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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

DC's Green Home

by Sandra Leibowitz

More and more people are beginning to understand the benefits of environmentally friendly homes--homes that incorporate materials that are reused, recycled-content, or made from renewable resources; building design that is passive solar and energy efficient; indoor environments that minimize unhealthy pollutants; and landscaping techniques that reduce water usage and promote well-adapted native plant and wildlife habitats. Yet there is a myth that "green building" features raise costs. This notion would seem to exclude lower income members of our communities from the benefits of living in environmentally friendly homes. GreenHOME in Washington, DC, however, has provided real evidence not only that green building is for everyone, but that when we try it many other aspects of our communities stand to gain.

Background on GreenHOME

GreenHOME is a 4-year old all-volunteer group in Washington, DC, that includes architects, builders, environmental and social-activists all trying to show that green housing can be realized even on a tight budget. As a partner with DC Habitat for Humanity, GreenHOME set a goal of designing and building a demonstration home for a lower income family that would provide insight into environmentally responsible design and material choices that are durable, affordable and easily replicable. DC Habitat for Humanity, which began constructing homes in the nation,s capital in 1988, is a local affiliate of the larger, international organization that builds and renovates homes in partnership with low-income families. Prospective homeowners in the program must volunteer for a minimum of 500 hours of "sweat-equity" on their own or other Habitat homes alongside volunteers from all walks of life.

GreenHOME raised funds, completed a design, and broke ground in September 1997 on a donated 2-lot site just inside the Capitol Hill Historic District. The qualifying family, Christie Ingram and her six-year-old son Lindell, moved into the finished home October 1998.

What makes GreenHOME special?

Volunteers invested over two years researching numerous design strategies and building products that could be made part of the home, excluding those that seemed too difficult to implement or too expensive for the $65,000 budget, a DC Habitat standard. Pushing beyond their understanding of conventional residential construction, these volunteers built up a collective green building knowledge pool and an excitement about trying out the different strategies first hand.

On paper, the resulting single-family house is 30% more energy efficient than the EPA,s Energy Star Homes guidelines, promising to save the family significantly on monthly utility bills. For example, instead of a conventional furnace, the heating system consists simply of an air handler that takes heat from the hot water heater and blows it throughout the house. Oak Ridge National Laboratories will remotely monitor the performance of this system by means of a direct phone line connected to the units "black box," which will collect data much like a flight recorder on a commercial jetliner.

The framing system was not only designed to minimize overall wood use, but included salvaged wood studs for much of the interior, non-load-bearing walls. This and other salvaged material came from a series of building deconstructions that GreenHOME organized around the Washington area to reclaim bricks, doors, lumber, wood flooring, even kitchen cabinets, and a cast-iron bathtub now a part of the new home. All were acquired free, not including the labor of the volunteers who carefully extracted these items from the houses being torn down.

Recycled-content materials included wall sheathing and insulation made from recycled newspapers, roof shingles and nails made from recycled aluminum, wallboard made from recycled drywall, and ceramic tiles made from recycled windshield glass. Even the foundation contained slag, a cementitious waste-product of steel-making, mixed into the concrete to reduce the amount of Portland cement used. Natural linoleum, a beautiful and long-lasting product made from linseed oil, cork flour, wood flour, and other renewable resources, was used instead of vinyl flooring. Zero- or low-emission paints, wood finishes and caulking were also specified.

Unlike most building sites, where builders scrap unusable materials by throwing them in large dumpsters to be hauled to the landfill, GreenHOME,s volunteers neatly organized piles of surpluses on-site for reuse as much as possible. Broken and half-sized bricks, for example, made excellent walkways and garden edging. Now that the building is complete, the volunteers are transporting the remaining unused materials to various recycling sites in the metropolitan area. GreenHOME even made a small profit delivering its scrap metals to a DC recycling company. Volunteers traded several deliveries of scrap wood for a truckload of rich compost made by mixing ground up wood, horse manure, and farmer,s market waste at a facility in Crofton, MD. The compost is now supporting plant growth on site.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

As with any new endeavor, transitioning from design to reality involved nuts and bolts learning about new techniques and accommodating hidden challenges. One example was the restriction on the size of the south-facing windows due to historic preservation codes (Designing larger windows on the south side is a common passive solar strategy).

Other challenges involved the suitability of materials for a largely unskilled volunteer crew. The salvaged wood studs, for example, were of slightly different dimensions than modern nominal lumber, which made framing more complicated. The recycled aluminum shingles were more slippery than their asphalt counterparts and, though easy to install for simple roof shapes, had to be custom bent at the valleys.

Educating the Community, Bringing People Together

The demonstration home construction site provided a gathering place for GreenHOME regulars, new volunteers, and visitors to work, learn, share ideas, and network ways to take green building to the street. Throughout construction, which took nearly 10 months, passers-by from the neighborhood were encouraged to stop in and take a tour or lend a hand. A wide variety of community groups signed up entire crews of volunteers to participate in the construction process.

Special events brought even more people onto the site. The Capitol Hill Kiwanis Club and local Salvation Army helped feed volunteers during a 4-day "Blitz Build." An all-day landscape design session brought Christie Ingram and other Habitat home-owners and volunteers together to brainstorm on a garden design while learning landscaping strategies that everyone could apply at home. Habitat for Humanity International leaders and executive directors of various Habitat affiliates took a tour and learned about sustainable construction techniques. And, several groups of students from various Washington, DC public schools have visited GreenHOME, including a 5th grade class participating in the local Architects-in-Schools program.

Now that construction is complete, the focus has shifted to passing what was learned on to others, both locally and beyond. Currently, GreenHOMErs are training volunteers at a large DC Habitat site, where 34 houses are being built.

GreenHOME is also compiling a book detailing the planning, design, and construction issues involved in the process from initial conception through on-site use and adjustment. The book is intended also to be available on a CD and to be distributed nationwide to all interested Habitat for Humanity affiliates and to any other interested groups. The book and CD will serve as the ultimate reference tool for Habitat for Humanity affiliates and other affordable housing developers seeking to make their socially responsible mission of helping low-income people afford to own well-built, safe, comfortable housing grow into a mission that is environmentally responsible as well.

Sandra Leibowitz is a GreenHOME volunteer who is also active with Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility and the Architects-in-Schools program. She previously researched sustainable design issues for HOK Architects in Washington, DC.

For more information on GreenHOME's demonstration house and future activities, visit GreenHOME's website: http://www.greenhome.org or call DC Habitat for Humanity: 202-610-2355.

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