I must start with a simple declaration: I completely support anyone who wants to do anything to save energy or water or any other resource and to cut down on pollution. Sustainable measures to protect our pocketbooks, health and planet should be a topic of daily discussion and a matter of habit.

But I have to tell you, I really don’t want to debate whether a 10,000-square-foot home can be “green.” Don’t get me wrong, I think solar panels, water cisterns and furniture made from reclaimed wood are all worthwhile — if you can afford them. Most of us can’t, so that makes for a very short debate.

I’m much more interested in ensuring that families of modest incomes are reaping the economic and health benefits of environmentally friendly building, which is definitely not just a philosophical discussion. Not only is it possible to make affordable housing green housing, but many organizations are already doing so in effective ways.

Did you know that 38 percent of homes built through the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program are affordable for people of low- to moderate-income? Thirty eight percent! And, before 2012, affiliates of Habitat for Humanity will build 5,000 homes that meet at least the standards of Energy Star Home Plus or a more stringent green building standard through the Partners in Sustainable Building program we created with them.

How can these homes be efficient and healthy while remaining affordable? It’s about paying careful attention to the basics — thoughtful design, smart choices and good building. Take for example the Roanoke-Lee Street project developed by Community House Partners in Blacksburg, Va.

First, the design team carefully evaluated how the buildings would integrate into the existing community. By clustering the homes, the building footprint was reduced, which preserved trees, minimized erosion and allowed for about 10 percent of the land to be set aside as a green community space. Because the 14 homes are within easy walking distance of transportation, offices, schools and shopping, residents don’t necessarily need a car, which reduces their living expenses as well as pollution.     

  

With regard to the homes themselves, priority was given to energy and water efficiency because of the resulting cost savings. By properly orienting the homes and increasing the roof overhangs, like any good old-fashioned Southern farmhouse, the designers moderated the effect of the sun on the inside temperature, allowing them to select smaller HVAC equipment that still keeps the homes comfortable.

An investment was made to select efficient windows, exceed code requirements for insulation and install EnergyStar appliances. These choices allow the homeowners to save about a third on their monthly electric bills. They also experience similar savings on their water bills because CHP used low-flow fixtures, dual flush toilets, rain barrels and planted native species that require less irrigation.

For a family making between $30,000 and $35,000 a year, those savings make an enormous difference in their ability to pay their bills, have a financial cushion and enjoy stable, successful lives. That’s before we even get to the maintenance expenses avoided by using durable materials like hardwood floors and the improved health attained by minimizing the chemicals used inside the home.

The Roanoke-Lee Street project is just one of hundreds of projects The Home Depot Foundation has supported to make responsibly built homes available for families of modest incomes. In fact, we made a commitment to support the creation and preservation of 100,000 affordable green homes over 10 years. Just three years into this pledge, our investment has already made 64,000 such homes a reality. We’re extremely proud and grateful for the hard work that our nonprofit partners are doing to design, finance and build these houses every day. 

Affordable housing developers not only embraced the opportunity, but they have led the way in green homebuilding because of a number of factors. First, the homes they build are modest, typically between 1,100 and 1,800 square feet. By definition, it’s going to take fewer resources to build, operate and maintain a smaller building.

Secondly, these organizations understand value and how a few dollars can really add up. If a nonprofit is building an apartment building that they will own and operate for 15 or 30 years depending on the financing they used, it’s easy for them to make decisions about the benefits of long-term savings. Also, they don’t have the same business dilemma that typical contractors do about adding first costs when they won’t see the cost benefits. Nonprofit developers understand that lower monthly expenses for the homeowner are an added benefit that a family will receive from living in a responsibly built home.

Through their successes, these nonprofit developers are showing us all how we can make simple changes in our homes to save money and improve our health … that affordable housing can, and must, be quality housing. So if you are like most of us and can’t live in a mansion, but still dream of a green home, I hope your next dream will be affordable.

To see more examples and case studies of the healthy, efficient and affordable homes supported by The Home Depot Foundation, go to our website.

Kelly Caffarelli has been president of The Home Depot Foundation since 2003. Under her leadership, the foundation has granted more than $190 million to nonprofit organizations and supported the construction and preservation of more than 95,000 affordable, healthy homes. Follow her on Twitter @HomeDepotFdn.
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