Residential Sustainability: Constructing Design-Build, Sustainable, Student Housing Cooperatives for Education, Research, Service Learning, and Community

Christopher G. Rosales
Undergraduate Student
Cockrell School of Engineering Executive Director
The Foundation Rock Group, Inc.

The impact potential of purpose driven people is revolutionary. The science shows that holistic education that integrates a transcendent purpose with hands-on application enriches students’ experience and enhances mastery.1 The Foundation Rock Group (TFRG) at the University of Texas at Austin was organized to educate students in a manner that stimulates the senses, encourages autonomy, and embraces evolutionary biology to live sustainably in an empathic community.

As a student-led, faculty-guided enterprise, TFRG seeks to develop comprehensive solutions to social issues by strengthening the connection between community and the built environment. Considering shelter to be a basic human requirement that should take high priority, the objective is to reshape cities by redefining housing and the housing industry. The ultimate vision is to revolutionize society by vertically integrating the design, development, ownership, operation, maintenance, and occupation of LEED platinum, state-of-the-art cooperative housing facilities.

The plan is to develop a philanthropic, entrepreneurial approach to real estate investment that is intended to perpetuate the sustainable development of cooperative facilities. The initiative aspires to model after a Community Development Corporation and use interdisciplinary collaboration, integrated design, and an all-encompassing sustainability strategy to create synergy, maximize efficiency, and promote conservation within all aspects of green building. TFRG also emphasizes that the integration of various aspects of sustainable living – social, psychological, financial, economical, environmental, ecological, etc. – is important in achieving holistic sustainability and streamlined results.

TFRG’s first goal is to develop a LEED platinum, mixed-use cooperative housing complex in West Campus that will serve as a research-based, live-in laboratory for sustainable habitation. TFRG hopes to connect a variety of schools and colleges at the University in order to model compressive solutions to human habitation in the 21st century. Student leaders are currently assembling teams and identifying experts—within the School of Architecture, Cockrell School of Engineering, McCombs School of Business, and Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs—in order to conduct preliminary feasibility studies and prepare funding proposals.

Current Challenges to Sustainable Human Settlement

TFRG’s focus on cooperative housing is rooted in population trends, cultural shifts, and changing demographics. These changes threaten the sustainability of current practices, and create opportunities for new forms of flourishing urban habitation.

Rapid Global Urbanization

In 1960, the world was populated with approximately three billion people.2 This was a time when the American Dream was well-marketed as homeownership and suburbs were exploding across the United States. Since this time, several factors have converged to create a compelling case for cooperative housing. Namely, the earth’s population has experienced unprecedented growth, cultures have changed, urbanization has run rampant, and environmental concerns have permeated throughout virtually every aspect of society in the developed world.

In 40 years, between 1960 and 2000, the world population doubled from three billion to six billion people.3 Most recently, during the past 11 years—from the year 2000 to today—the population increased by another one billion people, representing the fastest population growth in human history.4 Additionally, the 1960 population is currently anticipated to triple within the next 20 to 40 years to become nine billion.5 These astronomical increases demand new approaches to design and development of the built environment.

These population statistics are compounded by remarkably rapid rates of urbanization. Between the years 1950 and 2030 the percentage of the world’s population living in cities or urban areas will increase from 29%, about 0.7 billion, to roughly 60%, nearly five billion people.6 Increased benefit and opportunity continue to draw millions to urban areas as the prevalence of wealth, medicine, and education position 21st century cities as centers of global attraction.7

As cities expand to accommodate growth, inhabitants endure unfavorable consequences related to short-term profit motives and urban sprawl.8 Quality is oftentimes exchanged for quantity as corners are cut and inexpensive—sometimes hazardous—materials are employed to keep capital costs low and improve sales. Developers typically do not have a long-term vested interest in property which leads to higher maintenance costs, shorter building life spans, and complacency in innovation and design. Other negative implications of urban sprawl include issues of auto-dependency, feelings of isolation, increased per capita infrastructure costs, and adverse health and environmental effects. For example, utility and transportation infrastructure can potentially cost in upwards of $21,000 per development unit, accumulating to $1.12 trillion for American tax payers over the next 25 years.9

