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Moving Towards a More Sustainable Housing Future



Across the nation, AAF is privileged to engage with innovative leaders working to bring transformative change to their communities through design. In Minneapolis, Aeon and its partners aim to create affordable, multi-family housing developments that are sustainable, replicable, and dedicated to elevating the holistic health and quality of life of residents and communities. Their inspired process has led to inspiring results. We recently asked Gina Ciganik, vice president of Housing Development at Aeon (and an alumna of AAF’s Sustainable Cities Design Academy) to share their story.

So who is Aeon? Since 1986, Aeon has developed, and continues to own and operate, 2,106 affordable apartment homes, specifically for low- and very low-income households and formerly homeless individuals. Located in downtown Minneapolis, Aeon’s mission is to create and sustain quality affordable homes that strengthen lives and communities. We’ve had a history of incorporating various “green” items in our developments. We recognized some benefits along the way, but our efforts were more of an incremental nature. We believed we could do better.

In 2006, we embarked on a disciplined process to help us think more holistically about how to create better performing and healthier properties. We wanted to make better decisions and understand the measures and metrics to inform our choices and to judge impact. We initiated formal relationships with experts in the sustainability field—the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR). Together, we created a pilot project comprised of three housing developments that typify the work we do—New Construction, Substantial Rehabilitation/Adaptive Reuse, and Moderate Rehabilitation of existing multi-family housing developments.

All three property developments are completed; the last one opened July 2011. Alliance Addition, Aeon’s “New Construction” model, was completed in 2008. These 51 efficiencies are home to formerly homeless adults who live in a sober community and receive onsite case management services. It was awarded LEED™ Platinum certification, making it the first LEED™ for Homes Mid-Rise Multifamily Platinum certified project in the Upper Midwest (which focuses on four- to six-story buildings).

Completed in 2011, Renaissance Box, our “Substantial Rehab/Adaptive Reuse” model, is expected to be awarded LEED™ Gold certification. Located in downtown St. Paul, preserving the existing building was the most notable sustainable strategy. Additional features are an energy-efficient HVAC system, high-performance windows, innovative landscape features to keep the majority of stormwater on-site, and selection of materials for maximum indoor air quality.

A Twin Cities’ suburban property, Sienna Green (Phase I), represents our “Moderate Rehabilitation” model, where we acquired five, 1960s-era, one-story, one-bedroom apartment buildings and rehabbed the operating properties (in 2010). While we did not seek certification for the development, it includes robust green elements—a complex stormwater system that handles onsite runoff, sustainable landscaping with rain gardens and community gardening, EnergyStar appliances, green features that improve air quality, and installation of high-performance windows.

The pilot partnership focused on pre- and post-construction analysis of energy efficiency, sustainable building materials, and installation techniques. The pilot revealed limitations and opportunities unique to each project type as well as opportunities to integrate sustainable practices. It now serves to inform Aeon’s future developments and, ultimately, to provide a replicable model for others.

Though we’ve made tremendous strides, we must do more. Over the next 20 years, Aeon and its residents will pay more than $130 million in water and utility costs unless we make greater changes. Herein lies our need for a practical, replicable model that creatively pushes the boundaries within typical project budgets. We also need to change the paradigm of funding agencies so that they look not solely at first costs. We want them to understand the long-term financial benefits we’ll reap with a better investment up-front—50 years of savings on operating costs and better, healthier properties!

To achieve this impact, we continue taking more intentional and holistic steps. We have selected one of the most progressive sustainability frameworks, Living Building Challenge™, to guide our process and desired outcomes for South Quarter Phase IV—Aeon and Hope Community, Inc.’s new construction of a mixed-income, multi-family housing development in South Minneapolis.

As the final phase of a four-block transformation of a Minneapolis urban core (in partnership with Hope Community), we envision South Quarter Phase IV will accelerate the industry’s ability to realize a building with minimal energy costs, make quantum leaps in water conservation, and provide healthier environments for its residents and community. Having become more disciplined about metrics and doing our best possible to make practical and impactful decisions, we embarked on an integrated design process for Phase IV.

