Green Homes on the Range

Affordable, environmentally friendly starter homes come to the heartland

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The green home of the future may not have moving sidewalks or a levitating doggy treadmill à la The Jetsons. But a new house designed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does include forward-thinking innovations like movable walls and soy-based insulation.

These days there are green housing projects—and, increasingly, green affordable housing projects—in progress at sites all over the country. This one, however, rolled out in an unlikely spot: Omaha, Nebraska, a city of less than 850,000 people in the middle of the country. “We figure, if it can work in Omaha, it can work anywhere,” says HUD’s David Engel, director of the agency’s Affordable Housing Research and Technology office. This spring, an area north of Omaha’s downtown proved ideal for just such an affordable-housing experiment.

North Omaha, where Malcolm X was born in 1925, comprises several neighborhoods that have struggled for decades with crime and disinvestment. The decline accelerated in the 1970s after construction of the North Omaha freeway sliced through neighborhoods. Many homes and offices were abandoned, and crime rose. According to James Thele, Omaha’s assistant planning director for community development, the city turned its attention and resources back to North Omaha about 10 years ago. In 1998 the city tore down a 400-unit public housing complex to create a business park and began working with developers on infill housing.

Around the same time, HUD organized the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), a collaboration with private builders. In 2004 a PATH team started hashing out a design for a high-quality concept home with a flexible floor plan that could be built in about 20 days. Argentinean builder Fernando Pagés Ruiz was part of that team. Born in Buenos Aires, Ruiz had lived in New York and Los Angeles; in 1992 he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he found it easy to both raise a family and take on large, ambitious building projects. “People paid full prices for houses, and I didn’t meet anyone who had been sued,” he quips.

Ruiz’s most notable development in the area is Liberty Village, a cluster of affordable single-family homes in Lincoln that house immigrant families from all over the world. Ruiz modified the living spaces to fit the social and cultural needs of each family. A Vietnamese family turned a garage into a second cooking space. A Muslim family created separate spaces for male and female guests.

In 2005 HUD chose Ruiz to build the agency’s first concept PATH home in Omaha. Taking a cue from office spaces, Ruiz located all the utilities in a centralized “utility core,” which frees interior walls from wiring and plumbing so they can slide in and out of a place like a cubicle’s walls. A family can easily add another bedroom when a new child is born, expand the living room when teenagers have friends over, or add an elevator or bedroom when Grandma moves in.

Ruiz thought the home’s greywater recycling system might raise eyebrows among city code enforcers, but he met with no resistance. Water from showers, baths, and laundry is sent to the basement, where it’s treated aerobically and with ultraviolet lights. Then it makes one more cycle through the house, pouring back into toilets, washing machines, and the garden hose. “You’re doing your own water treatment on site, which is a great environmental benefit, but cities are approaching it slowly and skeptically. What happens if someone drinks out of the hose or something?” says Ruiz. “Some of the concerns are legitimate, but there’s a lot of use of this kind of system in Europe and Asia. People are getting used to it.”

The price for all this, around $150,000, may sound high for an affordable housing product, but not one with these kinds of bells and whistles. HUD says the house is aimed at moderate-income families—perhaps immigrants and other working families looking for long-term, suburban-style living at a lower price. HUD plans to use the Omaha house as a model for affordable development in the Gulf Coast region, and it intends to roll out homes in other areas of the country by next year.

Reprinted from the Next American City (Spring 2007), a nonprofit magazine about the future of America’s cities and suburbs. Subscriptions: $29 (4 issues) from www.americancity.org.

 

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