A new apartment building in Minneapolis sets a new national standard for sustainability in affordable housing

By Joel Hoekstra

When Alan Arthur, president and CEO of the Twin Cities–based nonprofit Aeon, talks about his organization’s latest housing development in Minneapolis, he boasts a bit. “The Rose is the most sustainable, energy-efficient, materials-healthy affordable-housing project in the United States of America,” he says.

That claim has never been independently verified, Arthur concedes. But Aeon and its partners, including housing developer Hope Community, set the bar high when they set out to build a 90-unit mixed-income apartment building at the corner of Franklin and Portland avenues in South Minneapolis.

In addition to meeting criteria that would make half of the units qualify as affordable housing, Aeon and Hope Community wanted to push the limits of sustainable construction practices. The developers hoped the structure would serve as a blueprint for budget-conscious, environmentally healthy building throughout the affordable-housing sector, and they aspired to meet the most rigorous green building standard in existence: the Living Building Challenge, a broad-based approach that goes well beyond established LEED sustainability measures. To help them meet these goals, Aeon hired Minneapolis architecture firm MSR.

“The thing we learned and liked about MSR was that they were excited to do the hard work that was required,” says Arthur. “We were doing something that had never been done before.”

The site for the Rose—nearly a full city block—is bounded by Interstate 35W and two major thoroughfares, so noise and air pollution were significant issues. Preventing graffiti was also a concern, and Aeon, Hope Community, and MSR all believed that some element of transparency between the street and the interior of the complex was key to making the building engage with the neighborhood. Last, the structure needed to align aesthetically with three housing complexes erected at the same intersection by Hope Community.

MSR produced a design composed of two rectangular four-story boxes separated by a fenced-in courtyard and play area. (Below each building is a parking garage.) The public entrances are glassed in, and ground-floor units walk out to the street or the courtyard. Roughly half of the upper-floor units have balconies, and a few have projecting bays. Painted red, the bays animate the exterior surface, as do blocks of black graffiti-resistant masonry on the ground floor, and horizontal bands of beige and white siding set in a random formation on the upper levels.

The variations on the exterior are mirrored inside the building, where modifications of the basic unit design give prospective renters a wealth of choices. “Not everybody wants the same thing,” says MSR principal Paul Mellblom, AIA, who oversaw the project. “You may have cyclists who want a unit on the ground level, where they can walk right out the door. You may have families who don’t want their kids wandering onto the street but who like being outdoors, so they want a balcony. Or you may have an individual who wants more square footage, so we offered bays.” In other cases, sociology informed the design: Mellblom says that past affordable-housing clients have suggested studio apartments for people transitioning from homelessness, because the tenants have few belongings and often grow anxious if everything isn’t in sight.

The Rose’s floor plans vary, but the quality of the finishes and fixtures in each unit—whether market-rate or affordable—is consistent. Every kitchen has attractive, locally sourced granite countertops and Energy Star stainless-steel appliances. Floors are ground limestone mixed with a soy-based binder. The interior paints contain no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that might off-gas like latex’s traditional acrylic binders and pigments. Tall picture windows with insulated frames and specialty glazing maximize daylighting while also blocking noise from the nearby freeway. A costly yet efficient five-step, dedicated outdoor air system on the rooftop ensures that each unit receives fresh, clean air—never recycled from other units or tainted by car emissions.

MSR, Hope Community, and Aeon pushed the envelope at every turn, researching environmentally healthy materials and systems until they found the best choice their money could buy. The result? Water use at the Rose is expected to be half that of a similarly sized conventional apartment building. Thirty-five percent of the hot water is solar-heated. The project’s energy use intensity (EUI) is expected to rate 30—a figure that is 72 percent more efficient than the building-code baseline. And the construction cost came in at just $156 per square foot. The project seeks to add a photovoltaic solar farm to offset remaining electrical use.

Arthur says Aeon has learned from past experience that the energy- and resource-saving claims made by manufacturers don’t always hold up. But he’s eager to see how the Rose performs. “Our goal with the Rose is to learn,” he says. “We want to study the impact of the choices we made, adapt things that work, and repeat them.”

Mellblom says he was impressed with Aeon’s commitment to sustainability, and that the research MSR undertook in pursuit of the Living Building Challenge standards has forced the firm to look more critically at other structures they’re working on.

In the end, MSR was the right partner because it was willing to try new things, Arthur observes. “It was the kind of project that needed people who were passionate about it,” he says. “It wouldn’t have happened had MSR not been committed to making a difference on this front.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Clients: Aeon; Hope Community
Architect: MSR
Principal-in-charge: Paul C.N. Mellblom, AIA
Project lead designer: Rhys MacPherson
Energy modeling: The Weidt Group; MSR; Karges-Faulconbridge
Landscape architect: Emmons & Olivier Resources
General contractor: Weis Construction Co.
Size: 145,000 square feet
Construction cost: $22.7 million
Completion: September 2015
Photographer: Don F. Wong

The Rose didn’t seek Living Building Certification, but the architects used the Living Building Challenge as a framework for achieving advanced sustainability in a 145,000-square-foot complex on a former brownfield site adjacent to freeways. The project includes, among other features:

  • A host of energy measures that reduce overall energy use by more than 70 percent
  • A five-stage dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS) that improves indoor air quality
  • A solar water-heating system
  • Water-saving fixtures and Energy Star–rated appliances that reduce potable water use by 47 percent
  • A 5,000-square-foot community garden that offers food-production programming for the neighborhood
  • A rain-garden system that collects up to 90 percent of the rainwater on the property and feeds it into cisterns for reuse in the community garden
  • Connections to services, transit, and bike lanes

In addition, the two rooftops are set up for future installation of large photovoltaic arrays. The developers and the architects assembled a robust package of sustainability measures while meeting a construction-cost target of $156 per square foot.