Greening Habitat for Humanity

In the fall of 1995, a group of architects, environmentalists and builders converged on Atlanta for a symposium on encouraging low-cost green home design in the non-profit sector. “There’s nobody out there really focusing on affordable green housing,” says Global Green USA Executive Director Matt Petersen, whose group co-sponsored the conference with Habitat for Humanity, the Department of Energy (DOE) and several private foundations.

In June 1995, Habitat launched the Environmental Initiative Partnership to “discover and share ways of building simple decent houses that are resource-efficient and responsible in their design, construction and maintenance,” says a Habitat press release.

Habitat for Humanity
Habitat’s volunteer’s are learning the principles of environmental design and construction methods. Credit: Photo by Robert Baker/Habitat for Humanity

Global Green is helping to teach Habitat affiliates the fundamentals of simple passive solar design, hazardous paints disposal, and waste recycling from construction sites, and to broaden the concept of affordable housing to include issues such as ongoing expenses for utilities, availability of transportation and ability to grow food.

At least 20 Habitat affiliates are presently building low-cost houses incorporating green concepts. The average cost of a Habitat home, in the area of 1,000 square feet, is $38,000—including land, permitting costs, skilled subcontractors and materials at market value, but not including general labor, which for Habitat is all volunteer.

Habitat’s target clients, however, are limited to people at 20 percent of the median income level. But because Habitat has a unique specialty in low-cost housing and has over 1,400 affiliates in 50 states (which built some 3,800 houses in 1996), the organization’s work may eventually “trickle up” to other low-cost housing developments and to individuals of any income level looking to build an affordable green home.

Habitat’s house designs evolve on the local level in loosely confederated affiliates, and aren’t formally made available to the general public. But according to Frank Purvis, director of Environment for Habitat International in Americus, Georgia, anyone is welcome to contact a Habitat affiliate and ask for house plans: “If you want to build with our plans, we’d be more than happy to help you.”

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