Heather Weerheim (00:00):
Thank you Rhys for taking the time to be here at our studio at Greiner’s office.
Rhys MacPherson (00:05):
My pleasure. Of course. I love being here.
Heather Weerheim (00:07):
Awesome. Well, let me do a little intro. I’m gonna read your bio and then we’ll jump right into it. I think it’s important that everyone knows a little bit about you before we start talking. So Rhys is a senior associate with MSR Design and has touched a broad range of projects, including libraries, cultural facilities, spaces for nonprofit organizations and affordable housing, which we’re going to focus on today. Rhys has a deep interest in data driven design with focuses on the art and science of design. He has a passion for exploring the balance between equity distribution within the affordable housing industry and critical thinking. Did I get that all?
Rhys MacPherson (00:48):
I believe so. It makes me sound a little geeky, but that’s fine. I’m a little bit of a geek on data.
Heather Weerheim (00:54):
I know, and I want you to elaborate that because I decided I don’t do math anymore, so I’m glad that someone likes to, so thank you.
Rhys MacPherson (01:02):
So well, it’s not just about doing the math, it’s really looking at a data driven design process, to me is using data so that then you can balance the art and science of it because there is, you know, there’s the intuitive part of design. There’s kind of the science part of design. And then of course there’s all the things that need to happen so that can actually be designed. So for me design with using data is using all sorts of data points, everything from energy modeling to analysis, so that you are really informed about how to try to make the better and right decisions moving forward. It takes some of the emotion out of the out of the buy-in process as well, because then you’re able to establish real priorities for the projects and you can begin to kind of really truly align goals and aspirations around those things so that they stay in the project and they don’t get value engineered out. So they’re the fundamental piece to the beginning process of it.
Heather Weerheim (02:00):
What an asset to your clients, because I always feel like unless they have those facts or data, they can’t make decisions to move forward.
Rhys MacPherson (02:08):
Right. There’s also kind of that balancing act between making sure you’re not over data-ing them. Because too much information can also cause data paralysis too. And so it’s a matter of like trying to sift through that to make it simple so that people see the priorities that are emerging from it and be able to make an informed choice.
Heather Weerheim (02:29):
Absolutely. So do you think you’re unique in that you’re able to do that?
Rhys MacPherson (02:34):
I wouldn’t say necessarily unique. I think what I try to do is create that balance and try to look at all sides. It isn’t just what I want. It’s also what the client is looking for. And also ultimately what the end user would be wanting for the space too. And even working and I enjoy working with everyone and to me, cooperation is fundamental towards the success of any project. And that for me, that’s really what doing a data driven design process is all about because it is about cooperation and collaboration.
Heather Weerheim (03:08):
So I’m gonna pick on a specific project because we’re gonna be podcasting with Chris Velasco next with Via Sol. So I’m curious to know what type of data or what type of information he wanted from you when you were designing Via Sol.
Rhys MacPherson (03:23):
So I initially came onto Via Sol as the sustainability consultant initially for the project. And so my role in that was to kind of look at what would be kind of the best kind of lead strategies and even beyond lead looking at fit well, living building challenge, kind of all of the gamut of kind of the again, kind of looking to see what would make the the best choices for the project that would align with what would potentially be available. What we could actually do and I was thinking about how I tend to like to approach projects and it goes back to kind of a more fundamental thing of leaning from living, building challenge, of the fundamental question of what does good look like and what I like about that is that it takes the green out of it for a minute and allows people to actually look at multiple sectors.
Rhys MacPherson (04:27):
So who doesn’t want something good or better? And for me, I think that gets into a key piece of moving beyond the word sustainability or sustain and trying to move into the idea of thriving or flourishing. And for me that’s really where I think we should be heading is our conversations need to be geared around how do we thrive? How do we flourish? An important way of getting there, I think is by being generous. And when you look at nature, one of the things about nature is that when conditions are ripe and things are provided for suddenly, it becomes very generous. It becomes an ecosystem. And I think that we need to start thinking about our buildings and the way we do business, the way we do all those things. We can’t just exist by ourselves. We all need to work together. This tells you probably a little bit of my leanings, but I like the quote of “we all do better when we all do better” by Paul Wellstone because fundamentally we can’t do it by ourselves. And that is a key piece of how you make change. Change happens because everyone works together to do better.
