Eco by Example

Eco by Example

Habitat for Humanity has just completed construction on its largest net-zero and LEED Platinum for Homes affordable housing development to date.


By Kiley Jacques  |  Photography by Angela Jimenez

Resident Robert Smith says sustainability is harmony…to live in harmony with one another, within a community, and with the environment.

Making this feel like a special community was a key goal,” says Susan Roeder about Habitat for Humanity’s Eco-Village in River Falls, Wisconsin. As director of public affairs at Andersen Corporation (one of the project’s many partners), Roeder, like all involved, played a very hands-on role from the start.

The idea for a residential neighborhood based on the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes benchmarks originated with a small consortium of people from the city of River Falls, the University of Wisconsin (and its Sustainability Institute, which focuses on large-scale applications of sustainable building practices), Frisbie Architects, and St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, among others. The design phase got underway in 2011; they broke ground in 2012; and the last home was completed this past December. Eco-Village encompasses 18 homes on 7 city-donated acres and represents a growing number of progressive community building projects put forth by Habitat for Humanity.

“Andersen has had a long relationship with Habitat for Humanity,” explains Roeder, who together with her colleagues, came on board during the design phase. “Habitat had the land but didn’t know what they were going to do with it in terms of housing.” In fact, the plot could have served any number of purposes. Once a city composting site, it proved a viable (and valuable) resource, as it borders a large green space with walking trails and is close to an elementary school. “It was a beautiful chunk of land,” recalls Roeder. “Habitat was pretty thoughtful, knowing they could have a big impact on the city.”

Architects, business owners, and area residents joined a series of community meetings to sketch out a plan. “That’s a really special way to develop a plot of land,” says Roeder, noting the unique role the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development played. “They had college professors and students all dreaming about what components could really be part of a community development of this sort.”

As Roeder describes it, the residents in this village have helped build not only their own homes but also those of their neighbors. They have worked side by side literally building their community—both physically and socially. “It’s very empowering to hammer in nails on your own home,” says Roeder. “And to be part of a new effort with Habitat for Humanity takes it to the next level. The homeowners are cognizant of that and really proud. They understand that it is a model that is much bigger than just them.”

Resident Robert Smith says, “The big word is sustainability but you need a dictionary to go along with that word. It’s about harmony…to live in harmony with one another, with a community, with the environment—to me, that’s natural, and that’s the idea of Eco-Village.”

Dave Engstrom of Habitat for Humanity.

Further savings measures included sourcing in-kind donations of building materials. With so many projects to their credit, Habitat for Humanity is highly skilled at finding the best product for the best price when they do need to purchase supplies. For this project, Roeder says, they chose “products at the right price point that provided the right level of energy efficiency and performance.” She notes, too, the misconception that being green requires sizable discretionary incomes. “You can always go to the ‘Nth’ degree, the top-of-the-market, highest-performing products, but they didn’t need over-the-top to get these homes to be net-zero,” she explains. “That’s really one of the most compelling pieces about this project. Habitat has demonstrated that, with the right approach, it’s not necessary.”

Those cost-savings efforts and informed choices directly affect residents like Mark Tamminga, who is grateful to be able to live in a home where he can afford to turn the heat on. “I think most people take that for granted, but for me, it is heavenly—it’s about having dignity.”

In the three-year time span in which the homes were completed, it’s interesting to note that while house No.1 was the model when they began, it’s house No.18 that will be the usable template. “We learned so much along the way,” says Roeder, noting how things constantly evolved as the project unfolded. For instance, the roof pitches in combination with the solar panels on the first few homes were not volunteer friendly. By the time they got to the last group of homes, however, solar power panel technology had improved such that they could change the roof pitch, which made it safe for volunteer builders, which saved money since they no longer needed subcontractors to perform the work.

A zero-interest, 30-year mortgage is Habitat for Humanity’s model. They serve the working poor—people who make too much money to qualify for government aid but not enough to qualify for a traditional mortgage. Primarily first-time home buyers, Eco-Village residents learn some basic skills, like how to manage their homes once they are in them, how to track their budgets, how to maintain the grounds, etc. “Habitat serves those families and education is absolutely key,” says Roeder. Beyond that, part of the agreement is that residents let their homes be monitored by Habitat for the first five years.

There is also a behavioral piece to the program. “Behavior is such a big component of how you make your home perform at its best,” notes Roeder. Locking windows and closing doors when running out to the mailbox are examples of activities that will be monitored to watch for spikes in usage. “The homeowners are all in on this effort, which is pretty special,” says Roeder, adding that the residents’ shared focus has (happily) shifted from having a home to live in to achieving lower energy bills. Some of them don’t owe anything on their electric bills; others are putting energy back into the grid. “What’s unique about Eco-Village,” explains Roeder, “is the technology behind these homes and how empowering it is for these families to be taught that up front, and then engage in it over time and really see the benefit to the bottom line.”

Habitat International staff have visited this site to better understand and potentially replicate it elsewhere. “Net-zero building is a keen interest for Habitat,” says Roeder. And, with Eco-Village, they have a highly informative, user-friendly model to share. From beginning to end, the entire project was very well documented. And, as it’s not proprietary, it’s adoptable, which bodes well for future buyers, builders, communities, and the environment. As Roeder puts it: “The more folks we can get into homes like this, at an affordable price, the better.”

The Eco-Village is the largest LEED Platinum and net-zero affordable community by Habitat for Humanity in the U.S.