Habitat for Humanity aims to build model of efficiency


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MINNEAPOLIS -- Nakeia and Ramell Dismond are like most working-class families: After the rent is paid, they have no money left in the budget for their kids' activities or vacations.

That will change in a couple months when they purchase a new home on the west edge of River Falls, Wisc. There, crews are building a housing development that will produce all its own power, saving homeowners hundreds of dollars each month.

The project is the largest of its kind in the nation for Habitat for Humanity, the sixth-biggest U.S. homebuilder last year. The nonprofit says the development will create affordable housing at a time when mortgages have become tougher to get. It'll also serve as a national model, showing for-profit developers that homes can be both energy-efficient and economical on a large scale.

"A project of this size helps propel us further along that green and sustainable path," said Matt Clark, director of construction technologies at Habitat headquarters in Atlanta. "As an industry, we all need to be moving toward green and sustainable solutions."

The Eco-Village will create its own power through solar panels, geothermal heating and other energy-saving measures, then sell the power back to the utilities. When finished, the development will have 18 single-family and attached homes as well as a park. The St. Croix Valley Chapter of Habitat is building the Eco-Village on a once-neglected site about 45 minutes east of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Susan Roeder, manager of corporate affairs for Andersen Corp., said the company's foundation donated $100,000, along with energy-efficient windows for all 18 homes. The company will also make a three-year labor commitment to the project. In addition, Habitat is tapping the expertise and generosity of several local companies. The city of River Falls donated the 7.5-acre parcel.

The Dismonds and other future homeowners are making an investment, too.

Habitat requires homeowners to put in at least 500 hours of "sweat equity" by helping build their house or another one. The project is also getting technical support from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Kelly Cain, director of the university's St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, is providing expertise to help the project achieve an unprecedented level of sustainability. The Eco-Village is expected to be the biggest net-zero project in the country, meaning it won't consume more energy than it produces.

Mr. Cain said the project sets a new standard for low- to moderate-income development nationwide. "We're pushing these homes off the charts in terms of our pursuit of building efficiencies," he said, noting that the program goes well beyond the requirements of Energy Star and LEED, two well-known efficiency standards for new houses.

And in River Falls, the project helps bridge a critical gap in the supply of affordable housing. Many of the people who live in the city have trouble finding housing that's affordable and permanent. That was true for the Dismonds.

"We didn't see ourselves ever owning a home until this opportunity came along," Mrs. Dismond said.

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