ecoMOD Squad: When sustainable gets obtainable?
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.