Solar panels are not just only for McMansions

Solar panels are apparently not just for McMansions; they can even be used on Habitat for Humanity homes:

It’s solar Friday around these parts (job growth! innovation! sabotage!), with the news getting more and more awesome. Solar isn’t just for the rich, and it doesn’t only belong on skyscrapers and McMansions, but also on homes for families who qualify for Habitat for Humanity.

PG&E has donated about $1.7 million in the form of solar panels for 64 Habitat homes in the Bay Area. The solar paneled homes generate about 300 kilowatt hours a month and cause a yearly reduction in utility bills of about $500.

Overall, Habitat for Humanity is no environmental slouch these days, recently registering its 100th LEED certified home in Michigan.

I don’t know if this was the intention of the article but this seems to be highlighting the relatively high price of solar panels. The suggestion at the beginning is that one can only find solar panels on wealthy houses, like McMansions. (There might also be room here to debate whether McMansions could truly be green, even with plenty of solar panels.) Thus, we need to look at the example of Habitat for Humanity where they have found ways to be green even while providing cheaper new house for those who need it. If Habitat for Humanity can make this happen, can other builders?

I wouldn’t be surprised if solar panels become very common on new houses in the next few decades. Not only are they green, it could help homes become more self-sufficient, something I think plenty of homeowners would like in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Yet, we have been hearing for years how solar panels are supposed to become cheaper and thus more accessible to more Americans but it hasn’t happened yet…

Habitat for Humanity limits foreclosures for lower-income homeowners

Some recent data about Habitat for Humanity suggests that it may still be possible to have lower-income homebuyers without higher risks of default or foreclosure:

A recent study led by the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, which was commissioned by the Dallas branch of Habitat, found that foreclosures in Habitat’s Dallas market were less than 2% last year. Although the report only looked at the Dallas office of Habitat, the findings mirror those found in other Habitat offices across the country, the organization says.

If this data holds up across the country, we should then ask why Habitat owners have such low foreclosure rates. Is it just because Habitat for Humanity has a limited operation each year (a small sample to work with) or is there something about their program that makes a difference?

The article suggests that Habitat’s particular program is what makes the difference: the homebuyers go through “home-ownership education,” there is consistent interaction with Habitat after the home purchase, the purchased homes are relatively modest (not “McMansions”), and Habitat imposing a less punitive late fee for late mortgage payments. One of the study’s authors sums up the impact of what Habitat does:

“These are practices that I think any bank should implement, particularly after looking at the foreclosures in the last five years,” said Paul Hendershot, lead author of the Dallas Habitat report and an adjunct University of North Texas professor.

It would probably cost quite a bit for lending institutions to adopt the practices of Habitat for Humanity for each mortgage holder. While the up-front costs are prohibitive, the lenders would save down the road as homeowners would go through fewer foreclosures.

Can a McMansion be rated LEED Platinum?

There are 64 LEED-certified houses in Missouri, with 51 of these built by Habitat for Humanity in recent years. The director of the St. Louis office for Habitat says, “Actually, right now, we’re the largest LEED Platinum builder in the U.S. for single-family detached homes.” But within this discussion, the St. Louis director talks about why it would be difficult for larger homes to be certified as LEED Platinum:

Hunsberger said the investment for Habitat is fairly minimal. He estimates LEED adds about 5 percent to the cost of a standard home.

He said some of the organization’s costs are offset by partnerships with providers of energy-efficient products. Plus, there’s an advantage to Habitat’s houses — size. LEED applies a home-sizing ratio that makes Platinum certification easier to achieve for smaller structures.

“In essence, they don’t want McMansions,” Hunsberger said. “They don’t want 10,000-square-foot single family homes that may have two people living in them to reach LEED Platinum because it’s kind of anti what the movement is.”

This is interesting – so I did a little checking into LEED certification. According to “LEED For Homes Ratings” (a PDF file) from the US Green Building Council, the square footage of a home does factor into its ratings. There is a neutral home baseline and smaller homes have lower thresholds to reach certification levels (Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum) while homes larger than the baseline have higher point thresholds to reach. The neutral home size is 900 square feet for 1 bedroom or less, 1,400 for 2 bedrooms, 1,900 for 3 bedrooms, 2,600 for 4 bedrooms, 2,850 for 5 bedrooms, and 250 square feet for each bedroom after this. The rationale behind this is explained on page 42 of the PDF file:

These data were simplified and generalized to the assumption that as home size doubles, energy consumption increases by roughly one-quarter and material consumption increases by roughly one-half; combined, these amount to an increase in impact of roughly one-third with each doubling in home size. Thus the point adjustment equates to one-third of the points available in the Materials & Resources and Energy & Atmosphere categories combined for each doubling in home size.

So it is not as if larger homes can’t be LEED certified but they have to meet stricter guidelines. Ultimately, I want to know whether a McMansion, say a home of 4,500 or 5,000 square feet, be LEED certified by making up for its size sufficiently elsewhere?

(I am also intrigued by this Habitat director tying the size of a McMansion to 10,000 square feet. That is not just a McMansion: it may very well be a real mansion. How exactly how large a home has to be in order to be deemed a McMansion is unclear but 10,000 square feet seems on the high end.)