Building Green

Energy Efficiency Takes Root at Habitat for Humanity

Can low-income home builders afford the luxury of going green? That question is being vigorously tested at some Habitat for Humanity affiliates.

These New York-based Habitat for Humanity workers are using green building materials to create energy-efficient low-income homes.© Connie Sargent/Habitat For Humanity Nyc

The most common green building approach used in Habitat homes—many of which are three-bedroom, one-bath dwellings built for under $50,000—is to meet Energy Star ratings. That’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard that specs a 20 to 30 percent savings in energy costs, achieved by installing efficient appliances and lighting, super-insulating the home and tightly sealing the building envelope. Affiliates also seek ways to boost indoor air quality by reducing or eliminating products that offgas volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Call this a "light green" construction approach.

"We want energy efficiency to be our standard model, not an upgrade," says Nevil Eastwood, director of construction and environmental resources at Habitat for Humanity International in Americus, Georgia.

Each of the 1,700 U.S. Habitat affiliates controls its own building practices, and some want to go further. "I want to give the impression that yes, we’re very open to that, and there are a few affiliates doing that," Eastwood says. "But we’re building homes for people who are earning about 30 percent of the median income for the area, so that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room."

To get to "medium green," says Kevin Sullivan, advocacy director for Habitat’s New York City affiliate in Brooklyn, the group considers practices that are good for the community, such as water efficiency and resource conservation. A "dark green" approach, he says, makes choices good for the planet, like site selection and alternative energy.

Decisions mainly hinge on cost, as Habitat homes are built with a combination of fundraising, donated materials and volunteer labor. Products also must pass building codes and be readily available. Durability and maintenance are factors too.

"Affordability and energy saving measures fit perfectly with Habitat goals," says Darryl Yankee, director of resource development at Habitat for Humanity of Ventura County, in Oxnard, California. "We sell homes to families for the cost of construction, so anything we put in there that’s an additional up-front cost to the family needs to pay off in a reasonable amount of time."

For most affiliates, that means getting the best possible performance from a heating system. "You can almost directly correlate energy costs and whether families are able to pay their mortgages," Sullivan says.

Using low-emissivity-rated windows, a sealed-combustion boiler, extra air sealing and better insulation, the Butte, Montana affiliate is building "super-insulated high-performance houses" with annual heating costs of $250, half what is spent for a typical Butte home.

Homes built by Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity in Franklin, West Virginia might cost $5,000 more to make energy efficient, adding $20 to the monthly mortgage payment, says Executive Director Michelle Connor. "If we can cut that family’s utility bill from $60 to $20, we’re saving that family $40 a month," she says. "We have to fund-raise more, but it’s a net savings to the family, so that’s an easy sell."

Higher-cost green building products are not yet widely in use, unless donations or subsidies make them affordable. In California, subsidies and rebates can pay for up to 75 percent of solar energy costs, bringing the additional cost down to about $2,000 per home. "That’s something we can justify," Yankee says. "They"ll make that back in a couple of years of energy savings."

After trying homes made of soil blocks and straw bales, Almost Heaven turned back to more mainstream materials. The group now uses insulated concrete floors that include hot-water radiant heating. The installation is cost effective because of trained volunteer labor. Walls are built with "structural insulated panel" systems, rigid foam sandwiched between oriented-strand-board plywood that provides continuous insulation and fewer thermal breaks. "We’ve completely abandoned traditional stick construction and fiberglass insulation in the quest for energy efficiency," Connor says. In the snowy Allegheny Mountains, "Our families can heat their homes for $20 a month."

Such an integrated, whole-house design is promoted by the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council, which sets standards that some affiliates seek to meet. The Habitat New York City affiliate’s holistic view goes even further, with a mission that includes this statement: "We believe green building is about health, wealth and justice."

Reducing the level of airborne toxics fights "epidemic asthma rates" seen in low-income urban neighborhoods, which Sullivan says "is a matter of environmental justice for inner-city residents." A home "turns into wealth for the family," he explains. "It will be the engine that provides a college education for their kids and stable retirement for the owners. A more healthy and more durable home simply accelerates that process of wealth creation."

Sullivan says his organization has learned to not always chase government incentives. It used an Energy Star-rated light fixture, for instance, that had a design flaw causing the fluorescent bulb’s ballast to heat up and prematurely burn it out. Some homes got a "super energy-efficient boiler" that plumbers and electricians did not know how to install, causing cost overruns and accountability problems.

Choosing a higher-quality boiler, however, is still a good decision, Sullivan says, because of its life cycle. "It comes with a better warranty, there will not be as much maintenance, and it will last longer."

Use and care by the homeowner should be considered. "If it’s a different kind of light fixture, are they going to be able to get the bulb easily?" asks Yankee. "These are families that are working two jobs, often, and don’t have time to surf the net or chase all over town to find that bulb." Most are first-time homeowners, so they are unfamiliar with maintenance issues.

But while cost and use drive the decision to become more verdant, other benefits may result. "Using green standards is making us a lot more attractive to some of the cities," says Yankee, whose organization, like most affiliates, relies on donated land on which to build. "We use it as a marketing piece, and it certainly has gotten the attention of city officials." If they’re planned to also include easy access to public transit, Habitat developments can also improve sprawl and traffic problems.

Sullivan recently gave a presentation on green building to a National Enterprise Council event, which included civic authorities in the audience. "They’re looking at these models we’re trying to create and thinking about how to shape policy and replicate them," he says.

Potential donors and volunteers are drawn in too, says Yankee. "It’s attracted folks to our mission that have a passion for green issues but maybe weren&

#39;t necessarily thinking about the affordable housing issue."

Almost Heaven’s Connor finds that alternative building practices look good on grant applications—and make Habitat cool. "A high school student or college student is our typical volunteer," she says. "They absolutely want to hear that an organization they work with has a plan for the future that includes being on the planet."