Native American Connections’ LEED Platinum housing supports recovery

Native American Connections’ LEED Platinum housing supports recovery

Fall 2019 | Written by Kiley Jaques

Since 1972, Native American Connections (NAC) has aided people struggling with addiction, trauma, and homelessness. The Phoenix, Arizona-based nonprofit provides behavioral healthcare, affordable housing, and recovery programs informed by the original five tribes of the Phoenix Metropolitan area and their cultural practices. What began as a single program for men combating substance abuse has grown to include the development and management of roughly 460 housing units and 23 sites offering numerous forms of assistance.

Headquartered in the Native American Community Service Center, an 85,000-square-foot building located in a historic Native American community, the agency was sited with an eye to public transit and its potential influence on the lives of the center’s constituency.

“Building in this neighborhood, near the incoming light rail, set the stage for our future housing development,” says NAC’s CEO, Diana “Dede” Devine. “All of it is either on the light rail or in heavy transportation corridors. We wanted to ensure affordable housing in the central core of Phoenix.”

The staff of the center also wanted that housing to promote occupant health and well-being—an idea in keeping with their cultural heritage and the NAC mission. Devine notes today’s heavy use of medication-based treatment for opioid addiction. While she and her team use those tools, NAC’s approach is holistic.

“We teach a healthy mind, body, and spirit, and the integration of the whole person,” she explains. “We’ve always treated the underlying issues that cause addiction. To get at the heart of that, we use traditional Native American healing practices—like the talking circle, sweat lodge, and other natural processes.”

The buildings NAC occupies support that work. Premier among the nonprofit’s numerous LEED-certified buildings is the 65-unit Devine Legacy, a mixed-income, multifamily complex. Opened in 2011, it stands as the city’s first LEED Platinum affordable housing community located along the light rail.

“The idea was to create the first purposefully designed, transit-oriented development (TOD) in Phoenix focused on TOD principles,” explains NAC’s Director of Real Estate Development, Joe Keeper, who has helmed the LEED certification process for all of the nonprofit’s facilities.

“We were the first TOD project approved in Phoenix,” says Keeper. “At the time, there were a lot of challenges, including the fact that the planning document was new to the city staff. We were bucking the trend, with close to 110 units per acre.”

Devine notes that the project demonstrates how high-density, transit-oriented design makes it easier for tenants to live without the expense of owning a car, which is critical for a low-income community.

In addition to the savings associated with using public transit, occupants benefit from the LEED building’s energy-saving features, which include a high-performance thermal envelope, high-efficiency HVAC equipment, low-flow plumbing fixtures, Energy Star–rated appliances, and xeriscaping, among others.

“Tenants reported significant savings in their utility bills,” Devine recalls. “Many of our tenants are living on $20,000 a year—to be able to save $100 a month in utilities and to not need a car is huge. That became part of our strategy.”

She notes, too, the housing stability that results from people being able to pay their rent consistently. That behooves not just the tenants, but also the greater community—when people stay in a place, they are more likely to invest in their neighborhood.

The design of Devine Legacy is based on the culture of the Hohokam—the original people of the Phoenix valley. Traditional Hohokam people lived in compact, pueblo-style, earthen, multistory structures. Devine Legacy’s eco-traditional elements include an east-facing entry, an interior courtyard, and communal outdoor gathering spaces. Additionally, fresh air intakes and ample light exposure speak to the culture’s respect for nature.

“We didn’t set out to make that project LEED-certified,” says Keeper of Devine Legacy. “We were reading through LEED for Homes documents at the time because our funding partners were talking about it. Back in 2010, it was brand-new to us, and we figured it would be a good project to cut our teeth on.” In fact, once the decision to pursue LEED was made, they anticipated Silver certification, which escalated to Gold, and ultimately became Platinum.

Since the completion of Devine Legacy, NAC has erected eight more LEED-certified facilities, and four additional projects are in the pipeline. Among their crowning achievements are the LEED Platinum Cedar Crossing and the LEED Silver Patina Wellness Center, as well as Stepping Stone—which houses 82 furnished units, 44 of which are reserved for Section 8 vouchers and 20 for persons living with HIV/AIDS. In fact, Stepping Stone received the 2017 LEED for Homes and LEED Homes Power Builders Awards.

The Cedar Crossing/Patina Wellness Center project is noteworthy for the way in which it was conceived and executed. When NAC decided to combine two of its programs—a men’s center built in 1948 and a women’s center occupying a 1950s motel—to create new housing and a new treatment center, Devine traveled to Australia’s New Castle University with an interdisciplinary team that included 17 Arizona State University students. They studied indigenous healthcare and environmental design. Key to their findings were the ways in which light, water, wind, and space impact a place and its inhabitants.

Upon her return to the States, Devine worked with three architecture firms—Perlman Architects, JRSa Architects, and Johnson, Smithhipong & Rosemond Associates—experienced in building hospitals for the Navajo Nation. To help inform a design program for spaces that would support a holistic approach to recovery, the team conducted 100 “user-voice interviews” with clients, staff, board members, and community members.

“They didn’t want the 70-bed treatment center to feel like a hospital,” says Devine. In response, corridors were built wide and cased in east- and west-facing windows with translucent shades. Daylighting kept the building from having an institutional atmosphere.

Many of NAC’s properties serve chronically homeless people. A special feature particular to those facilities is the open storage at the interior entry designed for housing bikes—the tenants’ main form of transportation. NAC also offers bike maintenance services at onsite shops.

Devine Legacy’s eco-traditional elements include an east-facing entry, an interior courtyard, and communal outdoor gathering spaces. Fresh air intakes and ample light exposure speak to the culture’s respect for nature.

Cedar Crossing is a smoke-free, LEED Platinum community offering 74 apartments with studio, one-, two-, and three-bedroom layouts.

Diana “Dede” Devine is the CEO of Native American Connections. Photo: Thomas Ingersoll

Keeper makes another point with respect to the facilities serving homeless clients: NAC pays the utility bills. “LEED is a cost-saving mechanism for us, too,” he says. “LEED ensures we are using the best technology and equipment. That saves us money on operating costs, which means we can put more toward services.”

For all NAC projects, Devine notes, they work with architects and contractors who have embraced LEED. “That’s part of our selection process now,” she says. “We use people who have the same desire we do and who understand the associated costs from the beginning.”

NAC’s plans for the near future include the development of five acres comprising two sites surrounded by the Phoenix Mountain Reserve. Facilities will include two new LEED buildings—one for a second wellness center, complete with courtyard sweat lodges, and another for 48 treatment beds and 54 housing units.

“The whole treatment program will be oriented toward the idea of going back to and preserving the land,” Devine explains, adding that they are working on curriculum for recovery through connection to the earth.

And what of NAC’s tenants? How do they view LEED? “There is quite a bit of everyday discussion about saving the environment and the strategies we use,” Devine responds, adding that ASU interns help educate resident youth around environmental awareness and sustainability.

Keeper adds: “We hear from our property management team quite a bit that potential new tenants ask if the buildings are LEED-certified.” Clearly, NAC is spreading the message: Healthy homes foster a healthy mind, body, and spirit.

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