Global Urban Poverty

As infrastructure and services fall short of new demands, conventional market driven development consequently exacerbates urban disparity.10 Rapid urbanization and economic inequality also increase the severity of global poverty. This urban phenomenon is a dire issue that exponentially continues to worsen. Most of the growth that is expected to occur is anticipated to take place in unplanned, underserved areas that are unprepared and ill-equipped to accommodate added numbers.

The unfortunate result becomes excessive homelessness, overcrowded orphanages, and slum dwellings that marginalize the poorest people who oftentimes have limited access to clean water or basic sanitation. The current estimate of one billion people living in urban slums is anticipated to double within 20 years, by the year 2030.11 This estimate roughly translates to a quarter of all of the world’s people living in substandard, inadequate dwellings. With sustainable development at the heart of this issue, utilizing sustainable investment strategies that facilitate economic growth is essential to creating viable sustainability that transcends socioeconomic divides.

Generation Y, Youth Unemployment, and Cohabitation

Furthermore, an important demographic, with respect to cooperative housing and TFRG’s mission, is the Gen-Y cohort. The constantly connected, tech-savvy generation longs for community and exhibits an increased desire to promote creative change.12 Their cultural upbringing combines with recent economic woes to make this portion of the population a premier proponent and dual beneficiary of TFRG’s objectives.

This cohort is also less likely to become private homeowners. Financial instability, strained job markets, heightened youth unemployment, child-centric
parenting, institutional skepticism, and apprehension stemming from perceived mistakes made by previous generations all serve to delay rites of passage such as moving out on their own and establishing a family.13 Accordingly, the 2010 U.S. Census indicated that 53.3% of American ages 18 to 24, over 15.6 million, reported living with parents.14 High youth unemployment rates, extensive indebtedness, and an ever widening gap between the rich and poor constitute financial barriers to homeownership that necessitate a reevaluation of traditional ideals and practices associated with homeownership.

Aftershocks of the financial crisis of the late 2000s further highlight the detrimental ramifications of excessively powerful financiers and an over inflated credit economy.15 The array of issues aforementioned are interrelated around an imperative need for societies to intelligently sustain themselves and prepare for growth. Effectively satisfying the most primal needs of food, water, and shelter can be achieved by multiplying the means of production, circumventing barriers to entry, and instituting economic drivers that sustain universal progress.

New Opportunities for Creative Cooperative Housing

As technology enables global awareness, it becomes possible to extend loyalties and sensibilities to the entire world, as an extended family.16 The ability to see everyone as fellow sojourners works to unite the human race in collectively striving for the common goal of global prosperity. In this context, the belief
is that healthy, vibrant, and inclusive communities can be sustained universally by fostering a modern identity of compassion, empathy, and resourcefulness as a people.

Global trends represent a great need and a remarkable opportunity to utilize cooperative housing as a platform to champion sustainable communities. The aim is to empower residents to take responsibility for creating a better world by fostering a sustainable culture of people who diligently strive to sustain their living environments. In order to counter global disparities, TFRG aspires to forge collaboration in sustainable development, in the context of cooperative housing, through public-private partnerships in order to champion community, revitalize neighborhoods, and generate revenue for philanthropic use. The ambition is to sufficiently scale up the sustainable impact of community-driven development in order to equitably improve the quality of life of people around the globe.

The need for affordable rental property in Austin, Texas corresponds with TFRG’s desire to capitalize on markets in the developed world in order to charitably fund efforts to meet the needs of the severely impoverished. Robust housing cooperatives, in major metropolitan areas, that provide affordable housing, produce food and energy, and have integrated retail and restaurant components stand to serve as a significant funding mechanism that will generate revenue for service projects in developing regions. Utilizing the associated cost advantages of shared resources, economies of scale, and an internal network of passionate coop residents enables a self-sustaining method of “philanthrocapitalism” that continues to characterize today’s philanthropic sector.

Economic approaches to sustainable development are endorsed by U.N. Habitat, the United Nations human settlements program, as the primary need associated with poverty- focused urban renewal. Applying these solutions in a general context can improve how everyone lives and functions together as a society. The ultimate desire is to see a generation rise up as leadership in global society that proactively seeks to address the pressing issues that societies are faced with.

Human Motivation

Efforts to improve quality of life hinge upon deepening an understanding of modern humanity. Newly emerging research in social science—regarding motivation, innovation, and empathy—offers compelling insight into important aspects of human nature.17 These aspects are essential to achieving widespread sustainability throughout society in the 21st century.

Interesting discoveries about human motivation were uncovered by a study conducted by economists from the University of Chicago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Astonishingly, intellectual work, even when limited to rudimentary cognitive skill, cannot be motivated by monetary incentives.18 However, the study contrarily revealed that granting autonomy, promoting mastery, and integrating an intrinsic purpose largely improves performance and increases personal satisfaction.

These results are considered an intriguing phenomenon that contradicts traditional economic beliefs. People have an instinctual desire to utilize their abilities in order to create a positive impact.19 Embracing this concept, TFRG strives to provide an extraordinary environment where people can excel for the sake of benefiting society.

Holistic, Integrated, Green, Cooperative Housing Facilities as Anchors of Urban Renewal

Residential housing cooperatives, designed for community engagement, are expected to viably serve as socially responsible hubs that facilitate programs geared toward increasing the sustainability of communities. Residents would operate and maintain systems with the objective of affecting positive change—regarding social justice, inequality, unity, and environmental awareness—by demonstratively conserving and producing natural resources as a collective. Utilizing advancements in science and technology to economically sustain food and energy production within high-density dwellings can dramatically alleviate an array of humanitarian ailments such as poverty, food scarcity, and sanitation.

Comprehensive solutions involve going beyond developing durable facilities by incorporating features and components that create or facilitate unique employment and income opportunities for residents. This includes integrating synergistic systems of urban farming, aquaculture cultivation, water treatment, and energy production into residential buildings as design priorities. Mixed-use development enhances prospects of job creation and revenue generation by enabling the incorporation of lower-level, cradle-to-cradle restaurant components that complement on-site greenhouses and bioreactors. Synergy easily becomes a key aspect in achieving design goals that prioritize efficiency and conservation.

Creating spaces for Innovation

Throughout this initiative, innovation reigns paramount as the fundamental driving factor that inspires the design and development of multifunctional facilities. This attribute is intended to transcend each project phase from preliminary design to maintenance, operation, and occupation. This noble aspiration raises questions regarding the creation and facilitation of innovative ideas.

Current research argues that innovation happens in the sticky places—chaotic places of activity where ideas can collide through initiated collaboration.20 Great innovation is noted to begin with a singular, unrefined idea that requires time to incubate, mature and intermingle with other ideas—often other peoples’ ideas—to eventually solidify and become reality. The English coffee house is often credited with providing an environment where such activity could thrive and give way to the significant leaps in innovation that have occurred over the past 500 years.21

In the same respect, effectively utilizing shared space in the context of cooperative housing is greatly conducive to collaborative innovation. The setting intrinsically establishes an atmosphere that stimulates continual thought and motivation with regard to the underlying mission of sustainability and community engagement. The cooperatives are intended to function as staging grounds that train and equip residents to maintain facilities as live-in laboratories, where the intelligent operation of sophisticated systems yields thoughtful improvements that enhance overall building performance and the community at large. TFRG attempts to amplify peoples’ passions and unleash the creative energy necessary to achieve progress in the most amazing period of innovation that the world has ever seen.

