Q&A w/ Our New Board Member - Patrick Isaac

By LeAnne Harvey

Posted February 8, 2021

 

We spoke with Patrick Isaac - a newly elected Board Member of Green Building United - about his career path, experience in the industry, and interest in sustainability. 

Can you please describe your current position with Community Ventures.

As the Program & Sustainability Manager at Community Ventures, I assist in the planning, and construction management of our affordable housing developments, including researching how to develop affordable homeownership units without the use of subsidies. I assist in the hiring of the design team, and throughout the development process, I overlook the design and construction to assure that all necessary requirements and goals are upheld so that our tenants and homeowners can live in healthy and energy efficient homes, two key aspects that also contribute to guaranteeing that they do not get cost burdened. I also lead in the identification and coordination of suitable sustainable methods to implement to our current and future developments. I look at different methods so that all of our developments are more energy efficient, healthy, and sustainable.

In addition, I lead in the management of the organization’s awarded Rebuild projects. I coordinate the efforts between community engagement and design, and build relationships with the different stakeholders for the project to help carry their voices during the design process in order to achieve truly community led renovations.

 

What is Community Ventures doing to advance a sustainable built environment?

At Community Ventures, one of the many ways we work to advance a sustainable built environment is through the long-term partnerships we have with local groups. As developers, we believe our role is to hear from the community to make sure that the voices and character of the community are reflected in our projects. This is the beginning to upholding the equity aspect of designing sustainably. The other methods are through the use of extensive landscaping and now getting all of our developments to be at a minimum Enterprise Green Communities certified.

 

Did you always know you wanted to work in affordable housing? Tell us about your career path.

I've always had a passion for affordable housing but I didn't know I was going to end up being a developer. As long as I can remember, growing up in Haiti, I always knew I wanted to work in providing more affordable housing for people who need it the most. I’ve always felt that housing is one of the stepping-stones to help get out of poverty - if you have a roof over your head, then a lot of other aspects can fall into place.

I was certain the best way for me to achieve my goal would be as an architect; I dreamed of being an architect since I was about 8 years old. I grew up observing my father, who is a civil engineer, and developed a love for the built environment. Although he designed and built municipal buildings mostly, he also designed and constructed the house that I grew up in, amongst many others. That led me to study architecture at the City College of New York, where I was introduced to sustainable design concepts. The thing that attracted me to sustainability is the fact that it is all about efficiency, health and wellbeing, and the better use of our natural resources. From then, it just made a lot of sense to me that this was the best way to design.  I saw it as a great opportunity to design for people, in manner that is beneficial to us, the environment, and our overall wellbeing.

 In 2008, I graduated with a Bachelors of Architecture. Right before graduating and after, I worked in a couple luxury residential design architecture firms. In 2012, I moved to Malawi, South- East Africa, where I worked for both a permaculture/ sustainability center and also a housing company (for a short time). At the housing company, I was leading a small team of young designers,  developing prototypes of  low-income housing communities. I moved back to the US in 2015,  to study for my Masters of Science in Sustainable Design from PhilaU. I dove deeper into resilience, sustainability, health, and housing and how these things all come together. It’s then that I realized that they are all part of one system – and got introduced to systems thinking. I wrote my thesis on how to develop sustainable and resilient affordable housing for homeownership in Philadelphia. Throughout the process of writing my thesis, my path became clearer, also thanks in part to Alex Dews who was my thesis advisor then, and I ended up getting hired by Community Ventures … it made perfect sense - the best way to create impact is to provide truly affordable and sustainable housing.  Now I am working to combine my two passions: sustainable design and low-income housing. 

 

Why is green building and sustainability important to you?

In the end, green building is really a humanistic answer, I think. It’s about designing in a way that respects the human needs, respects human health, and respects the environment by using less resources. It is a way to design that balances things out. You go to some cities that are all concrete and it's just a nightmare, for me at least. There's no vegetation, there's no greenery, there's no real human life that you can see. We have needs to be able to survive, but we don't have to deplete the planet to meet those needs. We don’t have to cause extinction for that to happen.

But buildings have to be truly sustainable. There are too many buildings where “sustainability” is tacked on - it’s just an exercise in checking off boxes. What about the other impacts? For example, I was looking at the design for a glass home, located in the forest, designed with solar panels placed all around like a flower. The panels open up during the day to get energy from solar panels and then close back up at night for privacy. Of course, it looks cool; and yes, you're using solar powered electricity and you are off the grid. But I'm thinking, the materials and energy used to make this operable are superfluous. If you did not need to make this thing open and close daily, then you probably don't need as many solar panels. If you were just to leave it open, then maybe a third of the materials could go to another project. My brain really goes into the whole entire system and once you think about the system, you’re more likely to design to be sustainable and efficient, that's just my take.