Heather Weerheim (05:36):
Now, do you use that quote for, or like, do you think that Via Sol and that quote and everyone doing better, is that primarily for affordable housing in or any type of housing do you think? Does that fit?
Rhys MacPherson (05:47):
I like to bring it into all my work but I do think it applies directly to Via Sol because when you look at like the aspirations and goals of what the project is. It is combining arts. It is combining energy, it’s combining water, it’s combining food and creating places that people want to be. And so you’re creating a whole living kind of community, even though yes, we are focused primarily on LEED as a, as our sustainability strategy. But I would say it actually, that goes further than that, because it goes into that bigger question of what does good look like.
Heather Weerheim (06:20):
I feel like I might be driving us off topic and stealing Chris’s thunder if we talk too much about Via Sol, but it’s such a unique project. So I’m going to kind of reign it back in to a little bit about the affordable housing. And why are you so passionate about? Actually, no, first I wanna go back. I wanna find out why affordable housing is a hot topic in Minneapolis right now?
Rhys MacPherson (06:44):
So for me, I think there’s kind of three pieces to affordable housing. First is dignity. When we don’t have places that provide a sense of dignity, and you can see that kind of all over the place. You can see it in all of our cities. You can see it in the rural areas too, when people don’t have a sense of dignity things fall apart.
Heather Weerheim (07:09):
We had a at our Min Crew program, we had 1AD communities. I think it’s called. And they talked about, they designed a space for women who are being sexually abused under the age of 16, they created a shelter for them and they found that they would get 100% of them to stay there if they had some input on the type of design mative> of their room, or got to choose the color or
Rhys MacPherson (07:34):
Got to choose something about yeah.
Heather Weerheim (07:35):
And I loved that and that kind of gave them a sense of belonging or maybe dignity, right? You’d say.
Rhys MacPherson (07:42):
The other one is about removing barriers. So removing barriers are things like you know, the equity issue of who gets what, where things should be located. And then the most important is access to education and services. And without those things, the affordable housing piece doesn’t quite work without providing those other access things, because, you know, there’s so many people that are coming with disadvantages and they there’s basic life skills that are needed. And for them to have success by removing kind of all those barriers to them and creating a dignified life for them, they actually have a chance then of rising back up and, and wanting, you know, wanting more.
Heather Weerheim (08:30):
Do you think Minneapolis has done this successfully and provided afford affordable housing successfully?
Rhys MacPherson (08:36):
I think we’ve done a fairly good job in certain locals. However, there still is definitely an image issue about traditional affordable housing. And a lot of neighborhoods not wanting the housing in. Some of the housing has been just too too clustered and not distributed evenly enough throughout to make it successful. The other thing is that we’re not very good at offering a series of typologies because the apartment building isn’t necessarily the right affordable housing for everyone, but that’s currently the main model that’s being introduced because it’s what works financially currently in the marketplace. However, there’s a lot of families that that would be better off in single family housing or triplexes. And the 2040 plan for Minneapolis is trying to address that. But the problem is that that type of capital is more a small developer type of capital and not a mid-range or large developer that’d be interested in doing that. So it’s a one, two small approach. So to gain that momentum is gonna take a large collective of individuals wanting to do that, to make that part happen. So I think that’s gonna be a little bit harder to see change on that.
Heather Weerheim (09:55):
I hope that it does change.
Rhys MacPherson (09:57):
I hope so, too. I think it will. I think now, especially because prices have escalated so much recently the concept of ownership, especially in the twin cities is changing a lot. And so maybe that stigma of the apartment building is changing as well.
Heather Weerheim (10:16):
Do you foresee multifamily housing or I’m sorry, affordable housing, do you see there being a drop in building anytime soon? It just seemed like that’s what kept us through, you know, the pandemic that we were really busy, our multifamily housing and affordable housing and kept us very busy. Is that going to change?
Rhys MacPherson (10:36):
I don’t think so. I think the issue is that we still have so many households that are kind of packed in with multiple households living together that are still not fully accounted for. And I think people are also looking for newer housing that has been updated. And so as the nice thing about affordable housing is because it has to follow a higher standard which is a little different than the market rate. You know that the materials going in are actually safer. It has to meet a higher level of energy performance. And so there’s a bunch of things that are already kind of baked into that equation that are actually delivering a little higher quality product than what’s necessarily being delivered in the market rate.
