ABOVE: The opening spread of Dan Abel's "Green House" article
By Dan Abel
The first wave of a revolution in residential home construction is under way in Georgetown. Georgetown County Habitat for Humanity, in partnership with Coastal Carolina University's Campus and Community Sustainability Initiative, is undertaking a groundbreaking, innovative new program, the Green Building Project.
Unit recently, the words "green building" have had no meaning to South Carolina lowcountry residents, or worse, conjured up images of mold-infested dwellings. But this connotation is fast changing, and one of the agents of change is Georgetown County Habitat for Humanity.
Green building, also known as high performance or sustainable building, refers to making structures that: conserve energy, water and material resources; use construction materials that have a low environmental impact; promote high indoor air quality; and are long-lasting and perform better than conventional houses.
The goal of this ambitious initiative, which was begun when I spent the fall 2005 semester on public engagement leave working with the Georgetown Habitat affiliate, was to build a prototype low-cost, state-of-the-art, green house, then incorporate successful features into subsequent local Habitat for Humanity homes.
Green building embodies this simple core philosophy that many builders are just now rediscovering: structures should be designed and built as if both people and the environment matter. Consider indoor air quality. The air inside conventional dwellings is literally a witches' brew of chemicals (some dangerous, such as formaldehyde, a potent carcinogen) that emanate from carpet, paint, cabinets, furniture, and which also escape from cleaning products used throughout the house. Using air-friendly alternatives materially improves the health of the occupants.
In the current man-made global climate crisis, building an environmentally-friendly house is more than a virtue. A healthy environment is as vital to humans as the air we breathe. While each human adds something unique to the planet, the cumulative impact of our presence has been harmful to the environment in the form of diminished air and water quality, habitat destruction and degradation, and decreased biodiversity. Buildings are energy hogs and use construction materials whose manufacture is often quite destructive.
After unsuccessful attempts to promote green building to local residents and builders, I approached Georgetown Habitat Director Annette Perreault with a proposal to build a green Habitat house, and she enthusiastically accepted. The need for decent affordable housing in Georgetown County is high. Both unemployment and poverty levels in Georgetown County are above state averages. Habitat Georgetown estimates that as much as one-third of all housing in Georgetown County is substandard—that is, with inadequate roofs and unsafe foundations. Habitat houses are typically built using a very simple box design and conventional materials, i.e. wood frame construction, gypsum board interior walls, vinyl siding and asphalt shingle roofs. Interiors also use traditional materials—latex paint, nylon carpet, vinyl floors, etc. Houses are less than 1,000 square feet in area. (In 2006, the average new American house was almost 2,500 square feet.)
The initial plan was to seek out materials that (a) could replace standard materials in Habitat houses with little modification of the basic plan, (b) were readily available locally, (c) were durable and had a track record of high performance, and (d) were affordable or would be donated by local vendors. We also decided to focus on energy efficiency and indoor air quality, as well as to manage water on the site, thus minimizing stormwater runoff.
With the corporate sponsorship of the Time Warner Cable and WYEZ Easy 94.5, the donations of many generous local individuals and vendors (too numerous to mention), grant support from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, technical assistance from the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta, and the limitless energy of Habitat Family Services Coordinator Emily Mobley, the house was started on a lot on Palm Street in Georgetown in the fall of 2006.
Among the green features of this house are a tightly sealed thermal envelope, high efficiency heating and cooling system, Icynene formaldehyde-free spay-foam insulation, metal roof, Hardiplank siding, compact fluorescent lights, low aroma interior paint, digital thermostat, Whirlpool Energy Star appliances, low-flow showerheads and faucets, carpet tiles made of 100 percept recycled content, Energy Star windows and pervious concrete paving.
In fall 2006, I taught Honors 325, a service learning course in which CCU students learned about sustainability and made presentations to future Habitat home owners on energy and water conservation, recycling and, with the expert assistance of my colleague Sherer Royce, nutrition and fitness. The students who took this class will make presentations on their experiences at the Greening of the Campus meeting at Ball State University in September.
The building of this incredible house did not occur without incident, however. We encountered several obstacles, some serious (an intransigent building inspector, budget problems). But we anticipated as much, and as this article goes to press, the house is nearly finished. To me it is more beautiful than the biggest mansion in nearby Pawleys Island. In fact, in my opinion this is the most important house ever built in northeast South Carolina.
The Habitat green house was designed to show home buyers and builders that building green in coastal South Carolina is sensible, that small is beautiful, that breathing clean air indoors is easily achieved, that lowering electricity bills by as much as 50 percent can be realized inexpensively, and that there are locally-available green building materials that any builder can use. I am thankful to Coastal Carolina University for supporting my involvement in this project, and I am honored to have partnered with a noble organization like Habitat for Humanity and to have been a part of the team that introduced modern green building to this area.
This is the cover of the Spring/Summer 2007 Coastal Magazine issue