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DESIGNHabitat 5 Brings Energy Efficiency to Affordable Housing

DesignHabitat 5

It has been estimated that families who receive houses from Habitat for Humanity spend as much as 30% of their disposable income on utilities; a burden that can make home ownership difficult for those already living on a tight budget. Last spring 22 students from Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture set out to reduce this cost for future Alabama families by taking part in DESIGNHabitat 5, a directed seminar co-taught by professors Justin Miller and Robert Sproull. The course allowed them to explore highly energy efficient design and construction techniques for affordable housing, while working with actual clients receiving homes from Habitat for Humanity affiliates throughout Alabama.

The class was part of Green Home Alabama, a three tiered incentive grant program that encourages Alabama Habitat for Humanity  affiliates to stretch their building practices in an effort to improve energy efficiency, durability and indoor air quality. The grant program provides three levels of funding to affiliates based on the prior experience with energy efficient housing design and construction. The different levels begin with the incentive tier for affiliates that have not built an Energy Star qualified house in the last five years. The Advanced Tier partially finances projects for affiliates who have built Energy Star qualified homes and want to improve the efficiency by 20%, and finally the Leadership Tier, (an invitation only award), is for affiliates who have previously excelled and want to build a demonstration home that could meet an aggressive energy saving target; 70% better than code. Students teamed with affiliates from this uppermost tier to design a highly energy efficient home for two families.

Because the Leadership Tier affiliates happened to be located geographically in the extreme north and south of the state, the site location of each house provided an opportunity to approach their designs with differing environmental and energy strategies. Additionally, based on budget and specific past affiliate experience and attitude, specific options for energy efficiency were investigated by the students as well.

Students designed and helped begin construction on a three bedroom house for a family in southern Alabama being built by the Escambia County Habitat for Humanity ( Students investigated methods and details for super-insulating the home, reducing energy usage through mechanical systems that use significantly lower power supplies for structures of comparable size, and passively ventilating the building. A second group of students worked with the Athens-Limestone affiliate of Habitat for Humanity ( to design a four bedroom house for a family of five. Unique site conditions and close proximity to an adjacent structure required them to carefully consider building orientation specifically as it relates to photovoltaic power sources, cross ventilation, and visual access to the exterior. This house will begin construction in the near future.

A third team collaborated with the Northwest Alabama affiliate on a proposal for a Low Impact Development for a recently acquired piece of property that would manage storm water on a large site adjacent to a major creek in the area. This group produced a booklet presenting several LID precedents and a series of design proposals that layout roads, buildings and green spaces within a possible future development of affordable homes in Guin, Alabama.

In addition to these specific projects, all students took part in a workshop with an energy professional where they learned some of the specifics on RemRate, one of the standard energy modeling tools for the industry. Students were then able to track the energy efficiency of the design changes they were making, accommodate new approaches as needed, and assist with construction throughout the spring.