Illustration: Black and white drawing of 10 house plans of varying dimensions.

Habitat House Design Contest: Building a solid foundation

By design, Habitat for Humanity homes provide a strong foundation for families to flourish.

That foundation begins with homes that are affordable, durable, healthy and easy to maintain for years to come. Habitat house plans are often uniquely crafted to meet the needs of individual communities, with local Habitats across the U.S. building homes inspired by local styles, climate and materials.

During our inaugural Habitat House Design Contest in 2020, generously sponsored by Simpson Strong-Tie, more than 100 Habitat affiliates submitted their plans for sustainable, resilient homes to help families in their communities thrive.

See which Habitat designs were selected as the best in affordable home design and construction:

Best in Accessibility

When Katie and Dale needed an accessible home for their son, Anthony, Lakes Area Habitat answered the call. The Minnesota-based affiliate developed a plan for a single-level house with features including a roll-in shower and wide hallways for the family of three, who were living in a rental where the doorways were too small to fit Anthony’s wheelchair.

“Every time that Dale and Katie moved from room to room with Anthony in the place they were renting or tried to enter or leave their home, they had to lift him out of his wheelchair and transfer him to another chair,” says executive director Kevin Pelkey. Now, the family is thriving in a fully accessible home.

Best in Sustainability

Pioneer Valley Habitat knows that even small homes make a big difference. As part of their Big Enough Initiative, the affiliate developed a house plan for a 650-square-foot home that requires little energy to maintain, passing along savings on utilities to the homeowner.

“We were looking to build a small footprint house, which reduces the amount of material to use, which is very sustainable,” says executive director Megan McDonough. “Also, the smaller the house, the less square footage you have to heat, so that also helps with long-term affordability for the homeowner to operate the home, the initial cost to build it and the long-term impact on the planet.”

Best in Affordability

To help keep homes affordable in their city, where demand for homes is high and supply is low, Habitat Missoula developed a house plan that uses materials found in almost any region of the country without sacrificing design elements that make a house a home. “We tried to make sure that we had a good-quality design from a human level that took into consideration ways to try and save some dollars,” says executive director Heather Harp. “So there’s not a lot of architectural elements that add costs, they just add beauty at a reasonable price.” Those design details include opting for an uncovered porch and placing windows at the right locations to take advantage of sunlight during daytime hours.

Best in Resiliency

When an older couple donated land to Habitat Hillsborough County, the affiliate developed a plan for the property that would stand the test of the time — and a major storm. The house plan called for a metal roof designed to withstand 145-mph winds, steel-reinforced concrete block walls and water-resistant flooring. These features of the home not only help protect the homeowners, but also help reduce insurance costs.

“We’re in Florida. We’re particularly in a place susceptible to storms, increasing storms with climate change,” says chief operating officer Ron Spoor. “For us to ensure that our homeowners have a decent place to live, it compels us to ensure that our homes have a level of resiliency and sustainability that promotes long-term success.”

Best Multifamily

Multifamily developments are a go-to solution for Habitat Portland Region. “There’s a lot of need for housing and affordable housing in the city,” says project manager Melissa Robson. “We are trying to provide as many homes as possible in a way that makes the most sense for us in our communities.”

The plan for the affiliate’s multifamily project in southeast Portland features 40 homes, including six single-story homes for families who have accessibility needs.

Best Layout

When Evergreen Habitat found themselves with a narrow plot of land and a need to design a home for a family of six, they were excited by the challenge. “With that specific plan, we were designing for a very strange lot,” says construction manager Courtney Patterson. The affiliate members put their heads together to develop a linear home that features a long hallway and offers flexibility for adding additions or reorienting the house plan for future use.

Best Plan Set

At Habitat, house plans have to be clear enough for homeowners and volunteers to follow and intricate enough for subcontractors to understand how the home will be constructed. Habitat Coastal Fairfield County achieved both requirements with their plan set for a veteran’s home near Long Island Sound in Connecticut.

“When you have planned for Habitat homes, you are working with vendors and subcontractors who need enough specificity to know what they’re doing, and you’re also working with volunteers who need to be able to entertain what you’re looking at. Then you’re also working with families,” says chief executive officer Cathy Collins. “So it’s striking that balance of all the different people that we interact with when building homes.”

Best Construction Partnership

Partnerships with local organizations are integral to the success of Junction City/Harrisburg/Monroe Habitat  and their ability to partner with families in local communities to build safe and decent homes. A partnership with a nearby high school has helped students in woodshop class learn the value of giving back while building bathroom vanities and garage cabinets for Habitat homes.

“The key point is to show students the benefits of volunteering and give them the opportunity to see how helping others can really be a rewarding aspect of their lives,” says George Anderson, who has been a construction volunteer with the affiliate for 13 years.

