Habitat For Humanity of Teller County (Colorado) partners with a local architect to create an affordable, sustainable community.
BY SEAN O’KEEFE
FOUNDED IN 1976 BY HUSBAND AND WIFE MILLIARD AND LINDA FULLER, Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that seeks to put God’s love into action by bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope. Headquartered in Americus, Georgia, in the 46 years since being established, Habitat for Humanity has spread to more than 70 countries and helped more than 35 million people construct, rehabilitate or preserve a home. Operating as an affiliate, Habitat for Humanity of Teller County was established in 1999 by a group of passionate volunteers. The organization has since built several homes throughout the county, which boarders the western edge of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“At Habitat for Humanity of Teller County, our vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live,” says Keith Meier, Executive Director. A registered architect with 35-years of experience and a licensed general contractor of more than 25 years, Meier has devoted his life to design and construction and enjoys the challenge of building things better. Meier took the reins of the Teller County Habitat for Humanity operation in July of 2019 and immediately set about rethinking how to bring people together to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter. “A market study done in 2016 showed what Teller County needs most is workforce housing. So, building one house at a time won’t solve the problem.”
With an ambition of building not just one home, but a whole community of homes, Habitat for Humanity of Teller County decided to break the well-worn mold. Instead, Meier set out to find a piece of property zoned for multi-family housing. Thinking about people as the essence of community, Habitat for Humanity’s mission of volunteer-built homes puts people in place of profit as the center of the building equation. Why not put community at the center of the home design and development equation as well?
“We wanted to create a place where people engage with their neighbors, kids ride bikes in the street, and everyone is invested,” says Meier. Habitat for Humanity of Teller County requires homebuyers to have a viable connection to Teller County through either residency or employment and have a vested interest in long-term homeownership in the county. Once approved to buy a home, participants must complete between 250 and 500 hours of sweat equity working on the construction site before moving in. “We designed a community of 18 homes in 9 duplexes that we think represents a significant step forward in sustainable, resilient workforce housing that unskilled people can build economically almost anywhere.”
“At Habitat for Humanity of Teller County, our vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
Executive Director, Habitat for Humanity of Teller County
“Architecture should combine sustainable strategies, resources and technologies to make lives better. We are proud to offer the Trailhead Townhomes as an example of what is possible.”MARK BOWERS
Depending on where you live, the idea of affordable housing can mean a wide range of living situations. Habitat for Humanity of Teller County finds buyers and builds homes for Teller County residents who qualify by making between 60 and 80 percent of the Area Median Income. Based on the reported income in 2021, this would mean a qualifying household would earn approximately $49,000 to $66,000 annually.
Trailhead Townhomes will eventually become a collection of 2 and 3-bedroom duplexes located in Woodland Park, Colorado built specifically for people that work in Teller County but can’t afford to live there or are cost-burdened by living there.
Meier credits the design determination of the architects he chose to lead the commission as the difference-maker in Teller County’s homebuilding equation.
“We partnered with Architectural Workshop because they were by far the most excited about the concept of building a community,” says Meier of the consultant selection process, which involved a formal Request for Proposals and a shortlist interview process. “They have been a phenomenal partner since day one and combined site planning, passive design, sustainable systems, innovative building materials, and ingenuity to create homes that are net-zero ready.”
Mark Bowers founded Architectural Workshop (AW) in 1999 with a mission of enriching lives through design and the ambition to contribute something that makes the world a better place.
“Design is about more than four walls and a roof,” says Bowers, whose firm practices design by engaging owners, builders and consultants in a round table conversation the whole way through. “We strive to create places that integrate into their environment in a way that is as fragile with the Earth as possible. Architecture should combine sustainable strategies, resources and technologies to make lives better. We are proud to offer the Trailhead Townhomes as an example of what is possible.”
AW helped Meier and his team define the community they envisioned as walkable and pedestrian-oriented, with vehicles taking a back seat. Each house needed to have its own identity, a front porch facing the street, a welcoming approach, and its own roofline. The site was master planned to dovetail with an adjacent development, which allowed the new community to access their playground area and picnic pavilion, extending the concept of community beyond property lines.
