Tiny Tuesday: The Habitat Model

As you probably know, Habitat for Humanity designs, builds, and repairs houses for families who can’t afford to do it themselves. Habitat relies on volunteer design professionals and deeply discounted (or donated) labor and materials, all of which needs to be coordinated on a project-by-project basis. Homeowners-to-be provide “sweat equity,” doing a portion of the labor themselves, in lieu of paying market value.

Now, a house that requires tons of fuel every month could run a low-income family into debt, even without the stress of a mortgage. Therefore, minimizing operation cost is an important goal for Habitat projects. The gold standard for energy efficiency in buildings is a system I’ve talked about recently: Passive House.

There’s a problem, though: a Passive House costs more to build than a house meeting minimum code requirements. How can Habitat, on its shoestring budget, afford this luxury? It’s not easy, but it has been done, as in the case of three Habitat homes built in tandem near Burlington, Vermont about five years ago. The “top-tier” house of the trio actually achieved Passive House certification; the other two offer different degrees of high performance by relaxing the standards. Publicity for the project was high, giving vendors an incentive to donate their materials and time.

I am on the design team for Vermont’s next Passive House-inspired Habitat home. In our first organizational meeting, architects and builders talked intensely about details, particularly what type of insulation to use (that’s a subject for a future article) and how to build walls to avoid “thermal bridges” between exterior and interior. My teammates’ commitment and attention to detail, on a job they’re doing for free, captivated me. Clearly I’m not the only one excited for this opportunity to make a passive house a reality!

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