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July 22, 2015

Penn State students show that eco-friendly is income-friendly too

Team won awards for its design of net-zero-energy house for low-income owners

A group of Pennsylvania State University students have partnered with a nonprofit to prove that environmentally conscious design is not just sustainable, but affordable too.

The goal is nothing less than to "create a landmark for the State College community, a symbol of what affordable housing can be."

That is what the Penn State team wrote in a presentation about its award-winning design for an eco-friendly, low-cost duplex in State College, Pennsylvania.

In a semester-long course, a team of three professors and 30 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students worked together to design a real home for two low-income families.

As the university reported, the design effort is a partnership between Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture and the State College Community Land Trust, an affordable housing organization.

The land trust helps low-income first-time buyers by splitting the ownership of a property between the land and the house on it. The trust owns the land, so buyers only have to pay for the house itself.

As a result, mortgages might cost up to 30 percent less than usual. However, even with this discount, the nonprofit still found that homeowners were struggling to afford high utility costs.

The solution: Build a “net-zero” home that creates at least as much energy as it uses.

"It makes a lot of sense for our client who might be able to afford a mortgage but not the high utility bills that come with it," said Peg Hambrick, former president of the land trust.

The Penn State team spent a semester designing a duplex with three bedrooms in each unit that will be located around a mile from campus.

Calling the project “Heritage Homes,” the students took their inspiration from 19th century farmhouses and bank barns, structures with steep roofs built into hillsides.

The design was so well-done that the team won two awards from the U.S. Department of Energy this April in the Race to Zero Student Design Competition.

Solar panels, high-efficiency pumps and energy recovery ventilators are some of the features the students used to make the home green. All appliances inside will also be Energy Star certified, and there is a rain garden in the yard.

"This has been such an amazing experience because it's going to have an impact on real people," graduate student Chauntel Duriez told a University publication.

Graduate student Kyle Macht said that he’s worked on other net-zero projects before but not ones where cost was such a critical factor.

"Our goal was to get net zero in the most affordable way possible," he said.

Construction is expected to cost a little over $300,000. Since SCCLT bought the land for $150,000, each homeowner will save $75,000 off their mortgage.

This project doesn’t end with summer vacation: The team will continue to finalize plans with the board of the land trust, and construction will start this spring.