April 9, 2018

Building Safer and Stronger Communities in the District: The Multifamily Resilience Assessment Tool

Multi Family Resilience Assessment Tool

By Shelby O'Neill,  Program Associate, Initiatives

With generous funding awarded by the D.C. Department of Energy, Enterprise has partnered with New Ecology, Inc. (NEI), the National Housing Trust (NHT) and Clean Energy Group (CEG) to design and pilot the nation’s first multifamily housing Resilience and Solar Assessment Tool for affordable housing. The tool will help meet the goals of Climate Ready DC and D.C.’s Solar for All program by increasing climate resilience, reducing energy use and increasing solar power --  all in effort to mitigate the vulnerabilities of low income communities on the front lines of climate change occurring at a rate faster than ever anticipated.

Resilience is the capacity for households, communities and regions to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain and regain functionality in the face of stress or disturbance.

Putting Plans into Action – Pilot Property Assessments

Since the December 2017 launch of the project, Enterprise has worked closely with NEI to build out the tool, obtaining input from local partners, housing agencies and the D.C. DOEE. In February our team kicked off real-time pilot vulnerabilities assessments across the District. 

While first focusing on three NHT properties varying in scale, neighborhood and building type, the team worked with property owners and managers to conduct on-site studies of multi-family-building conditions ranging from flood mitigation, back up energy and community engagement.

A Tailored Approach to Resilient Design

Stepping into three diverse housing developments and armed with the assessment tool, the seasoned team from NEI zeroed in on opportunities to enhance the unique characteristics of each building for resilience impact; filtering appropriate design recommendations for each home. 

Renovating sites for resiliency is not a one-size-fits-all approach and depends on building characteristics not limited to geographic location, tenancy, building size, construction type, layout, systems and intricate details of the building design. The resilience tool is designed to illuminate these nuances, and having feet on the ground for the pilot assessments enhances our capacity to address each housing community thoughtfully. 

“We aim to help developers and owners of affordable housing better understand and address their own vulnerabilities early on, mitigating damage in the long run and protecting communities nationwide from risks of extreme weather.”
- Laurie Schoeman, Senior Program Director of Resilience Initiatives 

Implementing Simple Design Strategies to Improve Homes and Lives

Certain building upgrade opportunities are more technical in nature, such as increasing envelope efficiency or updating mechanical systems. But throughout the pilot site visits I was reminded of how simple design strategies can also be deployed to improve homes with a little creative thinking. Of the first three sites assessed in D.C., two buildings exhibited ample under-used common space. 

Through the lens of resilience mitigation, it’s clear that with minor upgrades such as proper wiring, water storage or bathroom enhancements, this excess real estate can be transformed to serve as valuable shelter in place areas or may be insulated to house back-up energy, making a profound impact on the lives of residents during an emergency.

In support of D.C.’s Solar for All program, a significant piece of the grant project aims to increase D.C.’s multi-family solar-ready capacity. While certain pilot properties have made effective strides in utilizing local solar energy, the team is considering how community and local solar energy can be achieved by leveraging real estate on future properties. As we approach solar design guidance for building owners, the team is working to provide accurate cost proposals to enable owners to assess solar priorities.

One building manager’s palpable enthusiasm for community engagement and resiliency echoed warmly off the walls of her multi-family building, but another scattered site property posed different challenges for bringing people together. Recognizing the importance of community connectivity and planning in the face of an emergency, we noted how critical it is to consider how to the successes of one property and scale them to enhance another. Sharing lessons learned from this pilot across property lines will be an invaluable resource to further the pilot studies and future assessment implementation in construction design and community building. 

Inside Job – Working Closely with Owners, Managers and Residents

While drywall doesn’t talk, those with experience living or working on site can share invaluable input about property challenges and opportunities.  The close relationship between building management and residents at the pilot properties illustrated exciting potential for people to work together for a more resilient community. 
Managers invested in the properties and residents’ lives have a unique perspective into the priorities and needs of these communities. Likewise, with the building owner guiding the team as we reviewed properties and coordinated with managers, we were able to fill in key information gaps from the perspective of the owner to better enhance the homes.  

Furthermore, and in many ways most significant, is understanding the resident perspective. While viewing one family’s home in a well-maintained NW, D.C. building, the pride in the family’s space and sense of place emanated from the personal design touches and stories told on walls through family photos and icons. Making time for engagement with residents is a key factor in understanding a building’s community and history, and pertinent to effective resilience recommendations. 

The Resilient Road Ahead

Putting the tool into action offered a valuable firsthand experience and highlighted opportunities for improvement to the assessment for greater impact. As we continue to collaborate with our partners over the course of the year, we’re also learning how to best serve residents and building owners to make the most influence. 

Perhaps just as important as the tool’s technical results themselves is how we communicate the findings to stakeholders to encourage productive engagement. As we report back to communities, we know that providing guidance for people on the ground is critical for the consistent and thorough assessment of property resilience. Appropriate context and potential training opportunities will be key to the tool’s success. 

In consideration of property budgets, tailored resilience mitigation strategies and priorities of building owners, our goal with the Resilience and Solar Assessment Tool is to provide significant and practical recommendations on resilience upgrades and climate mitigation.

Look for more news on Enterprise’s critical recovery projects shared as part of this Resilience Blog Series and check out our Disaster Recovery and Rebuilding efforts, advocacy and resources. 

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