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With a climate crisis and a housing crisis, why is Minneapolis regulating building material aesthetics?

While it’s true that some types of texture and massing look “cheaper” than others, there are legitimate questions about whether or not newer building materials are more climate friendly and affordable than other materials.

metal cladding
The 2014 standards revolved around the “percentage” of material usage, so that for example, metallic cladding could be used on some, but not all, of the exterior of larger (20+-unit) buildings.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

A parade of building contractors and material suppliers formed at the podium during last week’s meeting of the Minneapolis Planning Commission. Without exception, they expressed their displeasure at the city’s proposed regulations of building materials. There was specific disgruntlement about restrictions on exterior insulation finishing systems, commonly called EIFS (pronounced “eefs”), aka “synthetic stucco” made of materials like foam. Instead, city policies favor traditional materials like wood, brick, and glass. 

The proposed regulations clarify and formalize what have been unwritten guidelines for Minneapolis buildings for about a decade. The reasoning behind the restrictions in center on concerns over material lifespan and building quality, but also include design and aesthetic concerns. 

These kinds of guidelines cite “sustainability,” but miss a larger point about housing in Minneapolis. While it’s true that some types of texture and massing look “cheaper” than others, there are legitimate questions about whether or not newer types of building materials — EIFS, metal cladding, and the like — are more climate friendly and affordable than other materials that seem more traditional.

The regulations clash with two urgent crises facing Minneapolis around housing: building in walkable, transit-friendly areas to address climate change, and reducing the ongoing housing shortage with new supply. In light of these problems, Minneapolis should be on an emergency footing.

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The status quo

There was a lot of confusion at the Commission meeting about what, exactly, Minneapolis regulates around building materials. Since 2014, Minneapolis staffers have been informally shaping building designs through site plan regulations. As explained by Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) staffer Jason Wittenberg, these have involved reducing the amount of external materials builders could use, as well as limiting the number of exterior finishes.

The 2014 standards mostly revolved around the “percentage” of material usage, so that for example, metallic cladding could be used on some, but not all, of the exterior of larger (20+-unit) buildings. Additionally, there could only be up to three finishes on a building, putting a stop to the kind of superficial chaos you might notice with, say, the WaHu Apartments by the University of Minnesota. These rules were never formally adopted, but have been part of the city’s “site plan review” process, under the jurisdiction of the Planning Commission and City council. 

RELATED: Clad intentions: Minneapolis considers codifying what materials can be used for building exteriors

As planner Jason Wittenberg explained to me: “staff works with architects and developers to shape projects in ways that align with policy.  And staff ensures that the materials utilized at the building permit stage of the process are consistent with the materials shown by the developer to the public during the City Planning Commission process—i.e., no ‘bait and switch.’”  

(There are also “alternative compliance” procedures that allow buildings to evade the letter of the law, while keeping to its intent.)

In 2021, there was a brief effort to make more formal guidelines, but the issue proved too controversial and these were not adopted. This month’s proposal is another bite at the material apple.

The current proposed material regulations brought out their share of critics, most of whom are upset about the limitations placed on newer, more efficient material technology. In particular, city staff are proposing to rely on a table that outlines a hierarchy of exterior materials.

Along the ground floor, rules are more restrictive, and loosen up as you move up the side of a building. 

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“Brick, concrete, glass and stone masonry are more desirable at the base of the building, because it’s subject to more residential traffic and more susceptible to wear and tear,” CPED staffer Madel Mouta said in a presentation to the Planning Commission. They also pointed to buildings that use material facades only on facing the street, leaving the rear of a building raw concrete, not “complementary to existing urban and architectural fabric.”

Climate and affordability problems

One problem with the proposed regulations is that they mistake historic-looking facades for climate-friendly ones. There’s a mantra within the preservation movement that “the greenest building is the one that’s already there,” but that doesn’t necessarily hold water for new construction. It turns out that perceived durability and carbon footprint are two separate things.

At the meeting, many testifiers took issue with claims by staff that EIFS materials are low-quality and lack durability. That might have been true in earlier generations of the composite material, they argued, but these days EIFS come with drainage systems that, when installed correctly, keep them from accumulating moisture.

metal cladding
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
City staff suggested that metal cladding is not desirable because of “wear, vandalism, and snow removal,” citing examples of existing buildings that have not necessarily aged well.
There’s a difference between sustainability, durability and reducing carbon emissions. For example, the metrics that Minneapolis is using to track sustainability only look at what happens to the materials after they’re used in construction. They don’t account for “embodied carbon,” or how much greenhouse gas pollution was generated in constructing each type of material.

Builders for Climate Action
That proves to be a problem as producing materials like brick, for example, are incredibly carbon intensive compared to just about any other alternative. Similarly, the “r value” (which measures insulation efficiency) for more technological cladding like EIFS is higher, making it better at reducing energy use.

As Commissioner Chris Meyer pointed out, it’s unlikely that a brick surface is going to last 17 times longer than one with metal-cladding. Meyer argued that material regulations add tens of thousands of dollars to the price of each new apartment in the city, roughly on par with requiring off-street parking spaces. That extra cost might seem inconsequential for high-end housing, but creates a real burden for more affordable apartments.

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Same old argument

After some debate, and a lengthy series of testimonials from builders and, most notably, (former) City Council Candidate Conrad Zbikowski, holding a photo of the all-metal Weisman Art Museum, the Commission decided to return the matter to staff for more discussion. The consensus of the Commissioners that spoke was that they wanted clearer information about the effects material regulations might have on carbon emissions and affordability.

That’s the right idea. One maddening thing about housing policy is how new ways of subverting housing construction continually appear, turning housing advocacy into a game of whack-a-mole. If it’s not parking minimums, it’s single family zoning or floor-area ratios or preservation districts or site lot setbacks or missing the forest for a tree, all of which work to keep new housing in most U.S. cities both expensive and rare. 

My take is that much of these regulations boil down to generational grousing over matters of taste. The age-old question about “why do all the new buildings look the same?” can certainly generate comments, but it’s worth noting that people have been expressing this opinion at least since Charles Baudelaire in 1860s Paris. 

Maybe it’s as Zbikoswki suggested in his compelling and short testimony: “we should focus on street activation and not what number and color of panels and things like that.”

I’d add carbon emissions and affordability to his list of concerns. There are a hierarchy of needs around housing in Minneapolis, and aesthetics should not be near the top of that list.