Rhys MacPherson (11:22):
The market rate tends to focus on a lot of amenities and things coming with it that that community might want. Whereas the affordable housing is really focused on more quality products, better air quality, and more durability as well. And now they’re starting to be this pairing of bringing in more meaningful amenities, rather than just kind of the one, two kind of approach it’s really creating kind of a larger community, which that’s what, again, what I liked about Via Sol is that we are actually creating a true working, living, breathing, eating community with it.
Heather Weerheim (12:00):
We’re going have to touch more on that. Yeah. But you brought up a good point about the difference between market rate and affordable. And when you said affordable, you talked about better quality of construction. And when I, or quality build, when I think about quality, I think more expensive is that accurate? Like if I was a developer and I was looking to develop either an affordable housing project or a market rate project, how would I decide and what would be the benefits or do you think I would lean to?
Rhys MacPherson (12:32):
Well, would say actually the nonprofit in the nonprofit world I think actually building affordable housing tends to be more expensive than market rate currently because it’s looking at the long term. So it’s, you are trying to make sure that you’re not gonna be replacing things too quickly. You are willing to put, you know, if the budget can support it, you are willing to put in the better weather barriers, the stronger insulation package typically putting in other kind of quality amenities. So even the millwork has to be up at a higher standard because it’s being built for durability.
Heather Weerheim (13:14):
Are you for someone who’s building in the affordable world as a developer? Are you incentivized by the city or can you get money to do so? How does that work?
Rhys MacPherson (13:25):
No, not exactly. That’s the conundrum with it. So then you tend to have very dedicated nonprofit developers who are willing to kind of forego the money aspect of the projects, because they’re more focused on trying to do better.
Heather Weerheim (13:47):
So my understanding too, of market rate versus affordable housing is that as developers primarily will hit on to affordable housing, right? It’s a long term investment.
Rhys MacPherson (13:58):
It’s a very long you’re probably owning it for life
Heather Weerheim (14:01):
For life. Okay. And then market rate is something that’s probably built and then
Rhys MacPherson (14:05):
It’s turned. It’s a commodity, it’s more of a commodity based type of project.
Heather Weerheim (14:11):
Do any market rate projects ever turn into affordable housing projects? Does that ever happen?
Rhys MacPherson (14:15):
Not very often. I mean, what is tending to happen now is like the 1950s buildings that were market rate apartments at those time are now being converted, but that’s a really long sunset. And it’s being picked up as into affordable just because other developers are looking at things too old or too vintage of a product to convert into a new market rate condition.
Heather Weerheim (14:40):
Fair enough. So what does the future look like for affordable housing?
Rhys MacPherson (14:43):
In the short term view, right now, it is harder because of the price increases, the escalation material shortages, kind of everything that we’ve all been,
Heather Weerheim (14:53):
It’s all like doom and gloom right now.
Rhys MacPherson (14:54):
It has felt a little bit of that. However, the thing about affordable housing again, is that long term view. And so it is always trying to figure out how to do better with less. And so you’re always still kind of trying to manage those, those pieces with it. And I do think that like the new green communities for Minnesota is coming out that raises the bar again on energy performance levels and is, you know, more closely tracking to the B3, Minnesota B3 guidelines.
Heather Weerheim (15:29):
Can you elaborate on that B3 guidelines?
Rhys MacPherson (15:31):
So the B3 guidelines are a state mandated guideline for quality. Okay. And so it’s saying that, you know, buildings need to be only using a certain amount of energy. You need to determine what your water reduction loads are. We also need to pay attention to the toxicity of materials. We’re looking really closely at the lifespan and cycle of things. And now we’re starting to look at embodied carbon footprints of what these buildings are making and doing.
Heather Weerheim (15:58):
Oh, that’s fascinating. And does that type of data really excite you?
Rhys MacPherson (16:02):
It does actually.
Heather Weerheim (16:03):
Rhys MacPherson (16:04):
I actually really enjoy kind of parsing through all of that and then trying to then figure out what is the right pathway, because each project is different and understanding what might be the best fit to me, that’s kinda where the secret sauce is. And I like kinda moving those things around.
Heather Weerheim (16:23):
I love that. You mentioned, so that was the short term future of affordable housing. What about long term?
