ecoMOD Squad: When sustainable gets obtainable?

onarch-ecomod-elliot-dan-jrCharlottesville Habitat for Humanity executive director Dan Rosensweig and Environment Virginia's J.R. Tolbert hope ecoMOD4 on Elliot Avenue will lead to more affordable, yet green, home building.

While Habitat for Humanity is usually known for building simple affordable houses for low-income families in record time, a project on the corner of Ridge Street and Elliot Avenue marks the first time our local chapter has embraced cutting-edge green design.

“Habitat does green to push the envelope,” says Charlottesville Habitat executive director Dan Rosensweig, “but sustainable still has to be obtainable.”

Indeed, that could be the motto for the UVA Architecture School’s renowned ecoMOD initiative, a home-building laboratory of sorts. The ecoMODers use the latest green building technologies and modular design expertise to create prototype homes that are both affordable and models of energy efficiency.

For the house on Elliot, dubbed ecoMOD4, a team of UVA architects, engineers, and grad students (who do most of the day-to-day planning and grunt work) partnered with Habitat and the City of Charlottesville (which donated the land) to create a 2-bedroom, 900- 1,158 square-foot modular home (constructed in an old hangar at the UVA-owned Milton Airfield and later trucked to the building site) with a geothermal heat pump, advanced foam insulation, and an array of photovoltaic devices they hope will power the heating and cooling systems of the house–- all with a grant-funded budget of around $120,000.

What’s more, the state-of-the-art green house will be going to a couple who couldn’t otherwise afford a low-tech home in Charlottesville.

“Forty percent of our energy is used by buildings,” says J.R. Tolbert of Environment Virginia, who was recently at the Elliot Avenue house with Rosensweig to tout the project. “We’re using too much energy in our homes, and the ecoMOD house is a great example of a high-efficiency home for low-end buyers.”

Unfortunately, it took a veritable army of brainiacs more than a year to create the house, and while UVA profs, deans, City leaders, former students, and others gathered at the house in December for a self-congratulatory ribbon-cutting, making such houses readily available to home owners is another matter.

“This will be a test case for future Habitat initiatives,” says Rosensweig. “If Habitat can set the standard, we hope other builders will follow suit.”

Indeed, like the other ecoMOD homes, this one’s construction budget and performance will be closely monitored. For instance, at the first ecoMOD house in Fifeville, UVA engineers were able to determine how much every load of laundry costs the owners and exactly how much energy is used at every electrical outlet in the house.

“The marketplace is responding,” claims Tolbert, thanks to organizations like the Virginia Sustainable Building Network–- and in no small part to $16 billion of the federal government’s stimulus money set aside for efficiency-boosting retro-fit and weatherization programs.

Add to that the Department of Energy’s long-running Weatherization Assistance Program and local initiatives like LEAP, which seek to facilitate energy-efficient retro-fits, and other federal incentive programs under consideration–- like Home Star and Building Star–- and Tolbert thinks we could see a trend in the building industry toward greener yet more affordable homes beginning to take shape.

And as Tolbert also points out, there are efforts to put green building practices into local and state-wide building codes.

“Meeting our efficiency goals would reduce Virginia’s projected building energy consumption by 37 percent over the next 20 years,” claims Tolbert.

Meanwhile, Nasima and Fazel Andesha, a Pakistani couple who’ve been on a Habitat waiting list for some time and who worked side-by-side with the student construction crew, wait patiently to move into their new home. A move-in date last December touted at the ribbon-cutting and in the local press, was canceled when “a couple of setbacks with regard to hooking up to water and sewer” delayed the project, says Rosensweig, but he says the deal should be sealed within the next two weeks.

“There have been many things scheduled in the past and then canceled at the last minute,” says Nasima, but she adds that she and her husband are still happy to be moving into the new house.

Meanwhile, a project is already in the works for the deteriorating old house beside the Andeshas', says Rosensweig. There, UVA’s ecoMODers, in partnership with the City, plan to perform a low-cost green remodel, dubbed ecoREMOD, and leave it open as a “teaching” house for people interested in learning more about retro-fitting their homes to be greener. That project should get under way this fall.


Meeting our efficiency goals would reduce Virginia’s projected building energy consumption by 37 percent over the next 20 years,” claims Tolbert.

