A Habitat for Humanity chapter in North Carolina built this zero-energy house in 2005, thought to be the first of its kind in the state. (Photo by skrobotic via Creative Commons)

Volunteers last year helped East Central Minnesota Habitat for Humanity build one of the state’s most energy-efficient homes.

The 1,100-square-foot ranch-style house in Princeton, Minnesota, includes a solar water heater, exterior insulation, and Energy Star appliances.

Altogether, those and other energy saving features are expected to help the single mother who bought the home save $769 annually on her utility bills.

Across the country, Habitat for Humanity is demonstrating that efficiency and affordability can go together. Its leaders are making the case that a little extra upfront investment in efficiency pays off in the long run.

“We can’t afford not to,” says Molly Berg, sustainable buildings specialist at Habitat for Humanity of Minnesota. “Small changes that we can make up front during the planning and construction process actually result in long-term, large changes in the abilities of a family to meet their basic needs.”

As energy efficiency advocates (including Fresh Energy, which publishes Midwest Energy News) press for tougher energy codes in Minnesota, Illinois and elsewhere, they’re pointing to affordable housing supporters such as Habitat to help make their case.

Bill Fay, executive director of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, a program of the Alliance to Save Energy, said he began reaching out to low-income housing groups about five years ago in California.

“I was getting a little tired of the National Association of Home Builders trying to speak for low-income families,” says Fay.

A common argument made by home builders’ associations is that requiring them to build more efficient homes will put ownership out of reach for people with lower incomes.

But many Habitat for Humanity chapters have taken the opposite approach in recent years, putting more money into efficiency even during a severe recession.

All of the homes built since 2008 by Habitat for Humanity St. Louis have been LEED Platinum certified, and one project in 2010 achieve LEED Gold.

In Lansing, Michigan, officials and donors broke ground last week on the first of four green, energy efficient Habitat homes.

And in Iowa City, a chapter is getting ready to build its first net-zero-energy home, which will draw the little energy it needs from solar panels and solar water heaters.

Habitat is made up of scores of independent chapters around the country and world. The organization’s state and national offices support the local chapters, but doesn’t speak for them or set policy.

A survey sent to Minnesota chapters five years ago showed a desire for more resources on sustainable building, which led to a green building conference in 2008 and the hiring of a sustainable building specialist.

Several local chapters were already moving in the same direction, and Berg now helps coordinate training and other support around sustainable building in the state.

All but a few of Minnesota’s 33 chapters have since built homes that meet or exceed Energy Star for homes. The methods and materials being used include installing windows that transfer less heat, covering homes with exterior “blue board” insulation and spacing studs 24 inches apart instead of 16 inches, which creates fewer gaps in wall insulation.

The state office has been tracking Habitat homes’ energy use since the 2009-2010 heating season. The average monthly heating bill has been $110, compared to almost $170 for an average Minnesota home.

“Affiliates have seen the value and the continuous return on investment these things have for families that don’t make as much money a year,” says Berg.

That nearly $60 average monthly wintertime savings has a greater impact for families making 30 percent to 80 percent of median income, the target demographic for Habitat buyers.

There is an added upfront cost, which gets passed on to the home buyer (Habitat sells its homes at-cost with zero-interest loans to families that qualify).

“We have seen a little bit of an uptick [in costs],” says Matt Clark, Habitat’s national director for construction technologies, “but nothing that throws it way out of whack.”

Often its just a couple thousand dollars or less. In the Iowa City the solar and other improvements are expected to add about $15,000 for a home that would otherwise cost about $125,000 to build.

“My guess is that the extra item payback will be [in] 10 to 15 years, but the life of those [additions] will be over 20 years, so there’s actually a net gain there,” Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity Director Mark Patton told The Daily Iowan.

While many Habitat chapters are deciding efficiency is a worthwhile investment, they’ve been quiet in the arguments over state energy code updates.

For Clark and others in the organization, it’s less a political concern and more a practical one: “It just makes sense for us.”

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