Need for Affordable Rental Housing in Austin, TX

Market studies reveal an immense need for affordable rental property in the City of Austin.22 The City’s Consolidated Plan, for fiscal years 2009-2014, drafted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), provides insight on the city’s housing trends and statistics. The need for affordable rental property correlates with a gap shortage of nearly 40,000 units for low-income renters. Subsequently, class B and C apartments in central Austin experience very low vacancies—less than 4 percent.

Meanwhile, costs are inevitably rising. Considering that 31% of Austin renters are unable to afford a $550 per month efficiency apartment (average cost), cooperative housing is a viable alternative that dramatically reduces the cost of living. These figures are based on allotting 30% of one’s income toward housing; however, TFRG works to challenge the notion that housing should constitute the bulk of one’s expenditures.

Triple Bottom Line Development

Financial sustainability is held in high regard and is accomplished, in part, by combining design-build (DB) construction with owner operation and maintenance (O&M) schemes. Constructing facilities as a Design- Build-Own inherently incentivizes investments in long-term efficiency and sustainably. The annual cost savings of equipping facilities with appropriate technology, employing inventive integration techniques, and training residents to optimize building systems supplements the revenue stream allocated toward charitable service projects. Rigorous cost-benefit analyses, during the conceptual phases of design, will also be utilized in maximizing the cost effectiveness of components in order to leverage a greater amount of funds for philanthropic use. Capital first costs are essentially reassessed with considerations of overall building performance and expanded life cycle returns.

The effective collaboration of architects, engineers, and construction project managers, among a variety of other professionals, is also instituted to create synergy and efficiency in planning and design. In this capacity, TFRG seeks to develop a reputation that embodies the unique multifunctionality of integrated design and interdisciplinary collaboration. Utilizing a compilation of expertise to design closed loop, cradle-to-cradle, biomimicry capabilities in cooperative facilities—bringing together cycles of food, energy, and waste—is hoped to reconfigure the role of residential buildings in modern society.

As a not-for-profit sustainable enterprise, classified as an IRS 301(c) (3) tax exempt entity, TFRG anticipates shortened, if not nonexistent, payback periods that derive from cost reductions associated with donated equipment, materials, and gift contributions. Overhead costs are reduced through government incentives to conduct charitable operations and flexibility in contractor and architect fees—a figure typically represented as 30% of a project’s total construction costs—is afforded through combined delivery methods and philosophies of promoting public good.

Pilot Project: West Campus Live-in Laboratory

The current ambition is to develop a LEED platinum, state-of-the- art cooperative housing project in West Campus that will serve as a live-in laboratory for sustainable habitation. The objective is to forge interdisciplinary collaboration between a variety of schools and colleges at the University in order to model holistic and comprehensive solutions to human habitation in the 21st century. The involvement of students, faculty, the University, and the City of Austin, as well as banks, businesses, professional societies, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations is sought and encouraged in order to launch this endeavor as an internationally renowned system of achieving universal progress. For more information please visit or contact Christopher Rosales at


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  11. UN-HABITAT, “Slum Dwellers to double by 2030: Millennium Development Goal Could Fall Short,” Twenty First Session of the Governing Council, Nairobi, Kenya, April 16, 2007, docs/4631_46759_GC%2021%20Slum%20 dwellers%20to%20double.pdf.
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  13. Jason Oberholtzer, “In Defense of My Generation,” Forbes, May 24, 2011, http://www. in-defense-of-my-generation/.
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  15. David Harvey, “Crises of Capitalism,” RSA Animate: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, June 28, 2010,
  16. Jeremy Rifkin, “The Empathic Civilization,” RSA Animate: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, May 6, 2010, com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g.
  17. Matthew Taylor, “21st Century Enlightenment,” lecture presented at annual meeting of Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, London, England, June 17, 2010.
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  19. Ibid.
  20. Steven Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” RSA Animate: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, September 17, 2010, http://www.
  21. Ibid.
  22. City of Austin, “FT 2009-14 Consolidated Plan Housing Market Analysis,” Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, 2008.