Really? meeting your "efficiency" goals? At what economic cost to taxpayers for mandated changes that NEVER pay off in dollars and cents? I would rather pay $10 more a month for electricity than 100 more in mortgage payments because of a bunch of new regulations. That would leave me $90 more for health insurance, college funds, car payment for a fuel efficent car.. etc..

There is always a point of diminishing returns...

"Where was the outrage when those dogs went up?"
There is no cul-de-sac next door except on Ridge Street ( a dead end created in the seventies). All of that construction is old and the possible people to be outraged are dead. In other words, there's something phoney about the last post.

This is te ugliest stucture I have seen in a long time. And who exactly will "get" to live in it. Street people?? And how long will anyone want to stay there? Another piece of idiocy by folks who think they know what is good for us.

It is very small inside. A family cannot grow up in that house. There is only room for a couple and a baby.

Old timer it is about "balance" The perfect example is automobiles. Air bags raise the price of a car by thousands and insurance rastes went UP because of the cost of repairing ... airbags....

I am all for reasonable safety regulations and minimum efficieny standards but this push to make everything "green" is a scam perpatrated on us by people who want to sell us overpriced items that will need service.

Someone that lives on well water does not need to pay 300 bucks extra for a high wfficency washer when for the same three hundred bucks they could upgrade the insulation in the attic... or maybe get the car tuned up that would make it get two more miles to the gallon for a year.

Mr Quale, I appreciate your clarifications and hope the students learn about the need for balance in these designs. I would like to see a fifty year maintanance estimate incorporated into all designs to give consumers a "cost per mile" like they have with fleet cars and trucks.

It looks like a modified box car??

Indeed, it didn't take this project to show that "sustainable can be obtainable." Anything can be obtainable if enough subsidy is provided. The city came up with the free land, money for water and sewer and probably the connection to the gas line. It also excavated the site and provided city staff time. For both projects, the city has contributed well over $400,000. Even at $120,000 per 900 sq. ft. a modest sized 2,000 sq. ft. equivalent would cost $267,000. If they want to learn about green retrofitting they ought to watch HGTV. It won't cost so many people so much.


You make the assumption that lower costs to the builder will translate into lower costs for the consumer. It's sorta like the misconception that tort reform savings will be passed along to customers. Why would they, if the companies can get what theya re getting now for policies?

Unfortunately, once people buy a home, they won't easily replace something that is so so with something more efficient until theya re forced to. Even when the savings amount to paying for itself in 3 years. They would rather just stick with what they have, until it breaks. Or in some cases, they just don't have the money even if they would and would take the tax breaks.

One of the best things about oil prices going so high is we really saw a jump in the efficiency of heat pumps and other environmental products. Alas, Americans scream to get their cheap energy, instead of buying the heat pump that would pay for itself in a year.

I for one would always rather let the market do the dirty work, but sometimes it needs a nudge or two because people can just beso darn short sighted.

Plus it's a butt-ugly house.

120k for 900 square feet... thats 125 a square foot and the land was free....

It may be energy efficent but it ain't economical....

When you factor in the entire cost of home ownership over a fifty year useful life the best deal is still thick cement walls, cross ventiilation, natural light, and a workable flexible floor plan.

What an awesome place for a youth hostel! Which this town sorely needs.

I just heard about this article, and then read through to the comments. I'm a little surprised by the tone of the anonymous comments here - but I certainly fully support the 1st amendment.

Let me just add a few things to the string here (speaking as the leader of the projects referenced). Corrections: 1) the ecoMOD4 house is 1158 square feet, not 900, so it is closer to a bit over $100 per square foot (quite low compared to conventional homes). The financial goal was to match the normal budget for a Habitat project. 2) The land was donated by the city because they want to support more affordable housing in the city. Unfortunately, neither the city nor Habitat (or the ecoMOD4 team for that matter) were aware of all the concrete construction debris found during excavation, or of the complexities involved in bringing utilities to the lot. These additional costs have been born in part by the city, Habitat C-ville and the ecoMOD project. The $120,000 is what the cost would be for the project if it had a normal excavation and utility installation on another local site - but the actual cost for this project is higher due to the unforeseen problems. However I'm not sure where the $400,000 contribution from the city number is coming from - unless that includes a pretty large assumption about the value of the land. 3) The house size was determined by the standard guidelines for Habitat projects, based on the number of occupants. This a couple without children. They qualify for a two bedroom home - which can be slightly larger if two stories than if it were one story. Habitat and the ecoMOD4 team chose to build a two story home because of the size of the neighboring buildings. 4) Yes, there are subsidies for this project - as there are for any Habitat project. Frankly, this is how some forms of affordable housing work - it is in part supported by donations, etc. The goal of ecoMOD is to provide realistic options for real world affordable housing clients, but to also make prototypes that others can acquire at a market rate. Our most recent cost estimate for replicating this design shows it can be sited in C-ville for less that what is would cost to create a conventional similarly sized house - and the ecoMOD design has far better insulation and attention to passive deign than a standard house. We don't claim to be the only way to do sustainable housing - we only claim to provide carefully designed homes that are as energy and water efficient as possible on a realistic budget. The design teams always start with passive design, insulation, efficient appliances / equipment and efficient use of space. There is too much emphasis these days on technological solutions / Eco Bling to address environmental problems. Common sense should come before expensive technologies. The technologies used on ecoMOD4 were added late in the design process when grants and donations to support those items were secured. But the house will work quite well without them.

