• Kent County Habitat for Humanity's LEED-certified gut rehabs include this home in Grand Rapids completed last fall in partnership with Aquinas College and funded by Neighborhood Stabilization Program stimulus dollars. The project provided a new home for a Sudanese refugee couple about to have their first child.

    Credit: Courtesy Kent County Habitat for Humanity

    Kent County Habitat for Humanity's LEED-certified gut rehabs include this home in Grand Rapids completed last fall in partnership with Aquinas College and funded by Neighborhood Stabilization Program stimulus dollars. The project provided a new home for a Sudanese refugee couple about to have their first child.
The Kent County, Mich., chapter of Habitat for Humanity is showing the industry that green, high-performance homes don’t have to come with exorbitant price tags. The Grand Rapids-area organization has been building to LEED for Homes standards for two years, and is now focusing its efforts on transforming foreclosed properties into energy-efficient, healthy dwellings for families in need.

Since committing to LEED standards in 2007, Kent County Habitat has built 60 homes to the standard. This year, it will undertake 34 gut rehabs that will meet a minimum of LEED-Silver, as well as Energy Star.

“The whole metaphor of recycling a home fits into our commitment of sustainability,” Kent County Habitat’s director of construction Chris Hall says of the group’s motivation to tackle rehabs.

Perhaps even more important is preserving the communities where other Habitat homes have been built. “We have a commitment that they are successful homeowners,” notes Hall. “If they’re in a neighborhood that’s dying around them, it makes sense to transform these homes. We’re taking what was once an eyesore off the street … the transformation has been amazing.”

Habitat acquires the abandoned properties from banks and holding companies at prices averaging around $20,000. That upfront cost, a bargain for sure but still much heftier than what Habitat typically pays for a vacant lot, is partially offset by federal stabilization funds.

Meeting the needs of a LEED-Silver home while staying on a $110,000 budget (including the cost of the original home) starts in the planning stage, two months prior to the four-month buildout. Because each property is different, each project begins with team collaboration to design an efficient space and pinpoint potential challenges. Planning contributions come from staffers as well as outside designers, energy experts, and other pros who discount or donate services; local college students also contribute through energy testing or home design.

“If you start from scratch and look at your footprint, maximize space, and utilize advanced framing, you can actually save money,” Hall says, noting, for example, that fitting more bedrooms into a smaller square footage helps earn LEED credits from the start.

  • The Grand Rapids house, prior to renovation.

    Credit: Courtesy Kent County Habitat for Humanity

    The Grand Rapids house, prior to renovation.
And the LEED certification isn’t just about feeling good. Building the homes tight and with healthy indoor air is essential to Habitat’s mission of fostering successful and affordable residency, particularly since most new residents are first-time homeowners. 

It also doesn’t mean cheap materials, but rather smart decisions. In fact, the most expensive change for these homes is the upgrade from spot ventilation to a RenewAire energy recovery ventilator, which adds about $1,200 to the typical cost of a Habitat house. Hall says the expense is worth it: “When they move into our homes, you see it—health is improved. I haven’t built a home here that I wouldn’t move into.”

Low-VOC paints and carpets also contribute to healthier IAQ. Other product selections include donated Dow rigid foam insulation on the exterior, Whirlpool Energy Star appliances (also donated), and WaterSense-labeled fixtures. “We seek out third-party certification as much as possible,” Hall explains, an effort that further pays off in garnering financial support by individuals and groups that are drawn to sustainability issues.

In addition to Energy Star and LEED certification, the costs of which are covered by The Home Depot Foundation for the first 50 homes, the structures meet the standards of “0 step” accessibility, including having a main-floor bedroom and bathroom and 5-foot turning radiuses.

The transition from building new homes to mostly remodels has required Habitat staff and volunteers to transform their operational processes and learn new roles. But the payoff is worth it as they funnel spending back into local companies while fulfilling the dream of homeownership in a state devastated by the recession.

Even experienced green pros are learning new tricks from navigating the unique challenges of LEED-certified remodeling. “You have to be creative to do green building with no budget,” says veteran green architect Eric Hughes, owner of Image Design in Grand Rapids, who is slated to design 30 of the gut rehabs. This includes maximizing the space and improving the flow of 60-plus-year-old homes composed of tiny rooms.

Hughes notes a particular cost-saver Habitat employs on all its homes: training volunteers to caulk every joint, which allows for the use of batt (i.e., less expensive) insulation while still maximizing envelope performance.

“Whenever I hear that it costs more or that the market doesn’t want it, … I tell them to come out to our site and see what we’re doing” Hall says. “ If we can do this for $110,000 and volunteer labor, any builder can do it.”

Click here to view a video slide show of the Grand Rapids (pictured) house being built.

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.