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Any color you like, as long as it’s green -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Any color you like, as long as it’s green

Rising energy costs and environmental awareness power a new emphasis on building tighter, more efficient homes
By Rebekah Daniel

 

 

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When passersby glance at Robin Marks’ house in Indianapolis, they might notice that the grass is nicely cut or that the front porch would be a convenient place to put the groceries down and fish for the key.

They would see evergreen landscaping and durable-looking siding. Close observers might even see evidence of the two children who live there—a toy drum in the entryway or a glimpse of a High School Musical decorating theme through a bedroom window.

They won’t see the $50 per month that Robin doesn’t have to pay the electric company to power her energy-efficient appliances and fluorescent light bulbs. As the owner of one of Greater Indianapolis Habitat for Humanity’s “green” homes, Robin enjoys paying as much as 50 percent less in energy bills than she did when she lived in a two-bedroom apartment.

And as a single mom and teacher at a private day care, every little bit helps. “Either I put it away and save it for the kids or get odds and ends for the house,” she says. “Most of the time, I save it for the emergency fund in case the car breaks down or something happens.”

An emergency fund, the real possibility of a short family vacation, the cushion that protects parents from anxiety about birthdays with no gift—these “treats” are offshoots of green building, a construction trend that is good both for homeowners and the world they live in.

A green process for a greener result

The green building movement is a broad umbrella sheltering everyone, from the eco-conscious couple who chooses sustainably harvested hardwoods for the floors in their otherwise traditional house to the eco-adventurous homesteader living off the grid in a cabin in the woods. The concept isn’t new. Environmentally conscious home buyers, especially those with the means to afford luxury housing, have had an array of products available to them for years. Green affordable housing, however, has lagged despite the growing market for houses with lower operating costs and the obvious health benefits of living in a dry, clean house—until recently.

In the last several years, Habitat for Humanity affiliates have had an increasing number of green building resources at their disposal: new high-efficiency products at lower prices, better publicized building techniques, partnerships that share costs, and standardized rating criteria to evaluate energy use. And as it turns out, the leap to green building has not been as far or as risky as some Habitat affiliates anticipated.

When Dallas Area Habitat agreed to take on a project called Frazier Courtyards, it found that many of the practices it originally had adopted to save money were considered green as well. Building in already-urban areas and reusing existing utility hookups is green; Frazier Courtyards is a 51-house development on the site of a former housing authority project. Building modestly sized houses that fit families’ needs without wasting space is green; of the 40 houses Habitat is scheduled to build, 13 will be “empty nesters”—824-square-foot, 2-bedroom and 1-bath garden homes to be sold to partner families who no longer need extra bedrooms to support growing families.

“Some of what we’ve been doing is kind of incremental from what we were already doing,” says Leo Putchinsky, deputy director with Dallas Area Habitat. “For the last five years, we’ve been building our walls in the shop. That lets us minimize the wasted lumber on site. We have a volunteer that lays out the homes in the most efficient use of lumber that we can in terms of how the walls are built. Best building practices are greener.”

Treading lightly

The philosophy of reducing waste, recycling everything possible and taking advantage of energy efficiencies during construction can result in a home as green as the construction practices that built it. In 2005, Metro Denver Habitat for Humanity partnered with energy experts to build a house that completes each year with a net-zero energy bill.

“The Zero Energy House is a result of a partnership with the National Renewable Energy Lab,” says Bruce Carpenter, construction manager at Metro Denver Habitat. “We typically will partner with the experts and understand what the cutting edge innovations are, and then determine what we can actually do. Part of our philosophy is to learn what we can, take what we can and leave the rest.”

The process of learning the most energy-efficient techniques and adapting them to Habitat’s volunteer-friendly, cost-conscious methods means the affiliate sometimes walks a line between being willing to experiment with new products and staying careful to spend donor dollars wisely. Through the years, however, Metro Denver Habitat has derived a list of energy-saving techniques that apply to each house build, some of which are now included in the housing code, Carpenter says.

“I’ve been here 11 years, and since early on we have, as most affiliates have, tried to limit the operational cost of our families’ houses,” Carpenter says. “We don’t want to give anyone a mortgage and have them not be able to afford the utilities. We’re always about passive solar, having the orientations correct, the right amount of windows and right amount of glass.”

A breath of fresh air

New York City is not the fi rst place that might come to mind when people think of green building, but Habitat for Humanity New York City executive director Josh Lockwood thinks perhaps it should be.

“In some ways, living in New York City is a much greener way to live than living in another part of the country where things are more spread out and the population is not so dense,” he says. “Our carbon footprint is much smaller because we live in small spaces, we use public transportation, and the rate of car ownership is far less. Land is scarce here, so when we get a piece of land here at New York Habitat … we build up and accommodate more families.”

As a case in point, the affiliate is in the midst of building a 41-unit multi-family housing development in Brooklyn that takes environmental impact, and especially indoor air quality, very seriously. In addition to building with non-toxic finishes, New York City’s Habitat houses feature timer-controlled mechanical ventilation to ensure an adequate supply of fresh air.

“We had found that many of the families we were serving, before they moved into their Habitat housing, were suffering from childhood asthma and other ailments related to volatile organic compounds and paints and sealants,” Lockwood says. “We thought it was important to build green for the physical health of the families.”

Looking ahead

Though few would dispute the benefits of green building from an environmental or energy-savings point of view, there are extra costs involved: Energy-efficient appliances are more expensive, and formaldehyde-free cabinetry could be harder to find, for example. However, many other green techniques are cost-neutral if planned for in advance. After all, if the landscaping includes a new sapling anyway, why not plant it where it will grow to shade the house during hot, sunny afternoons?

Habitat affiliates continue to explore the new opportunities green building offers as a natural outgrowth of the constant desire to build more houses for more families with less unnecessary expense and waste.

“As a mission-based and faith-based organization, we see ourselves as stewards of our planet,” Lockwood says, “and an important component of building as a faith-based organization is taking care of this earth. If we can create homes that are more beneficial to the people and environment, that’s a great thing.”

Habitat keeps energy efficiency and affordable design in mind as it builds around the world. Look for international examples of green building in the June 2009 issue.