One last thing - beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Charlottesville can be a pretty conservative town when it comes to architecture. I would argue Mr. Jefferson wouldn't be replicating Palladio if he were alive today - he was quite cutting edge for his day. So whatever you think of what the students designed and built, I can assure you they put their heart and soul into it, and that they spent a great deal of time considering low impact and durable materials, resolving a flexible floor plan within a very challenging square footage constraint, thinking about reducing materials with alternative framing strategies, and working to make the house feel larger than it actually is (by aligning windows through the building, and increasing ceiling height where it could be done affordably). Also, please keep in mind the larger trees have not been planted yet, nor have the vines that will grow on the recently added fence. In a couple years, the house will have more privacy from the street, and feel more blended into the neighborhood. The design team is concerned that the site is a bit too naked right now.

I don't think its worth responding directly to some of the more mean-spirited comments here, but I think the students felt like it is not necessarily to continuously replicate 19th century aesthetics. The vibrant cities we all love are made up of buildings from all eras -- not just brand new gingerbread suburban pastiche rendered in overwrought proportions and plastic crown molding. This house isn't for everyone, but it would be a very boring world if everything looked the same.

I support the ideals and ethics behind the building of this structure and the refurbishing of the house next door, however, I must agree that this is an eye sore and situated on a very busy and traffic-wise, a rather dangerous corner. Good luck trying to park next to that montrosity, or getting out of the driveway! I am all for eco-building but they could of at least made it a little more pleasing to look at. Furthermore, I really feel that it would have been even more ecofriendly to construct the home from salvaged architectural materials. This is what the real green builders have been doing, long before the trendy eco montrosities. Why didn't they build a cob house?

John Quale, I, too, appreciate your clarifications about the square footage (which I checked on the city's assessor's website). Although the "budget" is $120,000, it is clear the project at 104 is clearly out of budget. I thin it's best to wait until the project is finished before we can start assessing the true cost of this prototype.
I have been following this project for some time out of simple curiosity because a relative of mine once owned the house. I will limit my response to those of yours that addressed mine.
The city purcheased 608 Ridge Street on 2/15/2009 for $170,000. The back yard of 608 Ridge was deeded to Habitat 4/14/2009. A few months later, Council voted to add another $100,000 to simply bring the house at 608 Ridge "up to code." 104 Elliot was not mentioned in this request so that's why I said, "For both projects, the city has contributed well over $400,000." There is actually no way to figure out how much of that money has actually gone into 104 Elliot, but there was a subsequently approval for the city to providing around $30,000 to help offset the cost of connectin 104 Elliot to existig water and sewer.
When they excavated for the house on 104 Elliot there was no evidence of any dumping on the site that would need clean up because when the city never dumped anything into 608 Ridge's backyard. It was privately owned. The dumped materials did show up when the sewer line was run from the property line to along the city's right-of-way to the existing sewer line at Burnet Street. Total cost? I have no idea.
My point was to try to distinguishe between what the public deems "affordable housing" and "subsided housing." Most people take "affordable" to mean they can pay for it themselves. They take "subsidized" to mean "in need of public subsidy." It is clear that Habitat and partners could not have "afforded" to build this house without public subsidy, and, since the property is real estate tax-exempt, the new owners can not "afford" to own it. This is why I choose to not call this project "affordable" housing, but, what it actually is, "subsidized." Calling subsidized housing affordable is really very misleading and I think it's more of a question of class distinction rather than economic. [Sorry, I'm not proofreadng thi.]

