Building Resilience into Multi-family Housing

by Nancy Eve Cohen
April 4, 2018

Washington, D.C. is developing a tool to assess affordable multifamily housing for resilience to climate change.

Two years ago, when Washington, D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) was developing a plan to prepare the district for a changing climate, Kate Johnson recalls a series of meetings with people from the utilities and those who work in the district’s affordable housing sector. Johnson, the chief of the green building and climate branch, said they pored over maps showing how vulnerable the housing could be in the future due to flooding from severe storms.
Seeing those maps was eye opening. “One of the actions we needed to do was a much deeper assessment of vulnerability of affordable housing,” Johnson said. Besides flooding, there is also concern for residents during severe heat waves.

Now the district is developing an assessment process called the Resilience Audit and Solar Assessment Tool. It’s designed to evaluate multifamily housing for resilience, similar to an energy or water assessment. The goal is to help owners make their buildings more resilient against extreme weather events and rising temperatures. Enterprise Community Partners is designing it along with the National Housing Trust, New Ecology, Inc., and Clean Energy Group. The funding comes from DOEE’s Solar for All program.

A resilient assessment that allows you to see

“It’s like putting on your glasses,” said Laurie Schoeman, senior director of resilience and disaster recovery for Enterprise. “It’s a tool that allows you to look at a building in a specific and intentional way with an aim to providing its climate resilience.”

Schoeman said this is the first resilience assessment tool commissioned by a public municipal agency.

The assessment would start with an Excel-based checklist to see what the building has and what it needs. For instance, “Are there sump pumps in the basement, and if so are they connected to a back-up power supply?” explained Johnson. To address D.C.’s heat-island effect, the assessment would ask: “Does the property have a cool, reflective roof, or not?”

The assessment would also evaluate options for installing photovoltaic (PV) arrays with battery storage systems—something that could make a huge difference for residents in the event of a power outage.

Energy auditors, building engineers, or energy service professionals would conduct the assessments.

After evaluating the building, the assessment would suggest a range of resilient upgrade options. An assessor would refine the list with the building owner based on priorities and funding. The findings would include rough cost estimates and potential funding sources or incentive programs to pay for the upgrades.

Johnson says the assessment will connect the recommendations with the “programs that we have on energy efficiency, stormwater management and renewable energy to actually help some of the property owners pay for some of the upgrades.”

Refining the tool

New Ecology Inc. has started testing the tool by assessing 20 affordable housing projects in the district. This pilot project includes buildings that have been upgraded recently and those that are about to undergo a deep renovation.

As part of the pilot assessments, Johnson says the project is also raising questions about emergency preparedness, such as whether a building has an emergency management plan in place for a prolonged power outage. “Even if a property can’t afford some of the bigger upgrades that we’re identifying,” said Johnson, the tool can pinpoint “some of the stuff they can really start to do right away without having to spend a lot of money.”
Although the focus is to assess affordable housing properties, the tool could evaluate any type of multifamily housing for resilience. “Whether it’s a high-rise 1970s-era apartment building or more of a garden-style complex,” said Johnson, “the tool would be of use to various building types as well as to public and private owners.”

After the pilot project is finished, the tool will be refined and launched, free to the public, toward the end of this year.

“It really does have the chance to make a difference, not just for the properties,” Johnson said, “but for the people who live there as well.”