Beyond access to funding, affordable housing practitioners face two critical challenges in their efforts to develop and maintain homes that are safe, healthy, and affordable. First, they need to navigate a complex set of requirements that demand expertise across several fields including integrative design, energy and water efficiency, and healthy materials. Second, they must employ techniques, materials, and construction systems that meet expected cost and performance standards. It’s no surprise then that designers, developers, owners, and managers of affordable housing buildings may feel overwhelmed with what often is described as the task of achieving competing priorities.

This situation creates a unique opportunity for bringing together leaders in the affordable housing sector to create, test, and disseminate better practices and safer building product solutions that are affordable and effective, so that everyone can access solutions. We call these leaders our HomeFree Champions!

Recently, we launched our second cohort of HomeFree Champions, including some new and some familiar faces. You can find the full list and their bios on our website. This multidisciplinary advisory group is composed of affordable housing practitioners, architects, intermediary organizations, and academic professionals working together to create a healthier built environment by advancing and selecting safer materials. Individually, they influence the use of materials in everything from single affordable housing projects to state-funded affordable housing initiatives. Together, the HomeFree Champions are paving the way to healthier material selection so that affordable housing professionals like you can learn about materials, apply better practices, and contribute to transforming building products into safer, affordable options. 

HomeFree Champions in Action

In collaboration with Healthy Building Network (HBN), organizations like Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC) and Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) are already taking concrete steps to prioritize healthier flooring, paint, and insulation materials in their affordable housing projects. 

“Working with HBN through HomeFree has helped TNDC in avoiding harmful building materials while identifying healthier viable options,” said Ruchi Shah, Senior Sustainability Manager at TNDC. “We have used their research-based Hazard Spectra to develop healthier materials guidelines that have impacted how we specify materials across all of our affordable housing projects. It’s the first big step in building health equity by advancing procurement practices.”

New Champion organizations like Partner Energy and Fresh Energy will augment the work already being done with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to deliver energy efficiency and policy solutions around healthier insulation and sealant materials.

“It is an honor to participate in this group of professionals to help lead the charge forward on research, guidance, and best practices to advance the healthy building movement,” said Lance Collins, Director at Partner Energy and President of the Southern California Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (SoCalNOMA). “If we do not value the impacts that safer materials have on health and wellness in the same manner that we treat carbon reduction and cost savings, we are not completing the full cycle. As we as an industry move towards buildings that make a positive impact on the environment, by selecting materials that are free from problematic chemicals and compounds, we can make a positive contribution on the people that live and work in these buildings too.”

Other Champions like SERA Architects and MSR Design are interested in developing a common language we can use across the sector to engage, educate, and track our performance in the pursuit of a healthier built environment.

“Our industry is inundated with product information, evaluation data, and selection criteria, which easily becomes overwhelming and quickly goes out of date.” said David Johnson, Principal at SERA Architects. The firm is incorporating lessons learned from HBN and HomeFree to improve internal processes and create a new cloud-based system that will streamline internal processes and facilitate external project collaboration. “We are thrilled to have the chance to work and meet with other industry leaders who share SERA's deep conviction to innovate and accelerate the use of healthy affordable materials in housing for all people,” Johnson said.

From shared passions to collective impact

Together, the HomeFree Champions have the resources necessary to take an idea from conception to implementation, and even scale these solutions via partnerships among member organizations. For example, by working closely with Enterprise Green Communities Criteria, the group will be able to test how their proposed solutions are able to accelerate the adoption of healthier materials criteria in green building certification. The lessons learned will help Healthy Building Network build more engaging and effective educational resources, as well as inform the policies and incentives that are necessary to achieve our goal of market transformation and community health.

Toxic chemicals affect everyone, but disproportionately affect the low-paid workforce and people of color. COVID-19 is revealing that these marginalized populations are more vulnerable to disease and death due to underlying health conditions that compromise their resistance. The cause of underlying health conditions is often linked to years of exposure to pollution and hazardous chemicals in the home and workplace. The recovery needs to include a path to a more resilient, healthier population, leaving no one and no place behind. HomeFree is that path.

Over the next year, we’ll bring together our Champions’ passions and expertise to build a common framework for guiding education around and selection of healthier building materials. We will share their individual journeys as we move together from a place of increased awareness about materials and their impacts to implementation and advocacy for product and market transformation, and ultimately, health equity. 

Please join us by visiting HomeFree and engaging with our HomeFree Champions. Try our free resources, tell us what you think, and share them with your peers. Together we can know better and do better!