, and is transported via the grid to Project Open. Wind power is utilized as well, but mainly in the form of excess winds coming from Wyoming. These arrive at night when power usage is lower, and is drawn on by a battery backup pulling the largely renewable power from the grid. Project Open uses the power to energize its project, and sells the surplus power to other properties. As a result, Parker says, “You can have something like a fully offset building, but you know where your power is coming from.”

Shared utilities: The project also deploys a “crowdsourced” method of water heating, which has saved approximately $300,000.

“The least efficient thing a resident does is take a shower in the morning,” he says, due to the energy needed to heat the water. Most multifamily properties have either a separate water tank or a tankless heater per unit, adding installation costs. Project Open instead deploys battery bank water heaters that take heat out of the air. The heater pulls ambient air on a loop, which is far more efficient than the conventional method, effectively “taking 20 water heaters and making them five.”

Shared transportation: Project Open has also brought shared-resource thinking to transportation. In the ground-level garage area of a now-completed early phase, there is room dedicated for electric carshare and bikeshare. While the programs have been put on hold due to COVID, GIV plans to expand these offerings in the future, even including transit passes into the rent. Parker notes that internally subsidizing transportation costs for residents, to potentially as little as $100 per month, would benefit residents who can’t afford car ownership.

Timber-frame construction: Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the project will come in phase three, when GIV builds a seven-story tower using timber-frame construction. High-rise wooden buildings have become increasingly common in recent years, and Parker believes it will further improve affordability and efficiency for this part of the project. The wood materials are modular, making assembly faster. This phase three building, which will require no subsidies, will also be heated with ambient water heat, driving energy expenses down by 40 percent.

Which really speaks to the true benefit of GIV’s pro-environmental, pro-technological approach: it will make Project Open cheaper to build and energize, thus more affordable to the consumer. This is essential not only for Salt Lake City, but the entire country, says Parker. America is “losing ground every single year” on building affordable housing, with demand outpacing the level of tax credits and vouchers being issued. It doesn’t help that the cost of building affordable units in cities is so high, with infamous tales from California of units that cost a half-million dollars or more.

“The amount of tax you would have to put on a population [to finance] affordable housing is massive,” says Parker.

So, the future of affordable housing construction will need to include things like modular assembly, green utilities and scalability through high-rise construction – with GIV Group’s carbon neutral Project Open showing one way this can be accomplished.

“Being good to the air does not mean losing your shirt,” says Parker. GIV wants to prove that building affordably doesn’t mean that either.