Clean Air Doesn’t Have to Be a Luxury Only the Rich Can Afford

New high-end developments are attracting homeowners with advanced air filtration systems. But communities most affected by pollution are seeing solutions of their own.

"Luxury" is exhausting. In housing conversations, the term is deployed with disdain to fight new developments with hefty rents; in marketing, it often speaks to finishes or amenities—party rooms or Porcelanosa fixtures—as a way to distinguish one apartment complex from another. The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal have, over the past month, found one new, surprising luxury amenity built into such five-star housing developments: clean air.  

Writing about summer 2023, when smoke from Canadian wildfires crept into U.S. cities, The New Republic reporter Shayla Love wrote:

"The notion that smoke could be a democratizing force, afflicting everyone equally and perhaps motivating them to take action to mitigate worsening climate conditions, is already colliding with the reality of an emerging luxury air market, yet another example of how, as the environment becomes less habitable, the wealthy will continue to insulate themselves from its worst aspects."

Along with Covid-19 and "gas stove-gate" of 2023, seemingly never-ending wildfire seasons have made Americans acutely aware of how air quality can make us sick inside our homes. Technologies like Passive House construction and ventilation systems that filter and sterilize outdoor air are touted by developments that cater to the rich, but architects, developers, and policy advocates are also finding ways to improve indoor air quality in new affordable developments. Though wildfire smoke might pain both the rich and poor, there are methods to ensure that mitigating technology is also democratized—but they require a much heavier lift.

These are issues that impoverished and minority populations have been dealing with for decades: Again and again, research has shown that air pollution particularly damages minority and low-income populations with fewer access to resources like health care. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these groups tend to live in areas where heavy industry and transportation emissions contribute to higher rates of asthma and cardiovascular illnesses; the Urban Institute reports recipients of rental assistance have higher exposure to certain indoor asthma triggers (like smoke and mold) than other low-income renters not receiving any government rental assistance and are more likely to have at least one child with asthma in their households.

Seattle architect Michael Eliason founded his firm Larch Lab to address these disparities using sustainable design, focusing specifically on Passive House design as a strategy and advocacy tool. That technology, he says, is particularly critical for keeping pollution out and mitigating factors that can contribute to indoor pollution, like mold. "We put in a device called a heat recovery ventilator or an energy recovery ventilator. It’s the lungs of the building, constantly supplying fresh filtered air and simultaneously extracting the stale air," he says. Coupled with a tight building envelope, it can do wonders for indoor air quality.

In new construction, meeting sustainable standards is becoming more attainable because of favorable government policies. "There are policies that mandate or incentivize Passive House [standards] in affordable housing. In the Housing Trust Fund, there’s a program where states have access to federal funds for affordable housing, where the funding is based on scoring on the project. If your project meets Passive House [standards], you max out a number of different aspects of the scoring," Eliason says. "There are little ways that we can tweak policy to induce more Passive House buildings."

In Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood, which has struggled with decades of disinvestment and demolition—and, like much of the city’s west side, experiences worse air pollution and higher rates of asthma than the the city overall—a new 100-percent affordable multifamily development is using Passive House technology for its 43 forthcoming units and ground-floor retail. Fifth City Commons, named after its location on Chicago’s historic Fifth Avenue, came out of a C40 Reinventing Cities competition. Designed by Perkins and Will with Nia Architects, the building is striving to be "deep green," according to Perkins and Will multifamily practice leader Justin Wortmann. (I am a resident of the neighborhood and participated in early community meetings about this development.) Area residents, initially, were skeptical of what passive homes are; when they learned that utility bills would be far lower than their current bills, attitudes shifted. 

"There’s a perception that there are compromises to living in a green development, and once you start to experience this equipment, every day you wake up and your air’s a little bit fresher than it might otherwise be, your power bill is zero, or maybe even the power company’s paying you," says Wortmann. "You quickly realized that the fears of compromises are allayed by the increased comfort that you can experience in your dwelling unit."

Getting these projects done isn’t easy due to long and precarious funding cycles. Amina Helstern, senior regenerative design adviser at Perkins and Will, echoes Eliason’s point that projects that meet higher standards for sustainability that also contribute to better indoor air quality are more competitive for funding. "The proposal that you put forward, including what type of third party certification you might pursue, can really help enhance your probability that you'll get selected for funding," she says. But Wortmann believes that, "the delta between standard affordable housing and more advanced, Passive House or deep green types of housing, is shrinking," he says.

"It’s simply a basic economic measure of scale—the more that we build, the more common that these become, the costs will continue to come down," Wortmann explains. As municipalities require more stringent certifications—not just Passive House but also comparably effective certifications like Enterprise Green Communities—projects like Fifth City Commons can serve as models for new construction. And though the funding for such projects can take years to obtain, setting standards for indoor air quality either using Passive House or other certifications, both in new construction and in multifamily rehabs, should be a priority for policymakers. 

"It’s public health. It’s having buildings where the costs of not retrofitting them is going to have higher public health costs," says Eliason. And as the climate continues to shift—yielding more opportunities for wildfire smoke, mold, and vehicle emissions to enter our homes—ensuring that these construction and mechanical systems become more accessible and far-reaching will be pertinent. They’re not just new, luxury amenities for the wealthy but public health measures that can be dispersed equitably across vulnerable communities.

Related reading:

ADUs Might Not Be Making Chicago More Affordable, But They Might Make It More Sustainable

Dwell on This: Spring-Clean Your Indoor Air Quality

Top photo: Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images