Best Innovative Solution

When Habitat Seattle - King County had the opportunity to build homes in south Seattle, they got creative to serve more families. “The only way that we can develop properties in Seattle metro is by taking advantage of zoning allowances to increase density,” says Patrick Sullivan, director of real estate and development. The organization’s innovative approach to maximizing their density – and impact – transformed a plot of land where once one single-family home stood into 13 homes, lowering the cost of land per unit and increasing affordability.

Best Low Carbon Footprint

Designing eco-friendly homes is a top priority for Gunnison Valley Habitat. The affiliate developed a plan for an all-electric home with efficient appliances and solar panels that is projected to produce two and a half times the amount of energy it uses annually. The house plan calls for locally sourced materials that have a low environmental impact.

“I think that as stewards of God’s green earth, we should care about our environment, how we’re building the health of our environments, the people who are producing the materials, our volunteers who are using the material and our homeowners that are eventually living in the home,” says executive director Julianne Robinson. “We should think about all those things and build more eco-friendly.”

Best Equity and Inclusion Through Construction

When two high-rise buildings were brought down in the Sharswood neighborhood as part of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s neighborhood transformation plan, a new opportunity to build an inclusive, mixed-income development blossomed in their place. The historically middle-class Black neighborhood of Sharswood had been one of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in the city since the 60s and was facing the pressure of gentrification by surrounding neighborhoods.

Through a partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and a coalition of community partners, Habitat Philadelphia joined the effort to revitalize the neighborhood by designing a plan for 20 new affordable homes and 68 repairs to existing homes. “As all the boats are rising, you’ve got to have a boat to catch that tide,” says chief executive officer Corrine O’Connell. “Why not have this neighborhood be on the upswing, but allow and empower neighbors who have been there for 30 years to enjoy that upswing as well?”

The 2020 Affiliate Choice Award

Habitat Greenville County developed a house plan that can be adapted for a variety of homeowners with accessibility needs. Their plan features core dimensions that don’t change, even if the purpose of the room does. “If it ain’t broke, make it better” is the mantra of the affiliate according to president and CEO Monroe Free. “We believe in constantly reevaluating ourselves and looking for things that we can do better, so that we better serve our families.”

The 2020 Design of the Year

Santa Fe Habitat believes in building green and designing homes that reflect the cultural heritage of northern New Mexico and the Southwest. “We want to do our best to respect the environment, respect the community, and build what’s important to us and to our donors and in the community,” says executive director Kurt Krahn.

That’s why the affiliate developed a house plan that is energy-efficient, including using solar panels to power the home with clean and renewable energy and installing rain barrels on the roof to catch rainwater for later use in Santa Fe’s high desert environment. The home is located in a mixed-income neighborhood that utilizes a water treatment plant to recycle water back to the neighborhood for use in watering outdoor gardens and plants.

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Best in Accessibility

When Katie and Dale needed an accessible home for their son, Anthony, Lakes Area Habitat answered the call. The Minnesota-based affiliate developed a plan for a single-level house with features including a roll-in shower and wide hallways for the family of three, who were living in a rental where the doorways were too small to fit Anthony’s wheelchair.

“Every time that Dale and Katie moved from room to room with Anthony in the place they were renting or tried to enter or leave their home, they had to lift him out of his wheelchair and transfer him to another chair,” says executive director Kevin Pelkey. Now, the family is thriving in a fully accessible home.

Best in Sustainability

Pioneer Valley Habitat knows that even small homes make a big difference. As part of their Big Enough Initiative, the affiliate developed a house plan for a 650-square-foot home that requires little energy to maintain, passing along savings on utilities to the homeowner.

“We were looking to build a small footprint house, which reduces the amount of material to use, which is very sustainable,” says executive director Megan McDonough. “Also, the smaller the house, the less square footage you have to heat, so that also helps with long-term affordability for the homeowner to operate the home, the initial cost to build it and the long-term impact on the planet.”

Best in Affordability

To help keep homes affordable in their city, where demand for homes is high and supply is low, Habitat Missoula developed a house plan that uses materials found in almost any region of the country without sacrificing design elements that make a house a home. “We tried to make sure that we had a good-quality design from a human level that took into consideration ways to try and save some dollars,” says executive director Heather Harp. “So there’s not a lot of architectural elements that add costs, they just add beauty at a reasonable price.” Those design details include opting for an uncovered porch and placing windows at the right locations to take advantage of sunlight during daytime hours.

Best in Resiliency

When an older couple donated land to Habitat Hillsborough County, the affiliate developed a plan for the property that would stand the test of the time — and a major storm. The house plan called for a metal roof designed to withstand 145-mph winds, steel-reinforced concrete block walls and water-resistant flooring. These features of the home not only help protect the homeowners, but also help reduce insurance costs.

