Public Private Partnership Building Net Zero Homes For Low Income Families In Rhode Island

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Home ownership is out of reach for many American families. As construction costs and land values soar, the cost of new homes in many areas is $300,000 or more. But buying a home is just the start. After you move in, there are other monthly costs that have to be paid in addition to the mortgage. Taxes and insurance, for example. And utilities. In Rhode Island, a public private partnership is building 5 new homes for low income buyers that are designed to have no utility bills at all.

Net zero low income housing Providence

Net zero affordable housing Providence
Image credit: Sung Hyun Hong and Diyi Zhang / RISD Department of Architecture)

Making that happen required a lot of input from a lot of people, beginning with Jonathan Knowles, a professor of architecture at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and partner in Briggs Knowles Architecture Plus Design. Knowles made designing the homes part of the curriculum for 12 of his students. Over the course of a semester, they came up with two designs.

“I was asked to provide a prototype home with two bedrooms and two floors,” Knowles tells Energy News Network. “It was a real challenge to do a zero energy ready house on two floors, and bring it in on budget, but they wanted the houses to have flexibility in case of live-in grandparents or kids. It required three months of all hands on deck for the students to figure it out.”

The five homes are being built on a three quarter acre lot in the densely populated Olneyville section of Providence. Once a place where mills lined the Woonasquatucket River, it is one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods whose main claim to fame is the New York System hot dog — a gustatory delight featuring chili, onions, and peppers with Pepto Bismol for dessert.

The homes will have triple-glazed windows, 11-inch thick walls, electric heat pumps and air exchange systems, and highly insulated roofs. They will also have a solar array on the roof oriented to capture the most sunlight possible. Knowles says his students figured out how to lower the cost of the homes by using slab-on-grade foundations and no frills finishes like polished concrete floors and tub surrounds instead of tile.

The project, called Sheridan Small Homes, marks the city’s first attempt to pair zero-emission design with affordable homeownership. It is a case study of sorts for future projects, as the city has identified some 250 vacant, tax-reverted lots that might be suitable for small, affordable homes, said Bonnie Nickerson, director of planning and development.

“When you think about affordable housing, it’s both the cost to acquire the unit as well as the long-term cost to maintain it,” Nickerson said. “We think any investment we can make upfront to reduce those long-term costs is really good for future buyers or tenants.”

“Low income households are disproportionately burdened with utility bills because the units are often older and inefficient. In Providence, low-income households spend 9.5% of their income on energy, compared to 4.7% for all households, according to a 2016 report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

“The $1.4-million Sheridan project is being funded through a variety of sources, including an award from a new grant program designed specifically for the development of zero energy units for low-to-moderate-income households. That program, called Zero Energy for the Ocean State, is a public-private partnership between Rhode Island Housing, National Grid, and the state Office of Energy Resources.”

The homes will be offered to qualified buyers for around $140,000, which is roughly half what they will cost to build. That is right in line with what other low income housing units without the net zero features sell for in the area.

So many people have already expressed interest in buying one of the homes, it may be necessary to choose the eventual buyers by lottery. In order to qualify, buyers must earn no more than 80% of the area median income — $52,000 for a couple — for two of the homes and no more than 120% of area median income — $79,000 for a couple — for the other three.

The development will be set up as a condominium with the managing association owning the solar panels. That way, all residents will share equally in the solar savings. Buyers will receive special training on how the home’s energy features work. The homes will be constructed by apprentices with Building Futures, a nonprofit organization that trains workers in the construction trades with the goal of increasing wage opportunities for low income adults.

Overall, the quest of low income net zero homes will provide a number of benefits to the community, not the least of which is a crop of new architects trained in how to create more energy efficient homes and buildings regardless of who the ultimate purchasers might be.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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