Randy Cockerell and Jennie Burrowes wanted a house that reflected their values.
Small carbon footprint. Energy efficient. Welcoming.
After looking for months, they finally found it. This past fall they moved into their new, environmentally friendly home in a Hickory, N.C., neighborhood intentionally designed to attract diverse residents.
Their cozy bungalow features energy-efficient windows and appliances, LED lights and a ventilation system that keeps clean air flowing and power bills low. It’s net-zero ready, which means they can someday add solar panels to help produce as much energy as they use.
They’re especially fans of their builder, Habitat for Humanity of Catawba Valley, a nonprofit long known for its affordable housing that’s now emerging as a national leader in energy-efficient construction.
Cockerell and Burrowes aren’t traditional Habitat home buyers, but about half their neighbors will be. In a twist to its usual mission, the Habitat affiliate is building a mixed-income community. Residents such as Cockerell and Burrowes pay full market rate for their homes while many of their neighbors go through the traditional Habitat program, which includes no-interest loans and sweat equity.
“This is the most ideal situation we can imagine,” said Cockerell, an Appalachian State University biology laboratory supervisor. Burrowes, his wife, is a physical therapist. “We’re both very conscious of our impact in the world. We try to make responsible environmental decisions. Living in a mixed-income community fits into our world view − we are happy to be in a community that intentionally puts people of different backgrounds together.”
In 2005, the Catawba Valley Habitat affiliate became the first N.C. builder to construct a net-zero home. Since then, Habitat affiliates from Massachusetts to Minnesota to Denver have built net-zero homes, with more planned in other areas.
“The advances in energy-efficient technology are typically reserved for higher-income people,” said Mitzi Gellman, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Catawba Valley. “We feel like it’s worth the investment to bring it to low-income families as well.
“Low income people struggle constantly to heat and cool their homes − this can help take that worry off of them. While it may cost a little more on the front end, it’s going to save them in the long run.”
When it’s finished, the Northstone neighborhood in Hickory will have 18 homes. While the houses don’t have solar panels, they’ll be net-zero ready. Gellman said installing the panels, at about $15,000 more per house, would have made them too expensive for Habitat buyers. She hopes that at some point her agency can find grants to install them.
In the meantime, the houses have many features that put their Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index scores under 50. That makes the houses about 80 percent more energy efficient than most existing resale houses in the U.S. Their energy ratings even beat about 50 percent of new homes.
Cockerell and Burrowes said electric bills for their three-bedroom, two-bathroom house have run about $50 a month – significantly less than non-energy-efficient counterparts would cost.
Casey Fields, a Duke Energy program manager for residential markets, said bringing such features to new, single-family affordable homes is unusual. His program focuses on helping struggling families make their existing homes more energy efficient.
“For Habitat to build single-family homes and make them as energy efficient as possible is a great thing,” Fields said. “I’ve got to congratulate them.”
So far, Habitat has built five homes in Northstone. When construction ends, traditional Habitat buyers will occupy 10 homes, and middle-income, eight. They’ll range from about 1,000 square feet to 1,250 square feet. The market-rate homes also include a detached garage.
The appraised home values range from $110,000 to $190,000. By comparison, the average starter home in that area is now about $250,000 and wouldn’t include the number of energy- efficient features the Northstone houses have. Any profit from the homes sold at market rate will go toward building more Habitat homes, Gellman said.
Finding safe, decent, affordable housing is tough for many families, especially in areas still struggling to recover from the Recession of 2008, and, in the Catawba Valley, from mill and factory closings. Many times they live in older homes with power-guzzling appliances, drafty windows and leaky heating and cooling systems.
Habitat leaders wanted to build a mixed-income community in hopes that everyone would benefit. They cite studies that show lower-income children growing up in mixed-income communities have a higher quality of life, are healthier and have a better chance at upward mobility.
The Northstone neighborhood offers easy access to stores, schools and churches − popular amenities for all income levels. Healthy air quality in the houses makes them safer, especially children, who are most susceptible to asthma exacerbated by poor air quality.
Habitat is now working with a family living in an old trailer where utility bills run $350 a month. “If they move into one of these houses, they’re already ahead − in this case, by about $250 to $300 a month,” Gellman said.
“Our ultimate goal would be for these families to save as much money as they can. It could change the quality of their lives,” Gellman said. “A lot of people think that super energy-efficient homes are a nice thing − for our families, it changes their lives.”
How to be energy efficient and save
Duke Energy offers programs focused on home energy efficiency, including home improvement incentives and energy-efficient products. A free Home Energy House Call is available to eligible customers except those in Florida. More information: duke-energy.com/dingdong or 844.DING.DONG. A free Home Energy Check is available to eligible Florida customers. More information: 877.574.0340.
The Neighborhood Energy Saver program works to help struggling families lower energy bills through options such as weatherstripping, foam insulation and energy-efficient lightbulbs that Duke Energy installs at no cost to the customer.
In 2016 alone, these programs helped customers save $500 million. Check duke-energy.com to see which programs are available in your state.