Front Porch Initiative

Ribbon Cutting in Johnson City, TN

Group in front yard of home watching dedication ceremony
Representatives from the City and community gathered to celebrate the dedication of a new affordable, energy-efficient home.

On May 15, the Front Porch Initiative team celebrated a ribbon cutting with Eastern Eight Community Development Corporation (E8CDC) for a new affordable, energy efficient infill home in Johnson City, Tennessee. The project represents outcomes possible when mission-aligned partners work together; this collaboration was made possible thanks to the commitment of E8CDC, the City of Johnson City, Johnson City Housing Authority, NeighborWorks, Appalachian Service Project, and Auburn University Rural Studio.

In 2011, Eastern Eight purchased a piece of property in a well-established neighborhood only two miles from downtown Johnson City. The site fronts a tree-lined street and slopes down in the rear, with alley access and a wide view of the neighborhood. The 50-foot-wide infill lot with setbacks limiting the buildable width to 34 feet, ideal for a house in the Front Porch Product Line. E8CDC selected the two-bedroom Sylvia’s House prototype for the site, with porches addressing both the front yard and back alley. The resulting intervention matches the scale and rhythm of the existing neighborhood fabric. Durable exterior materials minimize required maintenance, and a tight building envelope with high-performance mechanical systems minimize energy required to heat and cool the home.

Aerial view of houses
The new home fits comfortably into the fabric of the existing neighborhood.

E8CDC was awarded HUD Community Development Block Grant funding from the area’s HOME Consortium to enhance local housing opportunities. E8CDC partnered with Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a non-profit builder historically focused on repairs and replacing homes in their five-state service area. When breaking ground on this project in April 2021, merely a year into the pandemic, the full impacts of rapidly rising land and housing costs, a tightening labor market, and emerging supply chain issues were not yet known, nor their effects on the affordability equation. However, E8CDC always returned to the most important question: “What does it cost if we don’t build this home, and others like it, when they are needed now, more than ever?” Now that the home is complete, it will be sold to a family in the local community.

Rural Studio is both proud and humbled to have been included in this partnership. Together we have all learned a lot on this project, and we look forward to working hard to do again and again!

Press coverage of the event:

Johnson City Press: “Eastern Eight CDC unveils new affordable housing project” by Sarah Owens | May 17, 2022

Group photo with Rural Studio team and partners in front of home

Hello, Habitat!

Last month, the Front Porch team attended the Habitat for Humanity International 2022 Affiliate Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. In collaboration with two of our long-time field test partners, Front Porch Initiative presented work from those partnerships in conference sessions. The Front Porch team also hosted a booth with our research sponsor Fannie Mae to share our housing affordability research with attendees visiting the exhibit hall. Members of the Fannie Mae Disaster Recovery & Rebuilding team encouraged passers-by to stop and learn about our work, showed off the prototype models, and, and fielded questions about the pilot investigating sweat equity valuation.

Interested attendees stopped by the booth to learn more about Front Porch Initiative and our work with partners across the Southeast.

Mark Grantham, Executive Director of Auburn Opelika Habitat for Humanity (AOHFH); David Hinson, CADC Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research; and Betsy Farrell Garcia presented ongoing research on high performance housing affordability. In 2018 and 2019, AOHFH constructed two of the Buster’s House prototypes in Opelika to beyond-code energy standards and a resilience standard. Energy consumption data from those houses, as well as a third AOHFH house built to local code, is being collected and evaluated relative to the construction details, construction cost, and usage predicted by energy models. Conclusions drawn from the collected data informs choices about where investments in improved performance produce the most return on investment. The engaged and knowledgeable audience eagerly shared valuable feedback from their experience building to high-performance standards and welcomed the findings on where best to invest in upgrades that return savings on energy performance.

Mark, David, and Betsy presented research on houses constructed in Opelika, AL, and results from the ongoing energy usage.

With Carmen Smith, Executive Director of Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity (CAHFH), and Darwin Gilmore, Dean of Workforce and Economic Development for Chipola College, Mackenzie Stagg presented an innovative collaboration born out of a shared interest in increasing equitable access to high-performance housing in a rural community. CAHFH is currently building four Front Porch Product Line houses on a site in Marianna, Florida, a town still recovering from Hurricane Michael more than two years after the storm. Front Porch initiative supplied the designs for the homes and has provided technical assistance during the project’s development and construction. Students from the Chipola College Building Construction Technology program supplement volunteer labor while earning clock-hour credit toward a degree and construction certification. These high-performance, resilient houses will increase equitable housing access, facilitate continued disaster recovery efforts, and grow the skilled workforce needed locally. Affiliates attending the session participated enthusiastically and displayed great interest in building similar partnerships in their area.