“Rather than the amount of energy consumed by a home, the most significant factor in whether a house is sustainable or not is the amount of energy lost through the walls, roof and floors”MARK BOWERS
Sustainability began on the ground and worked its way through every aspect of the building process. AW insisted on a low-water landscape using only native plants and trees, taken from selections that will require limited care in Woodland Park’s cold, semi-arid climate. The site was master planned so that the placement of each duplex optimized passive solar gain and natural ventilation. Rather than the amount of energy consumed by a home, the most significant factor in whether a house is sustainable or not is the amount of energy lost through the walls, roof and floors.
“As far as trying to create a net-zero home, super-insulating the structure is the most important step,” shares Bowers. “¬Because these are volunteer-built structures, we needed building solutions that could be assembled by an inexperienced workforce.”
In conjunction with the contractor, the AW team turned to Insulated Concrete Forms (IFC). These insulated concrete blocks are 16 inches tall and 48 inches long and are assembled almost exactly like Legos. They are used to build the crawl space, exterior walls, and unit separation walls. They can be stacked up to eight feet high. Once fully assembled, the cavities within the blocks are filled with ready-mix concrete delivered by truck. Once filled, the wall assembly results in an R-value of R26. The interlocking blocks are easily assembled. Bowers shares that approximately 20 volunteers put the walls of the first duplex up in just one day. Not only do IFC walls provide continuous insulation, but they also have great sound attenuation, and are fire-resistant, which is important in wildfire country.
“The concrete structure was a big first step,” says Bowers. “We also used a concrete roof tile that will protect from hail, intense sun, and high winds. The tiles are easily individually replaced if they are damaged, lowering maintenance costs. Finally, we used a cementitious Hardie board siding, earning these homes a special Fortified Certification by IBHS for their ability to stand up to severe weather.”
Using less by wasting less is fundamental to sustainability. The same logic applied to making the exterior super-efficient continues inside. AW specified hydronic radiant floor heat¬ing, which incorporates reflective aluminum fins to circulate a hot liquid beneath a floor. The heat circulating within the fins radiates up through the concrete floor and is released to warm the surrounding air via convection. Since these homes are sited 8,465 feet above sea level, air conditioning is not a big concern. Instead, the design incorporates a whole house fan, which automatically exchanges the air inside each house for fresh outside air at 150 cubic feet per minute. Outgoing air circulates through a heat exchange that recovers 80 per¬cent of the energy in air before dispelling it. During the Sum¬mer, this is a super-efficient way to keep a home cool and reduces the possibility of mold, mildew or airborne patho¬gens year-round.
“We designed these homes to be 100 percent electric, with Energy Star rated appliances, windows, fixtures and boiler systems to go along with the super-insulated, super dura¬ble form,” continues Bowers of the everyday must-haves of sustainable living. “What’s more, the entire complex is mas¬ter-planned, so the roofs of all 18 homes are south facing at 36 degrees, the optimum angle to accommodate a 10-kW photovoltaic system. There is a federal tax credit that covers a significant portion of the cost of solar panels. That tax cred¬it is only available to homeowners, not a developer. So, these homes are net-zero ready. Getting solar panels will be a wise investment for the new homeowners.”
A project that combines many different sustainable systems to give a forward-thinking view of what’s possible, Trailhead Townhomes has garnered a fair amount of attention throughout the design and construction industry. Today the project represents an intersection of interests. Both Bowers and Meier are grateful for the chance to expose what’s possible in high performance workforce housing.
“The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association learned about what we were doing and wanted to make this a pilot project to demonstrate how Habitat for Humanity could be building out of concrete nationwide,” says Meier. “Ready-Mixed concrete companies from all over Colorado donated time, man power, and materials. Boral, Helix Steel, and Pella are among a very long list of incredible partners from all segments of the industry who supported this.”
Bowers agrees and points to the conglomeration of industry certifications the project has received as an indicator of its merit.
“The project is LEED Gold, Fortified Certified by IBHS, Energy Star for Homes with a HERS rating of 45, EPA Indoor Air Plus, and DOE Zero-Energy Ready Homes,” says Bowers. “This project truly demonstrates what sustainable living can mean if we put our minds to it.”
“This isn’t just about the cost of the home, but the big picture cost of homeownership,” finishes Meier. “Habitat for Humanity affiliates from about eight states have toured the site already. I know that there are now several places where other people are starting to build this way.”