St. Paul non-profit aims for affordable, efficient homes

Air leakage from ceiling lights
An energy audit using a special infrared camera can identify energy leaks. This one, from another Minnesota home, shows air leakage from ceiling lights.
Image courtesy of NEC

In her position as director of NeDA, a non-profit community development group, Karen Reid has been building affordable housing on the West Side of St Paul for years. But her latest project - to build green without breaking the bank - was a challenge.

"There weren't going to be any granite countertops and no bamboo floors because this is not affordable housing," she says. Reid says the end result is both affordable and green.

The recently finished development is the first affordable housing in the Twin Cities to win LEED Gold certification -- that's one of the highest ratings available from the US Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ratings system. The criteria include energy efficiency and use of sustainable materials.

The homes are on the market for $175,000 each, targeted at buyers who earn 80 percent of the area's median income. In West St Paul, that's about $60,000 for a family of four. Reid says she focused on energy efficiency because energy bills are one of the biggest obstacles to lasting home ownership for low-income families.

"All this green stuff, it's great, but the people who are taking advantage are middle and upper class that are building huge green LEED homes. The families that can benefit per percentage of their income is low income families, who spend about 16 percent of their income on heating and water. Middle income familes or higher spend 5 percent of their income, so the impact for a family to live in a sustainable home is just huge," she says.

At less than 1,400 square feet each, the houses are relatively small but with nine foot ceilings and lots of windows they don't seem cramped. The twin homes share a wall, which helps reduce energy consumption. Each three-bedroom, two bath home is projected to save future residents hundreds of dollars a year on electricity, gas and water. Reid says focusing on energy efficiency, not green-but-expensive materials, kept the cost of achieving LEED Gold certification to less than $2,000 per unit.

All the appliances are Energy Star and the showers and faucets are low-flow. Builder Richard Klimala says the toilets will use about half as much water as the average toilet.

"It's a couple of gallons, but the amount of water that's saved when you start mulitplying things times a million - it's really remarkable," he says. "That's one thing we sometimes forget. It's not the single house - you only do it one at a time, but what the individual might consider a small change, on a societal level is truly remarkable," he says.

Klimala insulated the house to be almost airtight. LEED requires buildings to maintain high air quality standards, so a ventilation system automatically draws fresh air in and humidity out to prevent mold and other dangerous conditions from developing.

The furnace and heating systems were custom fitted to heat comfortably in a Minnesota winter without wasting energy. And solar panels make the homes even more efficient, providing hot water for much of the year. LEED also awarded points to the project for its proximity to public transportation and existing city infrastructure.

But some critics charge that some LEED homes aren't always as green as they claim. Jim Bowyer from Dovetail Partners, a non-profit environmental firm in Minneapolis, says LEED ratings don't take a building's entire lifecycle into account as much as they should.

"You can't spell green without the two e's for energy efficiency."

"There is no test that is done after the building is built to see if it actually performs like you say it's going to," he says, "so there are a lot of people saying this looks a lot like the snake oil salesmen that used to ride around in wagons."

Bowyer would like to see a more science-based ratings system that would look at the environmental impacts at all stages of construction, including the sourcing of raw materials.

The twin homes were tested for energy performance.

Jimmie Sparks, from the Neighborhood Energy Connection in St Paul, did an energy audit on the homes using infrared cameras and special fans and found they lost very energy little to leaks. He says that's because the construction follows the best approach to going green - getting back to basics.

"Really, that's the most key thing to look at is reducing the energy load on the house: better insulation, better air sealing, better windows."

But he admits that the homes' true energy efficiency will depend largely on the future residents and their lifestyle.

Developer Karen Reid plans to follow the buyers to track how well the homes do over time. All buyers will also be required to complete a course on sustainable energy practices to help them save even more energy.

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