Signs of Sustainability: Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly- March 28, 2011. By Shannon MacCarrick.

Two years ago, Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties completed the construction of its very first ENERGY STAR home. Two years before that, Habitat’s Board of Directors made the commitment to build all of its homes as “green” and energy efficient as possible. Ever since these steps towards sustainability were made, we’ve built environmentally friendly homes for deserving, low and very low-income families in our community. Our volunteers enjoy the opportunity to learn earth-conscious construction techniques during the build, and our families reap the benefits with low utility bills and healthy living environments.

Professor Lorraine Maxwell’s Environmental Research and Design class at Cornell University committed an entire semester to facilitate the planning of our first ENERGY STAR house. Students interviewed Habitat volunteers and low-income families to determine how the space should perform to meet their needs. They researched indoor air quality, floor coverings, green heating/plumbing materials and non-toxic building materials along with their local sources and prices. This wonderful collaboration led to the construction of very energy efficient house that secured a high ENERGY STAR rating of 93 and a $2400 rebate from N.Y.S. Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

The most delightful thing about this home has been the family’s appreciation and enjoyment. They call it their “forever house” and, because of the improved air quality, their youngest child has not had to use her nebulizer for asthma since she moved in. Additionally, the annual heating bill is only $500. These incredibly affordable utilities go a long way in helping our Habitat families manage homeownership financially – and all with a smaller carbon footprint.

Habitat continues to build energy efficient homes and three will be built this coming year. Our homes are also ADA handicap-adaptable, with wider doorways and halls and larger turn around space in the bathrooms and kitchen among the modifications. Sustainable practices on our Habitat construction sites and in our homes include:

• Purchasing wood from sustainable forests and other materials from within 500 miles of our job site
• Using recycled materials
• Optimizing orientation, building design, and insulation to make the house energy efficient when possible
• Insuring a “tight” home and good indoor air quality by installing an air exchanger on a timer and dense packed cellulose insulation (a sustainable and chemically friendly product)
• Venting the radon
• Preserving existing trees and topsoil on the property and controlling erosion on our sites
• Using recycled fly ash in our concrete
• Installing low-e argon filled windows
• Using paints, floor treatments and lumber that do not emit formaldehyde or other noxious gases
• Installing ENERGY STAR appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and heating systems that are 90+% efficient
• Reducing building material wastes that would have gone to the landfill by recycling or re-using metals, sheet rock, and other construction ‘scraps’ on future job sites
• Creating a recycling center on each job site and educating volunteers to recycle drink containers, cardboard packaging, and metals
• Collecting returnable cans and bottles to generate building funds – over $1000 to date!
• Interior doors (Masonite) are a very sustainable and chemically friendly product (no nasty formaldehyde)
• Our houses meet and exceed ENERGY STAR standards

One of the major reasons people volunteer with Habitat (other than wanting to do good) is to learn how to build “green.” Many of our energy saving practices like installing low flush toilets and CFL’s, using high-quality insulation and air sealing are things that all homeowners can do to reduce their utility bills and energy use. We’re proud to be protecting and preserving our earth while building simple, decent, affordable homes for local families, and showing our volunteers and families how to do the same. Volunteers are always needed for a variety of tasks – from fundraising to raising the roofs. Please email us at if you’d like to get involved!

Shannon MacCarrick is the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Tompkins and Cortland Counties.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles