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Zero Net Energy Habitat for Humanity

1332_HabHumanDenver_final.jpgHabitat for Humanity is one of those organizations that doesn't make a lot of noise, but does a lot of good. Focusing on the construction of homes for the poor, Habitat for Humanity uses volunteer labor and (usually) simple designs. The homes built by Habitat are decent but utilitarian, tending to be typical wood-frame structures, meeting but rarely exceeding code guidelines. They're hardly places in which one would expect to find abundant green design.

And yet we now have at least one. A number of sustainability blogs have pointed to an article at Renewable Energy Access, describing a home built by the Habitat for Humanity group in Denver, Colorado, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. The "Net Zero Energy Habitat for Humanity House" is meant as a model home for what comfortable and affordable green housing could look like. Not all of the components are cutting-edge, but they're an excellent example of how current green home technologies can be used:

As part of DOE' s Building America Program, NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab) researchers designed the house using the latest research tools. The house features super-insulated walls, floors, and ceilings; efficient appliances; a solar water heating system; heat-recovery ventilation system to assure indoor air quality; compact fluorescent lighting; and windows coated with thin layers of metallic oxide to help keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer. The home's 4-kW photovoltaic system is sized to produce excess energy in the summer to balance out winter consumption.

Habitat Denver has pictures from the house construction and dedication on its website.

It sometimes seems as if most of the green home projects are intended for owners or buyers with abundant disposable income. In reality, it's the poor who would most benefit from living in homes with low or zero net energy consumption. As we've pointed out before, there are no incentives for owners of rental properties to spend more up front to reduce the monthly costs for their tenants; and while the additional cost of green upgrades to a home may be a small fraction of the cost of a moderate house in markets such as urban California, the same expense would be a substantial addition to the cost of homes in lower-cost regions.

At some point, the kind of home that Habitat for Humanity built for the Whalen family will be a standard design, with green features as commonplace as ground-fault interrupt outlets and smoke detectors today. Until then, we must look at this project as an example of where we need to go -- and a growing recognition that this is the necessary path.

Comments (3)

Energy-efficient construction can be mighty cheap; take a look at the house plans at ThermaSAVE.  When they had prices on the site, the kits for the building shells went for as little as $12,000.


"As we've pointed out before, there are no incentives for owners of rental properties to spend more up front to reduce the monthly costs for their tenants"

Good post, but this comment makes no sense at all. An owner of rental property actually has the longest time-frame in which to recoup costs. The rental market is both for-profit and competetive. If the property owner can either lower his rent to attract more customers, or just increase his profits even a little, he has every incentive to invest is energy efficient technology.

Lots of new property going up for rent or long-term business leases make use of energy efficient tech. I suspect the main reason that more isn't going up is simply a lack of information on cost effective measures for doing so.


Most rental property owners make tenants responsible for electric, gas, and heating oil costs. Therefore, they have no incentive to install photovoltaic systems or to improve insulation to reduce heating and cooling costs. Since, in most multi-unit rental properties, the landlord does pay both water costs and the costs of water heating, there is some incentive to install solar water heating systems.

My building doesn't even provide curbside recycling.


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