Rhys MacPherson (16:28):
So long term, I think that there will be a continued input of more money into affordable housing because unfortunately I think that everyone is seeing the gap increasing between have and have nots. And so we know that that is getting worse and worse. So I do think that there will actually be more funding made available. And of course it always depends on the different administrations that are in power, but I do think that right now it feels that, that there is going to be a much bigger push on creating more availability of resources for affordable housing and maybe not just offered in the traditional financing and kind of management, but other pathways. So, you know, Via Sol was a little bit different because we ended up using 503 C bonds to build the project, which is a little different kind of structure than what was, has been traditionally used for a lot of other housing projects. And I think we’re gonna start to see more of that kind of more inventive ways of using financing to kind of get the affordable housing projects launched.
Heather Weerheim (17:37):
Okay. Well, that’s something to look forward to. So you work, you design on a national level, right?
Rhys MacPherson (17:43):
We do. Yes.
Heather Weerheim (17:44):
Now, do you see any communities there that do it well that we should emulate? Or do you think that Minneapolis does affordable housing?
Rhys MacPherson (17:55):
I think we do it well. So the difference with Minneapolis say to California of course, is climate. So the climate plays a really big role in how housing is shaped. And what it can deliver you know I think affordable housing projects that really look at having the right balance of outdoor open space, other amenities and community gathering spaces, things that people will actually have a voice in are incredibly important for viability that if it’s just a box and it doesn’t have any of those other things, then people won’t love it. And I think for housing to be successful, people need to have that sense of place to have that sense of pride and wanting to be there.
Heather Weerheim (18:45):
So in California, as far as outdoor space, they have so much, they can get kind of creative because their weather is so much different. But I think in Via Sol, wasn’t there like an urban garden or some
Rhys MacPherson (18:57):
Well, there’s a one acre urban forest, which is very unusual.
Heather Weerheim (19:01):
What does that mean?
Rhys MacPherson (19:02):
So the urban forest in this case is to help to kind of offset. So it’s a large carbon commitment towards creating a larger outdoor space, which is unusual for affordable housing. So it’s going to contain gardens. It contains kids playing areas. And then adult kind of recreation along with the bike trail, kind of coming through through this space. And it’s also a way to engage for public art. So the museum of outdoor art is curating several pieces that will be through the urban forest and around the building. And then there’ll be these large artist murals. That’ll be on the building surface too. And in the shared balconies. So it’s about kind of creating this common community space, but at the same time it will have large trees in it and a biodiverse area. So the plants are all designed. So they work together towards each other. And then it’s also diverting all of the storm water from the building and recirculating it underneath that area to percolate. So a hundred percent of the storm water is being managed.
Heather Weerheim (20:13):
So that one acre spot could have been maybe an expansion of the building or surface parking.
Rhys MacPherson (20:19):
Right. So in market or anything it market rate the tendency would have been to probably have put more building on that site. And in here that said, no, we really want to balance the space so that we have have places that people really want to be so that then, you know, kids can, you know, have places to really play. It’s not just a token kind of playground but it’s really a place for families to be.
Heather Weerheim (20:44):
That’s awesome. Do you think that Via Sol is the future of affordable housing?
Rhys MacPherson (20:49):
I think so. I think it’s a really good model for how to do that, because again the interiors are simple. However they have a sense of dignity about them. And we are using kind of higher end finishes that are going into the apartments so that they will last a lot longer, but they’re also allowing for a lot of personality and flexibility of the tenant coming in to use the space because there’s the building is also designed for for creatives. So artists, groups, and makers could be living there and exhibiting their work. And so the hallways are actually designed so that on open days that artwork can actually be hung in the hallways. People can be invited into the units. There’s a series of kind of shared kind of gallery spaces sprinkled throughout the space. And then of course the shared balconies. So again, it’s really kind of creating this kind of really wonderful community. I hope that people will love to be in.
Heather Weerheim (21:45):
You sound very passionate about it. Is this because, did Chris give you the leeway to design it and do whatever you want? Or was there a lot of input from, was it a collaborative effort?
Rhys MacPherson (21:56):
It was a collaborative effort. I mean, there was, you know, a place that had come with their design goal with some design goals and aspirations, and we all worked really hard together to talk well, how do we elevate these so that they can actually be manifested in the building because you can write out a list of lofty goals, but if they don’t manifest themselves then it isn’t really there. And so I think that that was really our task was then how to try to manifest all those pieces in there. So for instance, you know, we’ll have, I think 1.2 megawat of solar PV, which is gonna be one of the largest arrays for a residential building in Minnesota, it will have a wind turbine. That’ll also be generating power. It’s got green roofs on it. And then of course the greenhouse that’ll be able to feed 300 families and then hopefully the future bio digester. So it can take the compost from people.
