|The sustainable house sits proudly with walls erect on Whitney St., a “blighted” part of the JOSANA neighborhood.
Just west of downtown, along Jay St. between the intersections of Whitney and Orchard streets, almost every house has a sign. “Take Notice,” a bright green placard from the City of Rochester reads, “Not to be occupied.” “No Trespassing,” and, “For Rent,” others read. At Orchard St., a police surveillance camera watches silently from high atop a pole.
On this stretch, they appear: a familiar white-haired university president accompanied by his wife, Rebecca Johnson, both astride red-and-yellow-triangle-adorned bicycles. Their destination has a different sign, “RIT: Proud Sponsor of this Habitat for Humanity Home.” It is 167 Whitney St., the site of a half-assembled house meant to provide a model of how sustainability can be affordable. When completed, it will feature energy-saving design improvements and most notably,
“This is really just a chance to bask in the reflected glory of the students,” said President William Destler, speaking to a crowd composed of many of those students and volunteers present at the wall raising ceremony on Nov. 7. He made a few brief comments and then turned the wooden-house-frame-turned-stage over to April Randall, the future homeowner, who said she was “trying to fight back the tears” before thanking RIT and Habitat for Humanity.
It was Destler who, at a meeting with the RIT Habitat for Humanity chapter in the fall of 2008, proposed that they should sponsor a house, and that the design should incorporate sustainability. Kaity Werner, a third year Marketing major and fundraising coordinator for RIT Habitat, was at
According to Werner, the club typically works with the Habitat for Humanity affiliates in Livingston County, Batavia and Flower City Habitat for Humanity in Rochester. They work on homes being built or renovated by those affiliates on Saturdays, and raise money and awareness. However, sponsoring a home and making it sustainable was a new challenge. “This is something we’ve never done before,” says Werner.
To help tackle this challenge RIT Habitat approached the RIT student chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World in November 2008. “[They] want to put RIT’s signature on it,” said Alex Ship, a sixth year Mechanical Engineering major and vice president of ESW. The student chapter’s task was to design sustainability into the house while also keeping it affordable.
ESW assigned each system of the house — plumbing, heating and cooling, windows — for members to research. Changes were suggested by members and evaluated on initial cost and payback period. If the suggested change didn’t pay back within 10 years or the initial cost was too high, it was unlikely to make it into their recommendations.
Many of the changes were what Victor Sanchez, a fourth year Civil Engineering Technology major and president of ESW, terms passive design. One such passive element was southern facing windows. They were suggested to collect heat from sunlight in the winter and to provide natural light. To prevent adding additional heat in the summer, the windows would be protected by overhangs. The sun is higher in the sky in the summer than in the winter, so the overhangs would prevent heat collection in one season and permit it in the other.
Other ESW accepted modifications included insulated pipes, a tankless water heater and moving from two-by-fours to two-by-sixes to give more space for insulation.
Despite this success, some examined changes did not pan out. One idea was to build passive solar heating into the house. By pouring lots of concrete, the house could then soak up and retain the sun’s heat. “What we found was that Rochester wasn’t sunny enough,” said Ship. For the amount of sun Rochester gets, the technique would be on the border of effective, which would translate into a payback period that was too long. That, coupled with a high upfront cost, killed
At the wall raising, Ship said he believes these changes will reduce dependence on energy provided by Rochester Gas & Electric and “lower the monthly RG&E bill.” However, he and ESW couldn’t say how much those bills would be reduced.
ESW’s ideas were integrated into the house design by Todd A. Marsh, AIA and associate professor of Architectural Design & Drafting at Finger Lakes Community College. “[He made] the final plans that we’re not licensed to do,” says Ship.
One addition that did not come from ESW was the solar panels. They didn’t pass the affordability test. Others solicited donations and O’Connell Electric — a company that owns local solar panel installer Rochester Solar Technologies — agreed to contribute them.
This is the second sustainable house that Flower City Habitat and Marsh are taking on this year. The first home, dedicated in September, was sponsored by Architects Collaborating with Engineers for Shelter, and is a short distance away.
Green houses are only part of Flower City Habitat’s extensive plans for the neighborhood centered at Jay and Orchard streets, referred to as JOSANA. Diane Walker, communications manager for Flower City, says there are 24 blocks in the neighborhood and “blight is on every block.” It has become the focus of a multi-year project intended to reshape it, which, according to Walker, includes the planned building of 100 Habitat homes. Close to 15 are complete so far.
Homeowners, such as Randall, moving into those Habitat houses are asked to complete 450 hours of work on their own and other’s homes, and pay a 20- to 25-year, zero interest mortgage of roughly $61,000 to $65,000 owed to Flower City Habitat. “This is not a free house for April,” said Destler, who will be chipping in $10,000 himself.
The cost of the house, however, will be almost entirely paid for by donors. RIT Habitat and RIT must raise $75,000 in cash or gifts to cover a chunk of the $90,000 to $95,000 total price tag. The proceeds from the mortgage are in addition to the $75,000 amount and will be returned to Flower City Habitat.
According to Sharon Lonthair, managing director of Development and Alumni Relations, a little over $15,000 in cash and several thousand in gifts in kind have been given or pledged. According to Walker, $25,000 was due when the foundation of the house was laid about a month ago, but she says it’s not unusual for fundraising to continue even after due dates.
“RIT, in many ways as an institution, grew out of the needs of the community,” Destler said, after helping raise a wall, “This is another way for all of us in the RIT family to give back.”