Participants in the architecture, design and construction panel at InterFace Affordable Housing Southeast

Construction Experts Emphasize Teamwork as Key to Meeting Affordable Housing Building Standards

by Channing Hamilton

ATLANTA — In order to satisfy long-term affordability commitments, builders and designers of affordable housing must be well educated about the sector’s exacting design and construction rules, which are typically driven by the source of a project’s funding.

A panel of construction experts speaking at the InterFace Affordable Housing Southeast conference held Thursday, May 9 at Cobb Galleria Centre shared insights about how their industry is meeting these standards today. The inaugural conference hosted by France Media’s InterFace Conference Group and Southeast Multifamily & Affordable Housing Business magazine drew approximately 170 industry professionals.

Energy efficiency, teamwork and accessibility were three themes running through the discussion. Accessibility in multifamily construction refers to features that enable people with disabilities or limited mobility to navigate common areas and individual units comfortably and safely. Many of these building features are required by various laws.

“Get your consultants, architects and contractors to help you put the deal together,” advised Ross Haynes, chief executive officer of Roswell, Georgia-based Community Construction Group. The company focuses on construction and renovation of affordable housing projects. 

“That team is there to understand the code requirements that affect the job, including energy programs and accessibility,” added Haynes.

Specific energy-efficiency requirements for affordable housing vary. Georgia, for example, outlines multiple sustainability standards for new low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) projects via the state’s Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) administered by the Department of Community Affairs. 

Detailed rules can apply to areas such as lighting, plumbing, HVAC systems and duct work, bathroom fans and dictate the use of low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes on walls, ceilings and floors, just to cite a few examples. Contractors and developers must know these requirements inside and out. They are not always easy to keep up with.

“The housing agencies are really driving sustainability and energy efficiency,” said Tom Liebel, vice president, multifamily, with Moseley Architects based in Richmond, Virginia. 

“South Carolina right now has been very progressive in its construction codes. It adapted the 2021 IBC (International Building Code).” Liebel explained that conventional multifamily building codes are not always the same codes that apply to affordable housing.

“This can create tensions when you’re working with contractors who may work in both the market-rate and affordable worlds. The key is figuring out the goals for sustainability.”

Collaboration Makes or Breaks Projects

Construction costs are typically cited as one of the top headaches in new development. But costs have stabilized, according to Haynes. It’s the supply chain that’s the problem, and it’s flexibility that’s the solution.

“There’s still some real supply chain issues out there,” said Haynes. “We’ve found you have to get very creative in how you attack those [issues]. For example, we recently had a project with a spec of a 600-amp electrical panel that wasn’t available, so we worked with our engineering team to substitute two smaller panels.”

Haynes said that all parties on a construction project must be adaptable amid consistently occurring supply-chain snafus. “It also helps if there is some flexibility on the side of the developer. You know that toilet paper holder you’ve fallen in love with and used on all your projects over the years? You may have to be willing to substitute it for something else.”

The panelists also concurred that while collaboration is essential to the development of any type of commercial project, it is particularly critical in affordable housing construction.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to work together as an integrated team from the get-go,” said Liebel. “You have to be sure everyone who needs to take a look at the project does so early on. You don’t want to be two-thirds of the way into the project and, all of a sudden, the property management team wants to make changes. It’s easy to make those changes in the beginning, but much more difficult to modify things when you’re steaming toward permit drawings.” 

Permit drawings typically come into play during the later stages of the design phase, after preliminary design phases have been completed.

According to Mike Flanigan, business development director with Columbus, Georgia-based Flournoy Construction, it’s also essential to have a well-informed leader at the helm. 

“After the contract is signed, we all work for the superintendent,” he said. “More than anything, the superintendent is who embodies success on the duration of a project. Ultimately, the units have to get leased. That’s our world. And if they don’t, it’s probably because you didn’t properly support or help guide the superintendent.”

Mark English, founder and president of E&A Team, succinctly summarized what can happen as a result of poor communication and teamwork: “In the words of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘You can either use an eraser on the drawing board or a sledgehammer on the job site.’” 

“Which one is cheaper?”

Accessibility Means Following Detailed Rules

E&A Team provides training on the Fair Housing Act and accessibility in addition to conducting inspections for the multifamily industry. English stressed to the audience that accessibility in affordable housing is more complex than most people realize, and that compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is just the tip of the iceberg in affordable housing design. 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), meeting accessibility requirements in construction means complying with design rules contained in various legislation, including the Fair Housing Act, ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, HUD’s Section 504 and the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS).

Generally speaking, Section 504 is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice and requires accommodations and modifications to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to buildings, which can include wheelchair ramps or accessible restroom facilities. 

HUD’s section 504 is related to the Rehabilitation Act’s comparable section, but HUD’s more specifically covers housing providers that receive federal assistance, such as public housing authorities, landlords participating in HUD rental assistance programs and recipients of HUD loans or grants. UFAS are federal regulations that ensure accessibility for people with disabilities in federally funded facilities. 

According to English, “I don’t think anyone in this room would raise their hand if I asked, ‘Who likes surprises when you’re rehabbing or starting a new construction project?’”

English explained that a majority of industry professionals involved in building, developing and designing affordable housing only consider ADA requirements and not the other regulations.

“It’s an education problem,” English said. “Up until about 22 months ago, every architectural school in the United States had one thing in common: They all taught about a 45-minute course on ADA. There were zero at that point that taught ADA, 504 and Fair Housing, which are the three federal civil rights laws that deal with accessibility.”

Harvard University and Georgia Tech for example, have built accessibility and universal design coursework into their architecture programs.

— Lynn Peisner

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