That is an ugly building put right alongside a bunch of historic properties in an entrance corridor. My kid thought it was a drive in donut store or a drycleaners. If this is the face of the afraid!

inspired by one of these I think wide open

www dot pacvan dot com/storage

I don't want to criticize what they're doing because it's all good. Indeed, residential housing chews energy, only 3 percent less in total US consumption than all of Transportation.

However, I want to emphasize you don't have to "go green" to substantially save. I think people perceive everything "green" is beyond their budget. Recycling houses is about keeping what's still good, useful, functional yet modernizing. You don't have to build a geo-dome to make a big difference with the new methods and building materials of the last decade. Composite decking/trim, spray foam insulation and recycled rubber roof tiles are just three examples of innovative products that don't cost an arm/leg nor require an engineering degree to install.

I got tired of seeing abusive comments. From now on, nobody named "t*rdburglar" can comment here. And the word b*tt-ugly is similarly banned.--moderator

Lance, just because someone dislikes this particular house and the ridiculous way it's sited doesn't mean that they like "generic" architecture. My post was not a comment against modern innovative architecture, it was a comment on bad architecture.

Burnet Street. Those "dogs." And all I meant was that I don't recall this kind of rabid animosity in response to the typical generic, poorly built houses that define most new development in Charlottesville. (By the way, "phony" is spelled without an "e"....)

In response to Cville Eye's comment that this property is exempt from real estate taxes - that's wrong. All Habitat partner families pay real estate taxes just like every other property owner in the area. Like others they are able to take advantage of tax relief for low income families. Please check on your facts before spreading mis-information.

I did. I checked the city assessor's website for 104 Elliot Avenue and it indicated that both 608 Ridge Street and 104 Elliot has Tax Type 1 EXEMPT. 104 Elliot is assessed for some reason at only $98,400 despite all of the resources that have gone into its construction (it's supposed to assessed at market rate by VA law). Even if it is eventually placed on the tax rolls, by receiving the tax relief for low income families, Shelley, it is still subsidized by the government since the city is giving it in the form of a tax credit. The taxes are still computed at full value; the owner however pays only part and the goverment pays the rest Frankly, I don't understand exactly what it is about subsidies that people just don't understand.

Again, my point is that this is not "affordable" housing for the people who are buying it, it's subsidized housing.

By "two-unit" do you mean two attached units as in duplex or two detached units? I know that some work of Allison Ewing in that area was in the press but I don't remember the circumstances or was what I'm remembering in the press was that she was selling her home? I just can't remember.

Architect Lance Hosey emailed to say that the Habitat-sponsored house on Elliot Avenue was not the ââ?¬Å?first time our local chapter [of Habitat for Humanity] has embraced cutting-edge green design.” A few years ago, says Hosey, Habitat built a two-unit, eco-modern house at RiversEdge on Riverside Drive. Allison Ewing of Hays and Ewing designed it on behalf of the Rivanna Collaborative, the LLC she, Chris Hays, Richard Price, Kennon Williams, and Hosey formed to develop RiversEdge.

More on the project here:

Dave McNair

It's a shame Hays/Ewing didn't design this house as well. Their duplex on Riverside is great looking and, most importantly, is sited appropriately.

This thing is an abomination, especially the way it's crammed into the back yard of the lovely house on Ridge St. There's nothing warm and homelike about the structure. It doesn't look as though it's going to wear well from both a materials and landscape perspective.

Dave, thanks for the clarification and credit. In support of the Elliott Avenue house, let me say that I live right around the corner from it in Belmont, and I believe it to be not just a welcome addition to the neighborhood but also one of the more interesting recent designs in all of Charlottesville. I have watched excitedly as construction has progressed, and until this article I had no idea it was an ecoMOD project. I'm amazed that such an elegantly simple and well crafted house could be done with such relatively limited means. Once again it shows the great ingenuity of the whole ecoMOD program and of John Quale's team. The negative reactions are surprising, given the horribly generic development in the cul de sac next door. Where was the outrage when those dogs went up?
And you can spell "phooey" with an "e" also.
BTW, Burnet Street is not a cul-de-sac; it connects Elliot and Lankford. What do you mean by "poorly buil?" Do you mean not up to code or with inferior materials or do you mean shoddy workmanship?