Front Porch Initiative connected with many mission-aligned Habitat affiliates interested in expanding equitable, affordable homeownership while in Atlanta, and we hope to establish new partnerships with organizations across the country. We appreciate the Fannie Mae Disaster Recovery & Rebuilding team’s invaluable presence on the exhibit floor. Together with our partners’ incredible dedication to collaboration, we continue to reach a wide audience for the work of Rural Studio.

L to R: Tamara Dourney (CAHFH), Pete Fulton (CAHFH), Scott Phelps (Chipola College), Darwin Gilmore (Chipola College), Mackenzie Stagg (AURS), Sidra Goldwater (Fannie Mae), Carmen Smith (CAHFH), Betsy Farrell Garcia (AURS), Rusty Smith (AURS), and Jennie Ann Dean (CAHFH).

We look forward to the next Affiliate Conference!

Designing for High Winds in Louisiana

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) graciously hosted the Front Porch team on a visit to advance our latest partnership, a replacement house as part of Hurricane Ida recovery efforts in fishing communities south of New Orleans, LA. Our response to this project addresses an intersection of climate hazards; the house will be designed for both hurricane-force winds and flooding.

Partners from Rural Studio and NOH4H at potential house ite
(L-R) Rusty Smith, AURS; Marguerite Oestreicher, NOAHH; Tim Kerner, Jr, Mayor; Vivian Kain, NOAHH; Tim Carpenter, Fannie Mae; Bradley Holland, NOAHH; Tim O’Rourke, NOAHH; Betsy Farrell Garcia, AURS; Mackenzie Stagg, AURS

Our first day began with a field trip of precedent projects, including a recently completed Habitat home in the Gentilly Terrace neighborhood of New Orleans. The construction team explained the aspects of the home that are new to this affiliate: a vaulted ceiling in the main living space, a second bathroom (new to their three-bedroom plan), dedicated fresh air ventilation, storage for hurricane shutters, and a second porch off the kitchen at the rear of the house. We studied the foundation of treated wood piles supporting the raised wood floor system, as this system will be employed on the proposed project.  

Investigating the pile foundation on a precedent home recently completed by NOAHH

Because the house will need to be elevated above the FEMA Base Flood Elevation for flood mitigation, we met with the structural engineer, Steve Cali, to consider strategies for supporting the house 14 feet above grade. Julie Shiyou-Woodward of Smart Home America joined the discussion to clarify structural requirements of the FORTIFIED standard and to share the benefits of certification on insurance premiums. As the last blog post referenced, increasing resilience and durability of the home through minimal up-front investments can reduce a homeowner’s insurance premiums, contributing to the long-term affordability of the home and financial stability for the homeowner. In particular, Louisiana insurance carriers offer discounts for homes certified to the FORTIFIED standard. Fannie Mae’s Disaster Recovery & Rebuilding team also met with NOAHH and the Front Porch team to share potential financing opportunities for this and future projects.

View over the bayou near a potential site

The following day, the group traveled south of New Orleans to visit a few potential project sites located in fishing communities within Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes who working to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. As the source of 30% of Louisiana’s seafood, these communities have been described as a “working coast,” critical to the region’s economic recovery. These site visits illuminated the challenges of recovery, particularly in the face of steep flood insurance premium increases and material shortages due to supply chain issues; but community members expressed eager optimism and a fierce will to rebuild. NOAHH is working closely with the municipalities to coordinate efforts and mobilize construction crews while the Front Porch team finalizes construction documents. NOAHH aims to have the first house completed by August 29, 2022, the anniversary of hurricanes Ida and Katrina.

Affordable Housing vs. Housing Affordability

In our work, understanding why we build a home in a certain way is key in addressing the fundamental challenges of affordability. And while it is certainly important to ask, “what does a house cost to build?” it is perhaps more useful to consider what a house actually affords.

In other words, what impact might we have on the creation of more attainable housing if we could begin to consider the total cost of homeownership in the overall financial equation? Stated more directly, we have found that many low-wealth homeowners are not primarily challenged because they cannot afford their monthly mortgage payments. Instead, they are more often at risk of missing a payment and perhaps even losing their home because of one or more of the four following circumstances.

First, a homeowner may have an unexpected energy bill. In our part of the world, our homeowners may have an energy bill of $35–45 a month in March and April, and an energy bill of $350–400 in July and August.

Second, a homeowner may have an unexpected maintenance or repair bill. We live in an area of highly volatile climatic activity. Maintenance and repair due to storm-related events and the long-term displacement they often cause play a significant role in the financial security of our homeowners.

Third, a homeowner might have an unexpected healthcare event in their lives. Where you live matters, and living in substandard housing is one of the best-understood negative social determinants of health.

