On a corner just south of downtown Minneapolis, a new apartment complex called the Rose aims to set a standard for the way affordable rentals are built, with high-tech products and materials more often found in upscale homes.

The effort attracted the attention of the Parsons School of Design, which decided to partner in the project with a Minneapolis nonprofit organization and architect. Parsons professors hope to use pre- and post-construction data to inspire developers and manufacturers of home materials.

"This is a pioneering case study that will help us understand if this is replicable," Alison Mears, director of the healthy materials lab at Parsons, said during a visit to the Rose last week. "Our goal is to transform the affordable housing industry."

The 90-unit project is at the corner of Franklin and Portland avenues in a neighborhood where much of the housing is old and in disrepair and the bulk of the residents are renters.

Two years ago, the nonprofit group Aeon approached architect Paul Mellblom of Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, also known as MSR, with the idea of creating an affordable housing project using materials and design ideas that rarely make it into low-income housing because of cost or the fact that developers aren't aware of them.

Mellblom, a principal at MSR with a broad portfolio of housing and commercial buildings, adhered to efficiency standards set by the Living Futures Alliance to evaluate every decision in the design process.

Mellblom and the project's co-designer, Rhys MacPherson, designed the Rose to be 75 percent more energy efficient than code requirements. It'll have a solar thermal wall that produces hot water while also serving as an architectural feature, and the building was also designed to be ready to be retrofitted with solar photovoltaic panels — increasing the prospect that someday it might produce as much energy as its residents consume. There's also a sprawling community garden and most of the rainwater runoff will be captured and reused.

Overall, the "cost burden" of such decisions increased the cost of the building by about 22 percent over a conventional code-compliant apartment building.

"Not only is this an economically smart approach for our residents on limited incomes, it's good business." said Gina Ciganik, Aeon's vice president of housing development. "It's our responsibility to curb the extremely high energy use property managers like us will see over a lifetime of operations."

Inside, the building has the kinds of finishes and floor plans that are on par with some of the most upscale rentals in the city.

For example, most low-income apartments have plastic laminate countertops that contain formaldehydes and phenols. MSR wanted to upgrade to granite, but some granite contains residual radon or other heavy minerals that emit low-level radiation.

The team found a locally mined inert granite from Cold Spring Granite Co. that is on the "Declare Products List" that tracks materials in which the manufacturer has fully disclosed the ingredients. That list is kept by the International Living Futures Institute, which oversees the Living Building Challenge, or LBC. In addition to several other nontoxic products, they used caulk that doesn't contain volatile organic compounds.

The biggest hurdle, the architects said, was getting information from the manufacturers.

"Manufacturers are afraid to share secret formulations, don't always know everything in their products down to the tiniest level of detection, and/or aren't interested because there is not yet a huge market established for this information as part of the conventional product selection process by design teams," MacPherson said.

The team relied on an LBC website called the Materials Red List, which identifies and tries to eliminate the "worst-in-class" chemicals and materials from a human and ecological health standpoint.

Aeon doesn't have an unlimited budget, so the team members couldn't do everything they wanted. For instance, they nixed ceramic tile bath surrounds, a nearly $450,000 upgrade.

As a longtime architect for a cutting-edge firm, Mellblom said he would like to see more of his colleagues and developers explore ways to incorporate better materials and ideas. "Green shouldn't be affordable only to those who are wealthy," he said. "This is a social justice issue."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376