Five years since Hurricane Katrina left more than 40,000 Mississippi residents homeless, the rebuilding of houses for the state’s low-income residents continues. In hard-hit Hancock County, which lost 53% of its housing stock, progress has been particularly slow, with less than half of pre-Katrina affordable housing recovered, according to Dave Walker, director of communications for Habitat for Humanity Bay-Waveland Area (HFHBW).
“If you consider the fact that the infrastructure of our community had to be completely rebuilt … we’re trying to replace in a few years what took us hundreds of years to build up,” says Walker. “So, we’ve got some more work to do.”
The local Habitat for Humanity was founded in Hancock County a few months after the storm as a disaster response office. From the start, the Bay St. Louis-based chapter’s goal has been to build simple, comfortable, and affordable dwellings as quickly as possible.
Two years ago executive director Wendy McDonald began exploring green building as a way to lower their homes’ utility bills and make them more affordable to families struggling to rebuild their lives. By the end of 2008 all of the group’s construction staff were trained as NAHB Certified Green Professionals, construction manager Dan Reynolds had received his LEED AP, and the nonprofit was ready to build its first green house.
“Our guys really got bitten by the green bug and really stepped up and took it very seriously,” McDonald says.
Five years after the disaster, every HFHBW house is now third-party certified to a Silver level or higher, mostly through NGBS or LEED. The chapter, named “2009 Affiliate of the Year” by Habitat for Humanity International, has built 20 certified green homes and has another dozen in the certification process.
Its most recent project, a 1,080-square-foot three-bedroom rambler built on a vacant lot in downtown Bay St. Louis, is the first LEED-Platinum home in the state.
The unassuming yellow house, built for $122,000 in less than three months this spring, features Galvalume recycled-metal roofing; open-cell spray-foam insulation in the floors and walls for an R-value of 19; Energy Star-rated appliances; a 16-SEER HVAC unit; 24-inch-o.c. framing; and low-VOC paints and adhesives.
Impact-resistant low-E Silverline windows and advanced framing methods make it strong enough to withstand winds up to 140 mph, 10 mph over code, crucial for a home that’s less than a mile from the coast.
The organization spends about $15,000 extra per project to build to third-party standards, McDonald says, with high-performance insulation and the upgraded appliances the biggest additional expenses compared to building a traditional Habitat home.
But the investment is paying off: Utility bills on the nonprofit’s energy-efficient homes have been as low as $80 a month, compared to $150 for a traditionally built house of the same size.
Despite the expense and additional costs of certifying their homes, McDonald says it’s not something she would skimp on, and more funders and government agencies are requesting certification, too. “At the end of the day, the only way you can establish what you’ve done is to get the piece of paper certifying the home,” she says.
The LEED-Platinum project’s reliance on unskilled volunteer labor was not a concern, says Reynolds, even for a home built with green products and technologies. “Preparation for us is huge,” says Reynolds. “Every day we go in to educate the volunteers on what they need to do. We’re construction managers and teachers at the same time.”
For example, about 12 Americorps volunteers manned the waste management system, separating recyclable construction debris and measuring the volume of waste. At the end of construction, only 6 cubic yards of construction waste had been sent to the landfill.
The educational element for Habitat’s green homes continues until the keys are handed over: “We have a whole training component that our construction staff has done with the homeowner,” says McDonald. “And that’s very important because these houses have to be managed well; it’s really important for the owners to understand the benefits.”
And, once they get settled in, many new homeowners call the HFHBW office to let them know how thrilled they are, Reynolds says. “After getting their first utility bill, that’s when they realize how much this home will help them save, and that’s just overwhelming.”
Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor Online for EcoHome.