 

What are your thoughts on the “tradeoff” between cost efficiency and sustainable design?

That's something that we, at Community Ventures, and other developers are still trying to figure out - whether it is really more expensive to “add” sustainability to the to a building project. Of course, we are not supposed to add sustainability, it’s supposed to be the way to do it.  

Unfortunately, a lot of times we design beautiful, sustainable, and healthy projects but when presented to an investor, they might say it’s “too expensive” and the first things that tends to go are the sustainable features. They see it as “extra” , but it’s not extra if the tenants end up benefiting from it. There seem to be a disconnect between the funding source and the return on investment to justify the need. So how do we close that loop to make sure that they understand that the additional investment benefits them as well.

Research shows that sustainable design costs about 2- 4% more but there are other studies that say that's the average. And then there are other projects that show a decrease in costs when sustainability is incorporated into the project from the get-go.

We are working hard on creating a model, or a series of models, which work well for us. Where we can uphold our sustainability and affordability goals, without having to compromise so much for the sake of funding.

 

What made you want to get involved with Green Building United and serve on the board?

When I first became a member, it just wanted to join a group of people that were thinking on the same line as me. Particularly when I came to Philly, I was trying to figure who and what was out there. I was already part of the Sustainability Group at PhilaU and so when I was introduced to Green Building United I thought, "This makes sense to me”.

It was great to get into the network of people that are working towards improving not only the city itself, but also connecting to other parts of the country and the world. I thought joining the board would be a good approach to continue to be a part of this group and to learn a bit more directly. I’m excited to be more involved in the process and hopefully help to fill the current gap in sustainable, affordable housing. Or at least start to.

 

Which sustainability topics do you feel are most pressing at this time?

Centering equity into the discussion of sustainability. How do we make sustainability truly accessible and available to low-income households? When the Living Future Community wrapped up the Living Building Demonstration Project, we walked away knowing that we can build affordable Living Building homes. We know how to figure it out. But then how do really fund them?

For homeowners particularly, making their homes more sustainable often comes with a price that they cannot afford to upkeep. So, what is the real formula so that they can afford it, but not have that other impact. There's a lot of information out there and, at this point, I think a lot of people know how to be sustainable in their own lives, but sometimes it's just not possible because the economics don't work.

So that goes back again to looking at the whole system.  Which is the proper lever to pull? Maybe the problem is just that people aren’t being paid a fair wage. Let’s make sure that minimum wage is actually on par with the cost of living. That might be a way that we could really push sustainability the direction it needs to go so that it's the norm.

 

Do you have any other exciting initiatives underway?

One of the most exciting things we're working on now is a project in Old City. We actually applied and got accepted to be on the one of the pilot projects for the International Living Future Institute’s (ILFI) Affordable Housing Framework. The project is 26 units of permanent supportive housing on a portion of the Old First United Church of Christ. The project will support all formerly homeless individuals.

In addition to following the ILFI framework and getting it be Living Building, we’re planning to get it certified also under Enterprise Green Communities, and Passivehouse. Even before we were accepted into the next cohort with ILFI, and as a result of the Demonstration Project, we were already looking to really focus on health related to material selection, at the minimum. We were already on the path to Passivehouse and Enterprise Green Communities.

 We recently completed a project in North Philadelphia which will actually be our first Enterprise Green Communities certified project, and going forward, that will be the baseline for all of our buildings. And once we figure out how to make Passive house work in terms of both construction and financing, then it just makes sense for all buildings to be designed this way as well. Our goal is to level up, so that's why we're very excited to make our project Living Building Certified. And if we don’t get there, we hope to at least be Petal certified, which would still be a great start.

 

patrick isaac headshot

Bio

Patrick is passionate about sustainability and housing affordability for low-income individuals. He wrote his Master of Sustainable Design Thesis on the topic of providing affordable sustainable housing for homeownership by renovating existing blighted rowhouses in Philadelphia. In 2008, Patrick graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from CCNY and has worked as an architectural designer on the renovation of private homes in NYC while employed in different architecture firms. From 2012, he spent three years in Malawi, South East Africa, working and volunteering, both in the field of design and research, striving to understand the best sustainable and affordable methods which can be applied to help alleviate poverty through housing. In 2017, he joined Community Ventures. He assists with project planning & design, construction management and finding new ways to develop sustainable single-family housing without subsidies. He is also the organization’s lead manager for the awarded Rebuild renovation projects.

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