Columbus, Ohio: Fairwood Commons Uses Energy-Efficient Design To Enhance the Affordability of Aging in Place
In the early 2010s, the historic neighborhood of Franklin Park in Columbus, Ohio’s Near East Side was rapidly undergoing a comeback. After decades of disinvestment and blight, young professionals began settling in the neighborhood, attracted by its affordable historic homes and amenities such as the sprawling Franklin Park. As property values rose, however, the neighborhood’s longtime residents, especially seniors, found their own ability to remain in their homes growing more precarious. Regional affordable housing developer Woda Cooper Companies (WCC) recognized this need and partnered with the local nonprofit East Columbus Development Company (ECDC) to build Fairwood Commons, an affordable 54-unit apartment building for seniors that opened in 2018. To enhance long-term affordability for tenants as they age in place, WCC built Fairwood Commons to high energy-efficiency standards, and the development was the first multifamily property in Ohio to receive certification from the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). Fairwood Commons won the 2019 Readers’ Choice Award from Affordable Housing Finance magazine as the overall winner for its energy-saving and aging-in-place features.
A Need Close to Home
Joseph McCabe, WCC’s vice president of development and himself a Franklin Park resident, was aware of both the plight of local seniors facing rising rents and an appropriate site for a multifamily housing development: a collection of 11 vacant or blighted lots totaling approximately 2 acres. In 2015, WCC began assembling the lots with the city’s support and embarked on a partnership with ECDC. Fairwood Commons opened three years later with WCC as the manager and ECDC as the service provider and coordinator.
Fairwood Commons is a long, rectangular three-story building with 54 one- and two-bedroom units. Eligible tenants are aged 55 or older and earn no more than 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). Some units have further income restrictions: 16 are reserved for households with incomes no greater than 50 percent of AMI, and 6 are for households earning no more than 30 percent of AMI. To facilitate aging in place, 12 units are fully accessible, and all remaining units are adaptable. The building’s accessibility features include no-step entries; an elevator; varied colors and textures at entryways to facilitate wayfinding; lever- or paddle-handled door and sink hardware; wide rocker-style light switches; and switches, thermostats, and outlets installed at heights accessible to wheelchair users.
On the ground floor near the manager’s office, there are several rooms where residents can socialize or receive services. These include a general purpose community room with a kitchen area, a fitness room, shared laundry facilities, and a “grandchildren’s playroom.” The building’s frontage on the Fairwood Avenue commercial corridor features a small storefront with its own entrance, clad in red brick salvaged from the site’s demolished structures, where ECDC maintains its office. The space also houses a medical suite operated by LifeCare Alliance where a traveling nurse arranges wellness visits, conducts breast cancer screenings, and coordinates mobile medical services.
The property’s outdoor areas include a landscaped area in front of the building’s Fairwood Avenue façade. McCabe describes the area as “ultra-modern,” consisting of a series of intersecting white concrete sidewalks separated by geometric beds mulched with broken slate roof tiles salvaged from the site’s demolished buildings. The sidewalks extend to a gazebo in a courtyard beside the storefront.
The First Multifamily Exploration of Passive House in Ohio
WCC was interested in building Fairwood Commons to PHIUS standards for several reasons. McCabe explains that Fairwood Commons is the first multifamily application of the Passive House standards in Ohio — a unique and “extra special” detail in the competition for low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs). WCC, with its experience in construction, cost control, and the standards of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification, was well positioned to test the Passive House certification process in an affordable multifamily project. “We wanted to see if it really does all the good things it says it does [or] if it’s really cost prohibitive,” said McCabe. Because the property was near Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) headquarters, WCC invited the LIHTC-allocating agency to consider Fairwood Commons as a test of the feasibility of Passive House design for affordable housing. “Essentially we told OHFA, ‘let’s learn together,’” said McCabe.
The Passive House concept involves controlling energy expenditure primarily by tightly controlling airflow and therefore heat exchange. The structure uses specially engineered insulation in an airtight building envelope, with incursions made by pipes and wiring carefully wrapped to prevent drafts. High-performance windows prevent unintended heat exchange. A high-efficiency ventilation system keeps the sealed structure comfortable, performs energy-recovery functions, and prevents moisture issues. As an added benefit, the densely insulated walls, floors, and ceilings that maintain the building’s required thermal stasis also significantly dampen noises, creating exceptionally quiet apartments.
Fairwood Commons achieved a Residential Energy Services Network Home Energy Rating System Index score of 38, which is 52 percent higher than that of a conventionally constructed building. The Passive House building used so little electricity, in fact, that when it was first brought online, AEP Ohio, the local electric company, initially believed that the building’s meters were malfunctioning. With each household receiving lower energy bills, Fairwood Commons positions residents for greater financial stability. Each household’s monthly utility savings can be saved or spent on food, medicine, or other items. The building’s senior residents also are better able to afford their units in the long term.
Fairwood Commons’ development costs totaled $12.2 million and, with the exception of the deferred developer fee, were publicly funded (table 1). The largest share of the development funding was $9.5 million in LIHTC equity syndicated by the Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, followed by two mortgages furnished by OHFA’s Multifamily Lending Program. In addition, the city of Columbus contributed HOME Investment Partnerships Program funds to the development.
Table 1: Fairwood Commons Financing
|Low-income housing tax credit equity||$9,554,000|
|Ohio Housing Finance Agency Multifamily Lending Program||1,750,000|
|Columbus HOME funds||250,000|
|Deferred developer fee||647,000|
A Success for Passive House in Ohio
Fairwood Commons ultimately received six environmental certifications, including Passive House certification from PHIUS, but McCabe reports that the full extent of the development’s energy-efficiency achievements will not be known until 2021. Based on WCC’s preliminary observations, however, McCabe estimates that Fairwood Commons will prove to be up to 60 percent more energy efficient than a conventionally built project of similar size. Today, Fairwood Commons is fully occupied, with 54 senior households now able to stably age in place and with a waiting list of nearly 100 households.
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