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Habitat for Humanity Gets a Green Makeover

November 01, 2004
November/December 2004
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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        From Seattle,Washington, to Westchester,New York, lowincome housing is turning a shade greener. Since 1992, the program known for building homes for lowincome families, Habitat for Humanity, has started to build with an emphasis on incorporating green and energyefficient techniques. Many Habitat for Humanity affiliates have completed or are completing projects that exemplify green and energy-efficient building. Jennifer Langton, with the Construction and Environmental Resources department at Habitat for Humanity International, says that energy-efficient building is happening nationwide at Habitat. “We have many affiliates building energy-efficient houses,” says Langton.“ A few off the top of my head are the Seattle and also the Olympia,Washington, affiliates. HFH of Southwest Montana in Butte is another very excellent example.The affiliates in Denver, Colorado, and Tucson,Arizona, also build all Energy Star or equivalent houses. There are many smaller affiliates too that build this way.”
        An innovative green building project has been implemented by the South Puget Sound Habitat for Humanity (SPSHFH) affiliate. In January 2002, SPSHFH, in cooperation with a group of design students from Evergreen State College,worked together to design an energy- and resource-efficient singlefamily home.A grant from the Russell Family Foundation has also provided funds for a series of workshops and lectures related to the project. Subjects covered have included alternative building materials and systems; codes and zoning for green homes; financing, insuring, and rating green homes; thermal performance and passive-solar design; lighting design; landscaping and storm water drainage; and numerous other topics. Construction of this home, located on Brawne Street in northwest Olympia, started in January 2004.
        Another affiliate mentioned by Langton, Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Montana in Butte, is the first Habitat for Humanity affiliate to generate power from PV panels into the grid through the High Performance Housing Partnership program.The HP2 program has produced homes that use 40%-50% less energy than homes built to current codes. Heating costs for HP2 homes are less than $250 a year.The PV panels on these homes cover 50%- 100% of the electrical load.The first PV-powered home was built in Butte by a volunteer team. Only Habitat homes that have south-facing rooftops can participate in the HP2 program, since these homes already have a high energy standard. Solar systems for this program were donated by the Montana Power Company.
        Another affiliate dedicated to the use of solar power is Habitat for Humanity of El Paso, which has been building energy-efficient, passive-solar homes since 1994.The choice of passive-solar design for these homes was based partly on energy efficiency, since passive solar design saves homeowners $25 or more a month in utility bills while adding only $5 to their monthly mortgage payments.The passive-solar design of Habitat for Humanity homes in El Paso has been so successful that the affiliate rewrote its bylaws to require passivesolar design in all its homes. Habitat for Humanity is also the first builder in El Paso to earn Energy Star certification.
        Some of the other energy-saving designs used in Habitat for Humanity of El Paso homes include climateappropriate R-13 wall insulation, insulated air gap windows and steel insulated doors, programmable thermostats, white shingles to reduce heat absorption, low-cost gas appliances, fluorescent light fixtures, ceiling fans, low-flow plumbing fixtures, and ceramic tiles that work as part of the passive-solar design.
        In 2003, Habitat for Humanity of Westchester,New York, along with HUD’s Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) program, the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), and Steven Winter Associates, Incorporated (SWA), dedicated new homes that were made with environmentally friendly products and sustainable design. Most notable is these homes’ use of renewable energy in the form of PV panels.The roofs of these homes support 1.2 kW PV systems consisting of ten 120W panels. New York State has subsidized the initial cost of the PV systems through Habitat of Westchester’s participation in the New York Energy Star-labeled Home Demonstration Project.

Energy Star and Habitat

        The Energy Star program has partnered with many Habitat projects to increase the homes’ levels of energy efficiency. In 2002, the Arizona Energy Office helped Habitat for Humanity to track down the source of higher utility bills incurred by some of its new homes.After conducting an extensive energy audit of several Habitat homes in Phoenix, the Energy Office made several recommendations for saving energy and improving the new homes’ comfort levels.The energy-saving ideas included sealing ducts and installing separate swamp cooler and air conditioning duct systems.The Energy Office also worked with the subcontractors to improve installation of air conditioning equipment and insulation.Thanks in part to the involvement of the Energy Office, Habitat for Humanity has now adopted all the energy-saving recommendations and is a participant in the home Energy Star program.
        The combination of Energy Star initiatives and economical homes made sense, and Habitat for Humanity affiliates in other states soon followed suit. Idaho built its first Energy Starqualified Habitat for Humanity home the next year.The house featured increased insulation and double-pane windows, and was carefully sealed to prevent drafts.An advanced ventilation system was also installed.
        Energy Star homes use at least 30% less energy than a home built to Model Energy Code standards.To encourage the construction of such homes, programs such as the New Millennium Builder Awards reward home builders who use energy-efficient construction methods that benefit homeowners by providing increased comfort, health and safety, durability, and affordability.
        In 2003, Habitat for Humanity of Metro Denver received the Energy Star New Millennium Builder Award for an energy-efficient home built in partnership with the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).The Westminster, Colorado, home scored 95.9 out of a possible 100 on the Energy Star rating system scale. Homes must score at least 86 points to receive an Energy Star certification.
        Most recently, the Arundel, Maryland, Habitat affiliate built its first Energy Star-labeled home.The home was built in Annapolis in February 2004. As part of the Energy Star program, CFLs will be installed in eight new homes being constructed by Arundel Habitat for Humanity during their fiscal year 2005.These CFLs, which use 75% less energy than traditional light bulbs , will save the eight homeowners a total of $2,000 over the next eight years

Economics 101

        Given Habitat for Humanity’s limited budget per individual home, none of these measures would be feasible if they didn’t make economic sense.Although the initial cost of many green and energy-efficient materials may be higher than the cost of traditional building materials, monetary and material donations from companies often compensate for the higher price tag.Any higher cost sustained by green and energy-efficient materials will also be compensated by significantly lower monthly utility bills—and by a healthier, safer home.
        “In our U.S.Area,we have what we call the Standards of Excellence in Construction,” says Jennifer Langton, referring to the policy initiated through the Construction and Environmental Resources department at Habitat for Humanity.“There is a minimum, an acceptable, and then a best practice level. Building all Energy Star houses is one of our best practices. A lot of us feel that this is just a start with setting policy.”

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