Habitat for Humanity, Indeed

An interesting program designed by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — inspired by the goal of reaching zero energy, where a home would produce what it uses — has outfitted five Habitat for Humanity homes in Tennessee with new renewable energy producing and energy-efficient technologies.

The homes, RenewableEnergyAccess.com reports, feature solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, airtight walls and roofing panels and mechanical ventilation systems. They are co-funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Jeff Christian, a buildings technology researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and coordinator of the Habitat for Humanity project, told the ORNL Review that he approached the Tennessee Valley Authority and Habitat for Humanity about creating something zero-energy and affordable — and first suggested something small, like a carport.

"It was the Habitat coordinators themselves who said, ‘The people we serve don’t need carports—they need groceries and they need a decent house. Why don’t we just make it part of one of the houses we build?’" he told the ORNL Review. "By June, we had a house."

More followed. According to Christian, Habitat homes are perfect for the program.

"You build something, you test and when you are done testing the home is turned over to a family in need, who gets an upgraded, affordable home out of the deal," he says. "The houses are small, they are simple, and they can be fairly easily replicated. The community, in essence, gives us a laboratory facility."

That’s a clever idea, considering the project combines the needs of an organization who will be creating new construction homes (Habitat for Humanity) and allows the ORNL to test out new methods, while also testing out their affordability — which will ultimately be a key factor in getting them into new homes outside of the test program. Everybody wins!

Christian hopes to bleed some of the findings into the private construction sector; the program is also hoping to reach zero-energy soon.

He also suggested to the ORNL Review that the following changes will help the mainstream zero energy cause:
•    Christian hopes the Tennessee Valley Authority will up its solar power buy-back rates to 20 to 25 cents per kilowatt hour. (It currently pays 15 cents kilowatt hour).

•    The cost of solar panels must come down.

•    Electrical appliance use must be managed somehow. Christian says appliances aren’t the huge problem. It’s cell phones, chargers, VCRs, plasma TVs and more that can add a 2,500 kilowatt hour demand per year to your household — and it’s growing at 3.5 percent a year.

This example is so mindblowing because of all developers, one could argue that sustainability is probably least important to Habitat. Their clients — who help build the homes — require housing. That’s a basic need.

But Habitat for Humanity has taken the time to consider the impact green design could have on a homeowner and a community and added it to their construction "to do" list. In the midst of coordinating an all-volunteer construction crew and building deadlines, Habitat took the extra time to say, ‘You know what, this can save the homeowner energy costs down the road and has a real benefit long-term to the environment.’ Bravo.

Which begs the question: If Habitat for Humanity can adapt a program like
this, why can’t larger, for-profit builders?