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The Eco Village in River Falls, Wisconsin Courtesy Tarah Benson

Environmental
Innovation

Habitat projects in Wisconsin and Colorado demonstrate the power — and creativity — of sustainable building.

by Megan Frank

For Habitat for Humanity, sustainable — or “green” building — means creating healthy homes and communities that are less expensive to operate, more durable, and that conserve resources. It means doing everything we can to help families find better footing — not just for today, but tomorrow, too.

“Green and sustainable building practices go hand in hand with Habitat’s mission to improve the lives of low-income families,” says Larry Gluth, Habitat for Humanity International’s senior vice president for U.S. and Canada. “By combining durable construction techniques with energy efficiency, we provide our families with homes that are safer, longer-lasting and less costly to maintain.”

Habitat programs across the United States and around the world take those principles to heart and work to find localized ways to help make them reality. Recent and ongoing projects in Wisconsin and Colorado provide compelling examples of how Habitat homeowners reap the benefits of that kind of creative thinking.

River Falls: Eco Village Values

St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity has clearly heard the phrase “Go big or go home.” The affiliate typically builds one to three houses a year, but a project that began in late spring of last year will change that significantly.

The Eco Village — with its planned 18 homes and community center — will double the number of Habitat homes constructed per year in River Falls, Wisconsin, and will dramatically change the way those houses are conceived and constructed. The project’s sustainable and integrated community design is meant to demonstrate that efficient, ecological building practices can be beautiful and affordable.

“We want our children to have a connection with the world in which they live.”
—Beth Evans

Habitat homes in the village will be a mix of three- and four-bedroom construction, some single and some twinhomes, and will be built following Passive House principles. They’ll be extremely well-insulated (important for those Wisconsin winters) and use solar power to generate as much energy as they use. Homes will have cisterns and rain barrels and radiant heating in the floors. These features will make the houses largely self-sufficient and save homeowners hundreds of dollars in utility bills.

Thanks to a donation of land by the city of River Falls — one of many local and national partners to come on board in support of the project — the Eco Village is situated close to public transportation and sits on the edge of a pre-existing neighborhood, meaning homeowners can easily avoid driving to many places they need to go. The community will be connected by pedestrian and bike paths and feature edible landscapes and community gardens, which can be irrigated with rainwater collected on rooftops.

Beth Evans, Seegar Mason and their children Audrey and Sage

Beth Evans, Seegar Mason and their children Audrey and Sage stand in their future Eco Village home. Evans says they are “looking forward to the adventure that our life is going to be in this community.”

Courtesy brett kallusky

Homeowner Beth Evans is excited that her 6-year-old son Sage will attend school “pretty much across the street,” enabling him to walk home. Evans, her husband Seegar Mason and their children, Sage and 3-year-old Audrey, will move into one of the six homes completed in the village’s first phase of construction.

For Mason, the coffee manager and roaster at the local food co-op, and Evans, who is pursuing a degree in dietetics and works with a nonprofit garden, the Eco Village is a dream come true. Currently living in low-income housing — without much sense of community and with plenty of police activity — the Mason-Evans family is looking forward to their new home for many reasons. For Evans, it’s having space to store food and a neighborhood full of eager people who want to garden. “This will be an opportunity to use my education for the community good,” she says. “We will be living the change that we want to see in the world.

“We want it to be normal for our children to go get food out of the garden or out of the cellar rather than the gas station or McDonald’s,” she explains. “We want our children to have a connection with the world in which they live. It has been our mission to grow our own food, provide our own energy, and do so in a way that we still have time to sit and enjoy the fruits, watch the sunset, listen to the birds and play with the kids.”

Life in the Eco Village will afford them those opportunities. “This site, this house, this community is perfect for what we want to spend our life doing,” she says. “Perfect.”

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    The shape of the land and a desire to create community among residents led to a “pod” design for house placement. The community center at one end will be “for the entire community, with what is clearly going to be a focus on a sustainable community education and management,” says Kelly Cain, chair of the Eco Village committee and member of St. Croix Valley Habitat board of directors.

    Courtesy St. Croix Valley Habitat

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    Before ground could be broken on the first house, a lot of work went into creating the infrastructure for the Eco Village, including roadways, a retention pond and a solar array.

    Casey Kemper

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    St. Croix Valley Habitat wants the Eco Village to serve as a demonstration project and learning opportunity. There’s an open door policy, says resource development manager Peter Morsch. “My hope is that the lessons we learn here can be shared out to other affiliates,” he says, “that folks will want to come visit us, poke around, and get a sense of what works and what’s worth repeating.”

    Maggie Sokoloski

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    Volunteers Keith Larson (front) and Paul Ramberg snap together sections of FoxBlocks insulated concrete forms to create basement walls. The forms remain in place to keep homes sealed and toasty warm and are easy to install, thanks to brackets made of recycled plastic.

    Courtesy St. Croix Valley Habitat

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    At the groundbreaking ceremony Randy Moberg and Bryan Bakalyar of Werner Electric were on hand to show off the Solar World photovoltaic panels that their company is supplying for the Eco Village.

    Courtesy St. Croix Valley Habitat

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    Uponor’s Jon Orton pours concrete over his company’s radiant in-floor heating coils during the first of many Uponor Blitz Builds. The company donated all of the plumbing and radiant heating components for the project, as well as its new residential fire suppression sprinkler system.