Heather Weerheim (22:49):
We’re going to save that for the next
Rhys MacPherson (22:50):
Yes, I know that is unfortunately, but the space is designed so that, that hopefully the bio digester can come in once the city buys off on it. Yeah. which I know has been an ongoing issue for the UL labeling.
Heather Weerheim (23:05):
Well, it is patented. It is something very new and it is new. Yeah. And, but how cool would it be though to if it, to be the first city to,
Rhys MacPherson (23:13):
To adopt it yeah. To adopt it and to then use it as a closed loop system. And it’s kind of elegant in a way, because you’re taking the ways that you’re generating right there, bringing it right in creating, you know, from the compost using it to create the natural gas.
Heather Weerheim (23:26):
Elegant is a really nice term.
Rhys MacPherson (23:28):
And generating, and you’re actually you generating CO2 that then feeds into the greenhouse, which the plants then take and then, you know, make food back and then you eat the food and creates that kind of cycle.
Heather Weerheim (23:39):
So we wanna get to futures and predictions. We kind of already talked about a bit what the future looked like. So how can we sum up future predictions for affordable housing? And we know it’s not gonna go away. Right. It’s needed we need more of it. I guess how can developers, how can we all be better? How can we open our minds to it? How can, what can we do to create or allow for this need?
Rhys MacPherson (24:13):
So, and I think in taking the long view, it is about trying to remove the barriers and the stigma. And I think part of the stigma goes away by creating places that people love. If people love the place, they take care of it and a lot of things kind of solve themselves. And so I think once we start creating places and communities that people love to be in, they become self perpetuating, they thrive, they flourish, they kind of do all of those things. And I think that that’s kind of what the role of that that’s kind of our job is to try to create those places that people will want to be in and will take care of.
Heather Weerheim (24:51):
Well, I hope that I hope that happens and I think it will. I feel it and I see it and I think people are more open to talking about it now, too.
Rhys MacPherson (24:59):
Right. And I think, I think the other thing that I think is interesting with Via Sol is because we are really actively trying to look at a holistic model of living for the place by really addressing energy, which is kind of top of mind for everybody these days with looking at, you know, four and $5 gas thinking about if you’re able to remove energy as a barrier to people and that money is then going in to paying for other things. I think that that begins to kind of change people’s minds a lot about what housing can be.
Heather Weerheim (25:36):
At Via Sol is that is the goal to not have, is for people to bike and walk and to have a community where you don’t need a car.
Rhys MacPherson (25:45):
Right. So, the location was set up on the light rail the future light rail station that is being built right now, so that yes, you can have the rail transit, there’s also bus available. And of course it’s right off the Cedar lake trail. So you have great access to biking. And it’s a bike superway really, a super highway right there. And then in addition to there is also rental hour car, zip car that’s going to be there. There’s also a large amount of electric plugin. So we’re looking to the future because as we begin to electrify our cars, paying attention to that, that’s actually a big barrier for most affordable housing. Most affordable housing does not have access to electrification needs for or parking. So we’re trying to actively pay attention to that for the future,
Heather Weerheim (26:32):
With all those solar panels for Via Sol, I would think that power shouldn’t be an issue.
Rhys MacPherson (26:39):
Well, yes, but it is interesting because powering cars actually does require a fair amount of power, but we are trying to balance that. So Via Sol is going to be acting as its own utility and will actually be then its utility bills will actually be going individually to the tenants, but it will be at a reduced cost. And so there’s actually an incentive to be there because your electric bill will actually be lower than paying for standard energy through a deal that’s been worked out with Excel energy.
Heather Weerheim (27:14):
Well, Rhys, thank you for being so passionate about the design and everything that you do your data that you use to help your clients like bring projects to reality, which is amazing. And so thank you for being a beacon.
Rhys MacPherson (27:29):
Well, thank you too. It’s been great actually working with Greiner. You guys have just really stepped up, came up with a great game plan and now it’s all being executed and it’s just kind of moving along and looking forward to it opening.
Heather Weerheim (27:42):
I Can’t wait. I can’t wait to see it and take some tours and I think it should be, I think tours are starting right now.
Rhys MacPherson (27:49):
They start Wednesday. Yeah.
Heather Weerheim (27:51):
Perfect timing. Awesome. Well, thanks again, Rhys.
Rhys MacPherson (27:54):