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Affordable, green housing could have Scandinavian look

South Boston News
A near net-zero energy-use house like these could be one of a handful erected in South Boston for low-income families. This design relies heavily on solar power generated by its roof and windows, wind energy and captured rainwater for flushing toilets. The project seeks to make houses affordable, environmentally friendly, low-maintenance, durable and attractive – all while boosting the economic development of the region.
SoVaNow.com / March 31, 2011
The possibility of getting free, solar-powered, affordable housing wasn’t met by South Boston Town Council with initial enthusiasm so much as with architectural critique.

“Ugly as sin,” chuckled Council member Ed Owens.

Council member Connie Manning mused that it looked like a trailer home.

But Dr. Mark Morris averred that it was Scandinavian in style, Town Clerk Jane Jones suggested it was reminiscent of a beach house, and, ultimately, Council voted unanimously to support the snappily-named ecoMOD project in its quest for funding.

Here’s how it might work, according to Town Manager Ted Daniel and John Quale of U.Va. and ecoMOD’s project director: The University of Virginia’s engineering, architecture and landscape-architecture departments collaborate with the brand-new Innovation Center at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center to design partially pre-fabricated, attached home units – up to 10. Cardinal Homes of Charlotte County and Sips of America in Blairs might build them. For starters, two units are erected on less than an acre on Poplar Creek Street, across from Fairmont Apartments. Solar panels are on the roofs, the windows themselves generate energy and wind energy is harnessed when possible. While electric lines come into the house, the dwelling is as self-supporting as possible. Rainwater is captured for flushing toilets.

Interior photos of models already in existence show bamboo flooring and ample natural light in the two-to three-bedroom homes. (Six have been erected since 2004, including one in a Gulf Coast area hit by Hurricane Katrina.)

A non-profit called the Southside Outreach Group would manage the homes initially in a rent-to-own program in which prospective first-time homebuyers pay rent, part of which is held for a future down payment while they adjust to living expenses and prepare for a mortgage application. The Town’s role: donate a section of land given to it by Jenny Wilkins and re-zone the land from low-density residential to high-density residential and help the project get grant funding – ideally through the Tobacco Commission.

The engineers and designers (many of them college students) get another real-life design-build-evaluate project that they can point to as an example of affordable and energy-efficient housing.

The Town gets infill housing at no cost and, eventually, tax money.

Daniel called the project “really super neat.”

David Kenealy, the Higher Ed Center’s director of research and development, said much hinges on the Tobacco Commission’s funding but that he’s hopeful.

“If we are awarded that grant, then the future looks great,” he said.

The homes have won sustainability and design awards and garnered attention in a number of industry and academic publications.

Quale said that in theory the first two units would look identical but would be built differently: one with specially insulated, very strong panels that require few studs; the other with more standard wood construction and ample insulation. In the western Virginia town of Abingdon the same project would be going on, thus allowing for comparisons between the building designs, the climates and the occupants’ living habits. Ideally, occupants allow the team to evaluate energy use and the homes’ durability, but cooperation varies by family.

Crucial to the project are making the houses affordable, environmentally friendly, low-maintenance, durable and attractive – all while helping the economic development of the region, Quale said. Recycled or reclaimed materials are used when possible, he said, but the project is driven by practicality. That bamboo flooring, for example: It was on sale.

The project’s partners have been housing-advocacy groups such as Habitat for Humanity.

The contemporary styles have been well-received, Quale said, even among initial skeptics.

Its website: http://ecomod.virginia.edu/.

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