    Courtesy St. Croix Valley Habitat

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    Longtime Habitat volunteers Roger Pavlis (right) and Rick Stefonek load Pavlis’ 1960s Farmall Feedmill with insulation scraps. The chipped bits of foam will be blown into the attics for extra insulation rather than ending up as waste in a landfill.

    Courtesy St. Croix Valley Habitat

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    Steve Tossie, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 14 installs electrical components in the first Eco Village home. IBEW Local 14 electricians volunteered on Saturdays to complete all electrical rough-ins.

    Courtesy St. Croix Valley Habitat

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    Community interest and support for the Eco Village has been overwhelming, says St. Croix Valley Habitat executive director Jim Farr. By mid-2012, the number of volunteer hours was already more than double the total number for all of 2011.

    Tracey Meyer

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    Families have been selected for the first six homes in the Eco Village and are actively involved in planning for the homeowner’s association. “I can’t say enough about what the family experiences have been to date on this project,” says Farr. “Neighbors are out there working shoulder-to-shoulder, and a community is actually being developed while they work on their sweat equity.”

    Maggie Sokoloski

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    Professor Brett Kallusky shoots future homeowner Beth Evans and her daughter Audrey. Kallusky’s students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls documented construction of the Eco Village. Students also are involved in the construction process, with one home being built entirely by the Chippewa Valley Technical College building program.

    Casey Kemper

Denver: Seeing Opportunities to Build Sustainably

It’s a big difference between where we were renting and our house, with the energy efficiency,” enthuses Habitat homeowner Sadik El Ghazal. “Our bills are so much lower than before.”

In 2009, Sadik and his family moved from a one-bedroom apartment into the first LEED-certified home built by Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver. The affiliate had been building to Energy Star standards since the late 1980s and decided to try its hand at LEED, hoping to reach Silver status. The enthusiasm for the project was such that the El Ghazals’ house ended up LEED Platinum.

Sadik El Ghazal and his wife Loubna

Sadik El Ghazal and his wife Loubna partnered with Habitat Metro Denver to build their energy-efficient home.

Courtesy Habitat Metro Denver

Habitat Metro Denver has long incorporated sustainable building techniques into its work, using a multitude of methods and certification standards. An openness to try new — and different — solutions has been key.

Like many of their Habitat peers, Habitat Metro Denver uses compact fluorescent lightbulbs and Energy Star-rated appliances and tries to maximize southern window exposure. The affiliate also uses 90-percent-efficient furnaces, low-flow toilets and tankless hot water heaters, which heat water faster than traditional ones and take up less space. Crawlspaces are insulated and mechanically vented, so there’s no exterior vent to leak cool air from the home. Floor vents are placed in the four corners of the home, allowing cool air to settle down into the crawlspace, where a fan slowly vents it outside, preventing the crawlspace from getting musty or moldy. Habitat Metro Denver staff members estimate that these sorts of measures help their homeowners save 30 to 40 percent on utility bills.

Last year, Habitat Metro Denver partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency on a pilot program to build the first affordable home in the country that was certified through three EPA programs: Energy Star Version 3, Indoor airPLUS and WaterSense. Energy Star rates the overall energy efficiency of the home, Indoor airPLUS focuses on creating healthy air inside the home, and WaterSense aims to cut down on wasted water. Together, the three programs ensure every aspect of a home is efficient and healthy, both for the environment and its inhabitants.

Habitat Metro Denver estimates its homeowners save 30 to 40 percent on their utility bills.

Habitat Metro Denver construction manager Mike Amoroso calls the pilot a perfect fit. “The transition to that trio of programs was a natural progression for our affiliate,” he says. “Those three programs speak directly to the needs of low-income families.”

Amoroso says the programs are simple and have the same components as LEED certification, a designation that Habitat Metro Denver often continues to pursue with help from yet another partner: the EverbuildPRO program.

Founded by Shane Gring, who began his career as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Boulder’s Flatirons Habitat for Humanity, EverbuildPRO helps construction professionals earn LEED accreditation while helping Habitat affiliates build LEED-certified homes at a lower cost.

The idea for the program began when Gring first learned about green building at Flatirons Habitat. He wanted to find ways for the affiliate to build LEED homes, but kept hitting a cost barrier. “I started networking in the green building space and met a lot of folks like myself who wanted to get into the green building industry, but were lacking access to green projects and lacking ways to get the initial experience to help kickstart their careers,” he explains. “So I started combining these two ideas and the concept of Everbuild came out.”

Sadik, Loubna and daughter Aya

Sadik, Loubna and daughter Aya were all smiles after moving into Habitat Metro Denver’s first LEED-certified home.

Courtesy Habitat Metro Denver

Students in the EverbuildPRO program get required building hours on Habitat sites while handling administrative tasks for the home’s LEED certification. EverbuildPRO currently works with eight Habitat affiliates in six states.

Habitat Metro Denver isn’t through exploring new opportunities and ideas. Recently, the affiliate was approached by GRID Alternatives, a California company that has partnered with several Habitat affiliates to provide solar panels for Habitat homes. Habitat Metro Denver hasn’t done much with solar energy in the past because the affiliate’s newly constructed homes are so energy-efficient already. “That said,” Amoroso explains, “we reviewed their program, and we aligned them with partner families that had moved into their homes and been living in them for almost 10 years now.”

What’s most important, Amoroso says, is that we “get to what really matters for our families.” In many cases, it’s going green that helps make that happen.