Ultimately, the building residents will affect the performance of the property. Aeon also joined with key partners for the design and delivery of a Sustainable Living Pilot Project at The Wellstone (Phase III of South Quarter). The pilot provided knowledge and engaged residents in sustainable living. We are in the process of discovering residents’ behaviors and motivations for conservation and measuring impacts on utilities, waste management, health, and other metrics. Merging high-performance buildings with knowledgeable and engaged residents will result in the best impact.

We also engaged AAF by participating in its Sustainable Cities Design Academy last fall. The program was extremely valuable and provided additional input for the planning and design of South Quarter Phase IV. We received helpful feedback on ways to increase green space, with ideas to decrease the number of structured parking stalls. We developed ideas on how to create more efficient floor plans that are flexible and serve a population that will transition over time. We have since been able to incorporate the ideas explored at SCDA into our design process and are finding ways to improve our work.

What a journey! We are making great strides on the physical building and systems. We are finding ways to engage our residents to learn and model lifestyles that not only provide a better quality of life for them, but also complement the community’s high performance goals. We will be successful when the physical and social elements are in sync. We aren’t there yet. But, we are on our way.

Gina Ciganik, vice president of housing development at Aeon, has been a member of the development team since 1997. She has broad experience in financing and developing neighborhood revitalization projects and public improvement initiatives. Community collaboration undergirds her success, and she champions the creation of sustainable, high-performance healthy places. Gina participated in AAF’s seventh national session of the Sustainable Cities Design Academy in 2011 and also shared her insight and expertise on sustainable design at an SCDA forum later that year. 

Featured image of South Quarter Phase IV courtesy of Mithun. Note: the rendering provided is to show scale and massing, the exterior of the building is still in design.

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Posted in: Affordable Housing, Design Leadership, Print, Sustainability, Sustainable Cities Design Academy

The American Architectural Foundation has been dedicated to advancing the role of architecture and design in American society since its founding in 1943 by the American Institute of Architects.

In its 75 years in existence the Foundation’s work has taken many forms — from educational programming and exhibitions in its early years to large-scale design initiatives and programs —all of which serve to create a rich legacy.

As the managing partner of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design for twenty years, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the United States Conference of Mayors, the Foundation helped move the needle on design and cities. And, through its other signature programs like Save America’s Treasures in partnership with National Parks Service, the Sustainable Cities Design Academy, and Design for Learning, the Foundation has provided critical design leadership training and technical assistance to hundreds of elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, and other key decision makers in the design process.

In recent years, cities and civic leaders have embraced design and design thinking in a way that could not have been imagined when the Foundation begin its work back in 1943 — and AAF’s role in this transformation is a source of great pride for the Foundation. With this increased interest in the role of design in shaping our cities came a proliferation of new organizations to support and facilitate this cultural shift. These advances in the role of design in American society and changes in the nonprofit design sector, coupled with the departure of the organization’s longest-serving CEO, prompted the Foundation’s Board to embark on an intensive and lengthy process to examine the ongoing role and work of the Foundation.

As the Board of Regents reflected on the positive changes of the cultural value of design, the accomplishments of the Foundation, and how the legacy of the Foundation’s work is being carried out by its former staff in new roles and organizations across the country, they reached the conclusion that the American Architectural Foundation had accomplished what it set out to do. As a result, the Foundation began to complete its remaining programs and wind down its operations in the Summer of 2018 and the organization’s endowments have been distributed to allied organizations. The Foundation’s research and reports will remain available on its website as a resource to the field.

The Foundation’s work would not have been possible without the incredible talents of its many staff over the decades, the generous support of its funders, and the tireless dedication of its civic & design partners across the country. The Board remains deeply proud of the significant contributions Foundation has made in its 75-year history and would like to acknowledge that this would not have been possible without the efforts, dedication, and support from so many of you.