“We’re in Florida. We’re particularly in a place susceptible to storms, increasing storms with climate change,” says chief operating officer Ron Spoor. “For us to ensure that our homeowners have a decent place to live, it compels us to ensure that our homes have a level of resiliency and sustainability that promotes long-term success.”

Best Multifamily

Multifamily developments are a go-to solution for Habitat Portland Region. “There’s a lot of need for housing and affordable housing in the city,” says project manager Melissa Robson. “We are trying to provide as many homes as possible in a way that makes the most sense for us in our communities.”

The plan for the affiliate’s multifamily project in southeast Portland features 40 homes, including six single-story homes for families who have accessibility needs.

Best Layout

When Evergreen Habitat found themselves with a narrow plot of land and a need to design a home for a family of six, they were excited by the challenge. “With that specific plan, we were designing for a very strange lot,” says construction manager Courtney Patterson. The affiliate members put their heads together to develop a linear home that features a long hallway and offers flexibility for adding additions or reorienting the house plan for future use.

Best Plan Set

At Habitat, house plans have to be clear enough for homeowners and volunteers to follow and intricate enough for subcontractors to understand how the home will be constructed. Habitat Coastal Fairfield County achieved both requirements with their plan set for a veteran’s home near Long Island Sound in Connecticut.

“When you have planned for Habitat homes, you are working with vendors and subcontractors who need enough specificity to know what they’re doing, and you’re also working with volunteers who need to be able to entertain what you’re looking at. Then you’re also working with families,” says chief executive officer Cathy Collins. “So it’s striking that balance of all the different people that we interact with when building homes.”

Best Construction Partnership

Partnerships with local organizations are integral to the success of Junction City/Harrisburg/Monroe Habitat  and their ability to partner with families in local communities to build safe and decent homes. A partnership with a nearby high school has helped students in woodshop class learn the value of giving back while building bathroom vanities and garage cabinets for Habitat homes.

“The key point is to show students the benefits of volunteering and give them the opportunity to see how helping others can really be a rewarding aspect of their lives,” says George Anderson, who has been a construction volunteer with the affiliate for 13 years.

Best Innovative Solution

When Habitat Seattle - King County had the opportunity to build homes in south Seattle, they got creative to serve more families. “The only way that we can develop properties in Seattle metro is by taking advantage of zoning allowances to increase density,” says Patrick Sullivan, director of real estate and development. The organization’s innovative approach to maximizing their density – and impact – transformed a plot of land where once one single-family home stood into 13 homes, lowering the cost of land per unit and increasing affordability.

Best Low Carbon Footprint

Designing eco-friendly homes is a top priority for Gunnison Valley Habitat. The affiliate developed a plan for an all-electric home with efficient appliances and solar panels that is projected to produce two and a half times the amount of energy it uses annually. The house plan calls for locally sourced materials that have a low environmental impact.

“I think that as stewards of God’s green earth, we should care about our environment, how we’re building the health of our environments, the people who are producing the materials, our volunteers who are using the material and our homeowners that are eventually living in the home,” says executive director Julianne Robinson. “We should think about all those things and build more eco-friendly.”

Best Equity and Inclusion Through Construction

When two high-rise buildings were brought down in the Sharswood neighborhood as part of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s neighborhood transformation plan, a new opportunity to build an inclusive, mixed-income development blossomed in their place. The historically middle-class Black neighborhood of Sharswood had been one of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in the city since the 60s and was facing the pressure of gentrification by surrounding neighborhoods.

Through a partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority and a coalition of community partners, Habitat Philadelphia joined the effort to revitalize the neighborhood by designing a plan for 20 new affordable homes and 68 repairs to existing homes. “As all the boats are rising, you’ve got to have a boat to catch that tide,” says chief executive officer Corrine O’Connell. “Why not have this neighborhood be on the upswing, but allow and empower neighbors who have been there for 30 years to enjoy that upswing as well?”

The 2020 Affiliate Choice Award

Habitat Greenville County developed a house plan that can be adapted for a variety of homeowners with accessibility needs. Their plan features core dimensions that don’t change, even if the purpose of the room does. “If it ain’t broke, make it better” is the mantra of the affiliate according to president and CEO Monroe Free. “We believe in constantly reevaluating ourselves and looking for things that we can do better, so that we better serve our families.”

The 2020 Design of the Year

Santa Fe Habitat believes in building green and designing homes that reflect the cultural heritage of northern New Mexico and the Southwest. “We want to do our best to respect the environment, respect the community, and build what’s important to us and to our donors and in the community,” says executive director Kurt Krahn.

That’s why the affiliate developed a house plan that is energy-efficient, including using solar panels to power the home with clean and renewable energy and installing rain barrels on the roof to catch rainwater for later use in Santa Fe’s high desert environment. The home is located in a mixed-income neighborhood that utilizes a water treatment plant to recycle water back to the neighborhood for use in watering outdoor gardens and plants.