Fourth, a homeowner may face various forms of income disruption. Many rural homeowners rely predominantly on part-time work, shift work, and seasonal work to make ends meet. Additionally, they live in complex kinship networks in which everything is shared, from housing, transportation, and income to food, eldercare, and childcare. Any disruption in these community networks can be disastrous for generations of a family.

So, in addition to managing the upfront cost of construction of the home, it is even more important and impactful to understand how the actual performance of the home in four key areas—energy efficiency, durability and resilience, health and wellbeing, and the strengthening of community networks—all contribute in profound ways to financial and economic security.

Working with our builder partners and homeowners, the Front Porch Initiative provides the information, knowledge, and know-how around each of these instrumental areas to help them make informed decisions regarding both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of building performance, allowing for a clear decision tree that considers the cost and value of action, as well as the hidden cost of inaction.

Below, you see five variations of Joanne’s Home built in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.

One of the important aspects of this iterative research is our ability to build multiple versions of each home in various climatic conditions and with different performance objectives as necessitated by our housing partner’s particular circumstance. Taken together, these homes become “Test and Learn Laboratories,” and this iterative process of evaluating both the cost and value of building performance criteria lends itself to a highly customizable process and yields a wide variety of housing options and variations.

Each house we build offers the opportunity to study different issues of efficiency, resilience, wellness, and community building. One of our research questions focuses on finding the balance point between the front-end construction costs of improved performance and the back-end performance consequences in each of these areas. In our next post, we will share a case study of two versions of the product line homes (seen below), and how we use our homes to explore the pluses and minuses of different building standards in their delivery— specifically, we will take a deep dive into the intersection of energy efficiency and resilience, and we will share some of the surprising things we have learned along the way.

Photo credits

Joanne’s Home: Timothy Hursley

AIR Serenbe: J. Ashley Photography

Ree’s Home: Timothy Hursley

AHR Wharf Avenue: Ford Photographs, provided by AHR

Ophelia’s Home: AU Rural Studio

House 66 & House 68, Auburn Opelika Habitat for Humanity: Matt Hall

Mind the Gap

In the field of public health, there is a concept referred to as the “know-do gap.” Just as it sounds, this is the gap between what we know and what we do. According to the World Health Organization, there are two aspects of this gap: one, the gap from research to policy and, two, the gap from knowledge to action. We have found that this same know-do gap exists in the built environment.

The existential threat of climate change is a prime example. We know that the frequency and severity of natural disasters will continue to increase. And we know that these events will have outsized impacts on under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Diagram of "Know Do"

Addionally, through analysis such as the National Institute of Building Science’s “Mitigation Saves” report, we know that mitigation provides significant saving over the cost of disaster recovery. The question here is how to take what we know through research and translate it into what we do on the ground in our local communities to address these complex challenges.

Cover of Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves book

In our previous post we shared some of the critical lessons that we have learned over our years of designing and building high-performance houses on the ground in Hale County, as well as with our builder partners throughout the Southeast. Following are just a few of the key ways we are working to close the gap between these things that we know, and what we are doing about it.

Diagram of "Know Do"

In the Front Porch Initiative, which strives to create high-performance homes for under-resourced communities, we share our knowledge on what to build—relative to codes, universal design standards, lending and insurance requirements, and the like—and our know-how—where we show what to build—through a comprehensive set of construction documents and specifications for each of the houses.

Section house drawing

We are currently working with a network of Field Test Partners throughout the Southeast. Through these partnerships we have learned a number of things. Mainly, it’s not only important to show what to build; we have to show how to build it, and even more importantly, why it’s built that way.

Serenbe 20K Homes at the Art Farm
Our first field test project in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. Photo credit: Jessica Ashley Photography

We are all familiar with the Ikea model, where we are provided a catalog of materials, a funny little tool, and a clear and comprehensive set of step-by-step instructions through which we can all become somewhat-competent furniture builders.

Ikea drawings examples

With our builder partners, we provide the same kind of instructional documents for the house. We know every detail about how the house is assembled:

Axon drawing

And we also know everything about the construction sequence:

Process drawings of stages of construction

So, in addition to our construction documents, we have also developed a set of instruction documents that walk our builder partners step-by-step through both the hows and the whys of the construction of each home.

An open book of drawings of construction steps

In our work, this understanding of why we build a home in a certain way is key in addressing the fundamental challenges of affordability. But while it is certainly important to ask, “What does a house cost to build?,” it is perhaps more useful to consider what a house might actually afford its residents.

In our next post, we will explore the broader impact that we might have on affordability if we can begin to consider not just what a house costs to build, but also the total cost of homeownership in the overall financial equation.