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Opinion

Eco-Village reduces footprint

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February 6, 2014

This past fall, I volunteered along with other UWRF Destination service trip leaders and interns at the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity. Working beside a sorority and a few community members, we put in insulation, hung drywall, and painted trim.

The highlight of the day for me was touring a nearly complete home. We met one of the future homeowners and her family doing a final cleaning and paint job before moving in.

The walls were in warm, cheerful tones and the skillfully tiled floor was spotless. The laughter and good humor in the air allowed me to envision the future of the bare studs and concrete of the house I spent most of the day in.

Since it was founded in 1995, St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity has built 58 homes in St. Croix and Pierce Counties. Seven of these homes were just completed in 2013 for the Habitat Eco-Village on the Westside of River Falls.

An Eco-Village is a community of people who intentionally make life choices to reduce their ecological footprint. The design and building process of the community’s homes, to function in harmony with this aim, is critical. Construction waste for the planned 18 homes is recycled. And though it is invisible under the current snow, rain gardens, community gardens, edible landscaping, and paths connecting the Eco-Village to the larger neighborhood are all in progress. Some of the homes at the Habitat Eco- Village were built as duplexes with shared walls to increase heating and cooling energy efficiency. Radiant floor heat systems also help lower the heating bills and reduce draw on natural resources.

Protection of our local watershed is also an element of the community’s design. Driveways are built with pavers to create a permeable surface that allows water to infiltrate into the soil instead of becoming harmful runoff.

One of more to come, a rainwater collection system was installed to gather rainwater from gutters to fill a 2,500 gallon cistern. This gray water system is for outdoor lawn, car washing, and gardening uses.

SCV Habitat is also nearing completion of the infrastructure necessary for storm water and erosion management.

Possibly most noticeable at a glance though, are the extensive solar Photovoltaic (PV) and thermal installations on the homes’ rooftops. Through an in-kind contribution of MAMAC Systems, SCV Habitat is able to monitor real-time energy performance in one of the green homes.

In September, they reported that solar energy filled 90% of hot water needs and solar PV produced 33% more electricity than it consumed in the home.

The Eco-Village homes are awaiting their final ratings from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification. They have preliminarily been rated Platinum, the highest LEED ranking possible.

UW-River Falls’ relationship with the Eco-Village grew through Dr. Kelly Cain and the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development’s expansive networking and outreach capabilities.

The Eco-Village’s distinctive success has garnered attention and visitors from other Habitat affiliates and private developers as far as Tacoma, Washington. Our local Habitat affiliate is known nationally as a trailblazer in this capacity.

SCV Habitat’s conventional role had been as a homebuilder. The Eco-Village’s vision shifted the organization into the role of a developer. With former Mayor Don Richard’s vision, the city of River Falls donated the land the Eco-Village occupies.

This required special considerations, since SCV Habitat had to put in a road and work closely with the city in a different capacity. One concern with Habitat acting as a developer and building green housing was that the upfront cost to build the homes would be more expensive. SCV Habitat Executive Director, Dave Engstrom, sees a trend though that the current and future homeowners realize the long-term value of the way their homes are being built.

Beyond the fact that energy bills and future costs will be greatly decreased, Engstrom said, “That’s the way houses should be built. Poor people shouldn’t be excluded from sustainable housing. St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity’s mission is to provide safe, decent, affordable, and sustainable housing for everybody.”

Donations of innovative technology, efficient home fixtures, and the skilled labor of professionals has greatly reduced the cost of the homes. Steiner Plumbing, Electric & Heating Inc., Andersen Windows, Werner Electric, CalStar and Uponor are among the generous contributors that are too numerous to list.

All 18 homes planned for the Eco-Village have been assigned. Engstrom emphasized that, like all Habitat homes, the Eco-Village homes are not simply given away. Habitat for Humanity finances the homes and sells them to qualifying families or individuals with a zero-interest loan.

The applicants have to demonstrate that they currently do not have acceptable housing and that they would be able to make the monthly payments. The mortgage payments average between $400 to $600 per month. Each adult applicant must also agree to commit to at least 250 hours of “sweat equity” to be considered.

The Board and staff also grappled with whether or not they were attending to the rest of their service area while creating this exceptional example here in River Falls. Their solution to the wider community’s need is “A Brush With Kindness.” Like Habitat’s home building program, “A Brush With Kindness” offers low-cost services at a zero-interest loan, but focuses on rehabbing homes for current homeowners.

Projects will begin this spring and could include energy improvements, new exterior paint jobs, or weatherizing for existing homes.

Students and the wider community have multiple opportunities to participate with SCV Habitat. The UWRF Habitat for Humanity club volunteers their time once a month on a Saturday.

Club meetings are every other Tuesday in KFA 360. Their next meeting is on Tuesday, February 11th. Log on to OrgSync or contact club president, Abby Kubichek, at abigail.kubichek@ my.uwrf.edu for more information.

SCV Habitat for Humanity is also recruiting for an AmeriCorps VISTA position. The full-year AmeriCorps position starts this April and will focus on resource development. The VISTA volunteer will most likely share time between the River Falls office and the ReStore in New Richmond, WI. They are looking for someone interested in marketing, public relations, recruiting donations, and increasing ReStore sales through creative advertising.

The New Richmond ReStore is a building materials and home furnishings thrift store. Students and community members are both encouraged to donate building materials and furniture as well as shop for the same at low prices. Furniture pick-ups can be arranged by appointment.

Groups and individuals are welcome to volunteer on the job site. Although no experience is necessary and safety equipment is provided, it is important to wear appropriate clothing.

Call ahead at 715-425-5623 or login as a volunteer on SCVHabitat.org to make sure the daily onsite manager will be expecting you.

Molly Breitmün is a non-traditional student majoring in conservation with a minor in GIS. Her interest in campus sustainability was fostered by becoming an undergraduate fellow for the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development as well as by her peers in the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture.