Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County

Adapting to emerging energy efficiency standards

To be better stewards of our community and our planet, Bellingham’s Climate Action Plan Task Force has recommended that all homes use 100% renewable energy sources by 2035. Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County is proud to announce that the homes we’ve been building for the last four years, including those at the Telegraph Townhomes Community, already meet this standard. Also, in the addition to being totally electric (energy drawn primarily from hydro, solar, and wind sources), our homes are exceedingly energy efficient. In some respects, we’re building a “thermos with windows and doors,” where even the 100 watts of heat produced by each Townhome resident contributes to heating their homes! Over the last few years Habitat has made some tough decisions about adapting its traditional model to meet the needs of the community. Initially, affordability and environmental stewardship can seem at odds with one another. But with thoughtful analysis, creativity, and data-driven decision making, these two forces have created a synergy that’s transforming our Habitat affiliate. Naturally, these external forces continue to demand critical financial and design focus, requiring greater internal review. One of the guiding stars in Habitat’s constellation of values-based strategies is not forgetting the poorest applicant. In other words, keeping “a hand-up, not a hand-out” in mind, we’re always asking ourselves how we can provide an affordable home that’s as affordable in 30 years as it is on day one for a hard-working home buyer earning minimum wage. There will be a significant cost in adapting to the environmental stewardship being called for by Bellingham’s Climate Action Plan Task Force 2035 goals. There are so many as-yet unknowns, and given the scale of such a city-wide and county-wide effort, the challenges will be significant. However, at Habitat we know that there’s an even greater cost to intergenerational poverty, a burden that falls disproportionately on the working poor. How can a homeowner earning minimum wage afford the increased cost of energy efficiency? This is an almost impossible question to answer today, especially for the lowest income wage earners. Given the inevitable extra expense of these changes, how can Habitat build homes while providing a financial return on the increased investment, while reducing the long-term cost of home ownership at the same time?
Drone photo of Telegraph Townhomes Project
Telegraph Townhomes Community
As part of our need to adapt to emerging energy efficiency standards, Habitat has partnered with the Building Performance Center, a program developed by Bellingham’s Opportunity Council. In the early stages of designing an energy efficient, low-cost, volunteer-friendly Habitat home, the Building Performance Center will be able to tell us, every time we change the size of a window or a door (or make any other critical construction decision), what the impact will be on the energy consumption of each home. It took us about a year, both in theory and in practice, to find Habitat’s “sweet spot” where any increase in our cost resulted in the optimal savings in energy consumption. Optimal is the keyword here. The sweet spot is that critical point where any change in a design produces the greatest return on investment. For example, 12 inches of cellulose insulation in an exterior wall can produce greater energy savings than 10 inches of insulation, but those extra 2 inches don’t provide an acceptable return on the additional investment. We’re learning to make our building program cost-effective, for Habitat as well as for our home buyers. Going forward, how can we add market-driven designs and planning (where there’s a clear return on investment in every way) to our guiding values and building program in addressing our local housing crisis? As Bellingham and surrounding communities in Whatcom County develop solutions to address the Climate Action Plan Task Force’s 2035 renewable energy goals, Habitat hopes to be an exemplary community partner, especially for those in our community who struggle every day to afford safe, decent, affordable housing. Watch for more information in our March Newsletter about market-driven solutions we’re currently exploring, including our thoughts on the “missing middle” home buyers (those potential home buyers who make too much to qualify for a Habitat home but who can’t afford to buy an average home today). —John Moon, Executive Director [Every cash gift we receive at Habitat, no matter how small, returns when each Habitat home buyer makes their monthly mortgage payments. This enables us to purchase more supplies for another home. Habitat’s core value, “a hand-up, not a hand-out,” means that every penny is repaid. Please consider pledging $5 per month.]
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