13. Full-Spectrum Affordability

Full-Spectrum Affordability

by Robert Riversong


The term “affordable housing” may suggest to some “low-income housing” and to others “reasonably priced housing”. It may suggest government-subsidized apartments or on-the-market homes that are within reach of a family earning the Area Median Income (AMI).  But rarely do we comprehend by that term the full spectrum of issues which determine whether a house or coop or condominium or rental unit is truly affordable – not just to the current occupant but to the community at large, to the broader society, and even to the environment and the intricate web of life it supports.

In the narrow terms of monetary cost, there are two primary measures of affordability: initial cost (whether to build or to buy), and operating cost (which includes utilities, maintenance and repair).  Initial costs are determined by the local market – the real estate market as well as the construction labor market and the cost of building materials – and it is affected by the choice of materials and amenities built into the home.  The dominant factor of initial cost, however, is size.

average_house_sizeSquare Feet Per Person

The average Vermont home is 2800 square feet, well more than the national average of 2459 square feet for new homes (2006).  As household size gets smaller, our homes have steadily increased in size, height, number of bathrooms and other amenities.

The largest single determinant of operating cost is also the size of a home.  The single largest operating cost in Vermont is, of course, energy for heating, cooling, hot water, lighting and appliances.  The Vermont Energy Code has helped to increase the energy-efficiency of new homes, and the voluntary Energy Star program takes this one step further.  Yet, with energy costs escalating as we enter the period of global peak oil, few new homes are truly super-insulated and only 0.03% use solar technologies. The payback for a super-insulated home begins the first month of occupancy, as the incrementally-larger mortgage payment is more than offset by the energy savings, and banks will often allow a higher debt-to-income ratio with an energy-efficient home.

How we make our homes durable and energy-efficient affects their social and environmental affordability. All our building materials have an “embodied energy”, which includes the energy cost of mining, milling, fabrication, finishing, transportation, and storage – all before any of it arrives at the building site. There are also the “back-end” energy costs of final disposal or recycling at the end of their functional use.  These life-cycle energy costs have been hidden from our checkbooks as “externalities” – the unaccounted costs of supplying our economy with raw and manufactured materials and disposing of them when they wear out.  Yet those “hidden” costs are now deeply impacting our checkbooks as the world runs out of fossil fuel energy (the US peaked in the 1970s and now imports ¾ of its energy), our taxes are diverted to resource wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, and we pay the social costs of global warming (from the Katrina disaster to decrease in Vermont maple syrup production).

While the lumber (approximately 16,000 board feet) in a new home travels from Canada or the west coast or even from tropical rain forests, locally-operated sawmills are shutting down for lack of business.  Fiberglass is still the most commonly installed insulation, yet it has 8 times the embodied energy of cellulose (recycled newspaper) which is a far better insulation.  Many “green” homes now use foam insulation, which has 25 to 30 times as much energy investment and greenhouse gas emissions as cellulose.  Vinyl siding, a high-embodied-energy product which has been implicated in cancer, birth defects, mold in homes (because it traps moisture) and ends up in landfills, is the top choice for new homes in the Northeast (83%).

When we choose to purchase artificial, imported or factory-built housing elements, not only do we pay an energy premium but we undermine the local skilled labor base – the carpenters and foresters and sawyers – who help to keep our local community economies vibrant. This is a social cost which affects the quality of life and the overall affordability of our towns.

Long-term maintenance costs are not just determined by so-called “maintenance-free” artificial materials, but mostly by the quality of construction and attention to detail that a skilled local tradesperson can bring to a building project. That attention to detail begins at the design phase and requires considerable pre-planning, but doesn’t necessarily require the services of a high-priced architect. An experienced designer-builder is often a much more affordable option for either new construction or renovation.

Other costs of our housing choices which aren’t typically considered are zoning costs – both in terms of the burdens that local zoning imposes on the planning and building process and on the environmental and social costs of traditional 10-acre zoning with private water and septic systems.  Cluster development with common water, sewer, parking and open space set-asides, and village center development, are more privately and socially-affordable options than the conventional scattered-site land use pattern.

Mixed-use development, which might include single and multi-family housing, starter homes and elderly housing, retail and commercial buildings, and social services, is a more organic and cost-effective approach to creating healthy communities than the suburban car-dependent isolation that has been the American “dream” and is fast becoming a psychological, social and environmental nightmare.  Community land trusts, with land held in perpetuity by the community and leased to individual users with limited-equity resale covenants which keep housing permanently affordable, are a strategy for preventing speculation from robbing the community of its vitally-important housing stock and the conversion of community improvement values into private pockets.

So when we consider affordability in housing, we must broaden our vision to encompass the full spectrum of individual, community, social and environmental elements of authentically affordable development.  As the world grows smaller, our vision needs to expand to encompass a more holistic approach to housing costs.


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If you need project consultation or design services, contact me directly at

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by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with author attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page

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