Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Habitat for Humanity Goes Green

Habitat for Humanity International is dedicated to the cause of eliminating poverty housing. Since its founding in 1976, Habitat has built more than 300,000 houses worldwide, providing simple, decent and affordable shelter for more than 1.5 million people.

While it's known for building quality homes for low income buyers who might not otherwise be able to afford a home, once the keys are handed over there are no guarantees that the new residents will be able to afford rising utility costs. Habitat acknowledges this challenge and is now building with green in mind.

A select group of volunteers dubbed the "Green Team" work nationwide with Habitat for Humanity to build more energy efficient homes for residents. Whether it be extra insulation in the attic or solar powered hot water heaters, Habitat for humanity is making a move to more sustainable construction and hopefully this is a trend that will continue for all new home construction.

Last year, Habitat for Humanity announced plans to build 5,000 green homes around the country for low-income families. These homes, would be built over five years, and would meet EnergyStar guidelines or other green building standards, like LEED. The project expands on a pilot program and is being done in conjunction with the Home Depot Foundation.

Although green building carriers higher upfront costs, approximately $5,000 for an EnergyStar and LEED certified home, due to the extra materials as well as the certification process itself and extra training, it's worth it in the long run. Increasing the typical Habitat home price tag of $75,000 by a mere five grand allows families to enjoy a rapid payback in terms of lower energy bills. From new energy-efficient water heaters and weather stripping to programmable thermostats and low-flow toilets and solar panels, families see immediate savings in their monthly utility bills. Knowing a family can afford to maintain and live in these new homes for years to come means so much to these new homeowners and to these communities.

Other green initiatives from Habitat for Humanity include a new development in Oakland, California. Here, Habitat has converted a brownfield into several green homes as part of its ongoing EastBay Project. With help from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and a slew of volunteers, Habitat built a 54-home development of affordable housing for low-income homeowners. The development site, a former battery salvage yard, was labeled a “blighted property” by the EPA and California’s Department of Toxic Substances.

While roughly 300,000 cubic yards of soil had to be removed and replaced, the effort was well worth it for the new residents. In December of 2009, after dedicating their time and energy to helping build their homes, as required by Habitat, the excited homeowners were handed the keys to their new green homes.

Some features these green homes in EasyBay include a passive solar design which eliminates the need for air conditioning. Homes with a basic passive solar design are elongated on an east-west axis, have south-facing rooms and windows, incorporate foliage for shade, use less space on the north side, especially for rooms that require the most light and heat, and have an open floor plan for optimal thermal mass.

PG&E also offered a $15,000 grant per home for the 1.8-2 kW worth of solar power panels installed on the EastBay homes, including the inverter. The estimated utility bills for these homes as a result of the passive solar design and solar electricity is a meager $9 per month for two bedroom homes and less than $15 per month for the three and four bedroom homes. The grants for the solar power panels came as part of PG&E’s Solar Habitat Program, an ongoing partnership between the utility company and Habitat for Humanity.

The solar panels installed on the East Bay Habitat homes generate nearly 300kWh of clean, renewable energy from sunlight each month, saving the families approximately $500 a year on energy costs. Each panel will also help avoid the release of more than 132,000 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the 30 year life of the system.

PG&E's Solar Habitat Program is a partnership between PG&E and Habitat for Humanity International to fund the full cost of solar electric systems on every Habitat built home in northern and central California. This partnership brings solar energy to families with limited incomes, to provide affordable, renewable energy to California residents.

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