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Radical Minneapolis Development Does Green Design Right

Sustainable living offers plenty of earth friendly benefits, but the perceived price of living your values often makes it seem financially unsustainable. Minneapolis nonprofits Aeon and Hope Community are challenging that zero-sum assumption—that homes can be affordable or earth-conscious—with a new, 150,000-square-foot, 90-unit mixed-income apartment building called The Rose. Opening today at Franklin and Portland avenues, the $36 million complex was constructed with a relatively unprecedented fidelity to green principles, arguing that building for the long-term, with a focus on better materials, conservation and energy performance, can be beneficial and practical at any budget.

"It is sound business to develop properties that reduce energy use, can stay affordable for residents, and function optimally over time," says Alan Arthur, Aeon's CEO, in a statement. "The Rose is a learning lab for that — not only for Aeon, but for others who develop high-quality affordable housing."

On the surface, The Rose, one of a handful of Aeon projects in the surrounding South Minneapolis neighborhood, resembles a typical modern urban development, boasting granite countertops and stainless steel appliances in every unit as well as a community garden and yoga studio. The upscale design gels with the mission of Aeon, a nearly three-decade-old non-profit housing developer that aims to provide a more accommodating and equitable vision of community. Half the units are set aside as affordable housing, starting at $636 per month for a one-bedroom.

But architect Paul Mellblom (Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle) and co-designer Rhys MacPherson aspired to go beyond amenities and meet the strict Living Building Challenge, a multifaceted green building code that demands a structure be built from toxin-free materials and maintain net zero energy and resource consumption. Considered the cutting edge standard for green design, it's so strict that a building can't obtain certification until after energy monitoring validates its performance. If it meets the requirements, The Rose would be the largest affordable housing project in the nation to do so.

"Green shouldn't be affordable only to those who are wealthy," Mellbom told the Star-Tribune. "This is a social justice issue."

Every facet of the design and layout is a direct result of setting such a high bar. Where many high-end sustainable buildings cost $300-$400 per square foot, The Rose came in at $144, mostly by setting strict budget limits and consulting experts to find new ways to build. For instance, many buildings use costly triple-glazed windows to achieve a tight envelope. Working with experts at the University of Minnesota, developers for The Rose devised a double-pane system that achieves similar performance at a significant savings. The façade doubles as a solar wall that provides hot water. The roof was built so it could be easily retrofitted with solar panels, to eventually make the building net zero on energy usage, and funnels storm water runoff into the adjacent community garden. Sourcing toxic-free and local materials, such as stone from nearby Cold Spring Granite Co., as well as soy-based wood floors and carpets made from sheep's hair, reduced the amount of harmful chemicals in the apartments. While the building cost 22 percent more than a code-compliant structure of similar size, it's also 75 percent more energy efficient. While it was more complicated to build, the vision for The Rose is a building that offers long-term savings for families and investors, and a successful example for other developers.

"The Rose can't be a one-off," says Gina Ciganik, a former Aeon executive who helped kickstart the development and is now working with the Healthy Building Network to help share lessons from the project. "If other people don't learn from it, we failed."

A time-lapse video showing early construction of the complex.

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