Front Porch Initiative

Rural Studio at Habitat for Humanity International Affiliate Conference

Welcome to our recap of the 2024 Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Conference, a gathering that epitomized collaboration, innovation, and community empowerment. Held in the vibrant city of Atlanta, GA, between March 4-7, this event brought together over 2,000 passionate individuals dedicated to the efforts of housing affordability. With an extensive offering of more than 150 workshops, the Front Porch team along with our partners had the opportunity to lead panels and present in sessions on diverse topics influencing the future of housing initiatives. Proudly sponsoring at the Bronze Hammer level, we showcased our commitment to driving impactful change across the Southeast, unveiling collaborative research and highlighting our regional footprint. Our Front Porch team, actively engaged with current Habitat partners and initiated connections with potential future collaborations.

One of our innovative and active Housing Partners, New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, was honored with 2024 Best in Climate Resiliency National Home Design Award for their Rural Studio-designed homes. This award recognizes the incorporation of high-preforming and resilient design features in the rebuilding efforts in Jean Lafitte, Louisiana. To learn more about this project and our collaboration with NOLAHFH, see our case study in Jean Lafitte.     

At the conference, we were extremely fortunate to be given the valuable opportunity to moderate and present at several workshops alongside our Housing Affiliate Partners. This experience allowed us to not only share our expertise and insights but also to collaborate closely with our partners, exchanging ideas and knowledge to create meaningful and engaging sessions for all participants. It was a rewarding experience that strengthened our relationships and contributed to discourse of the conference as a whole.

Dollars and Sense: How to Select and Implement Performance Improvements with Grant Funding

Presenters:

  • Betsy Farrell Garcia, Auburn University Rural Studio
  • Mark Grantham, Auburn-Opelika Habitat for Humanity
  • Carmen Smith, Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity

The presenters discussed the ongoing research with Habitat affiliates and Auburn University Rural Studio that demonstrates how the savings realized from improved building performance can be shifted from an operational expense to an investment in the value of a home. The two affiliates shared their decision-making process for using BuildBetter with Whirlpool grant funding on energy efficiency and resilience improvements. For more information on these case studies please see: AOHFH Stevens Street and CAHFH Chipola Street

BuildBetter with Whirlpool: A Shared Vision for Climate-Resilient Housing

Presenters:

  • Rusty Smith, Auburn University Rural Studio
  • Teunis Aarnoudse, Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley
  • Edwin Hensley, Habitat for Humanity International
  • Rosa Skinner, Whirlpool
  • Wendi Goodlett, Habitat for Humanity of Monroe County

In this session, the participants interacted with an affiliate implementor, research partner (Rural Studio), and Whirlpool representative. The Habitat affiliates shared their resources to successfully implement and achieve these shared goals.  Each initiative’s research partner discussed lessons learned about homebuyer satisfaction and the impacts this technology has on affordable housing and how that can support our decision-making for future builds and even our storytelling.

Build Influence: Actionable and Systems-Based Innovations in Housing Affordability

Presenters:

  • Mackenzie Stagg, Auburn University Rural Studio
  • Marguerite Oestreicher, New Orleans Area Habitat
  • Carmen Smith, Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity

This panel session shared actionable pathways for going “beyond the build” by seeking opportunities to influence the larger systems in which Habitat homes are situated. Panelists presented tangible examples and results from successful pilots for how Habitat affiliates have engaged in influencing zoning policy, diversification of financing, and expansion of home product lines while collaborating with organizations, including colleges and universities, government agencies, financial institutions, and other community development agencies. For more information on these case studies please see: NOLAHFH Jean Lafitte and CAHFH Chipola Street.

We also want to highlight and share some other great and impactful work sessions led by our external Partners that we were able to attend and support.

Affordable Home Financing: Emerging Options and Opportunities

Presenters:

  • Sidra Goldwater, Fannie Mae
  • Cynthia Williams, Chipola Area Habitat for Humanity
  • Dwane Krumme, Habitat for Humanity of La Pine Sunriver
  • Sara Padilla, Habitat for Humanity of Oregon

They discussed emerging and existing pathways to expand financing options for homebuyers. They presented a collaborative pilot project that demonstrates how sweat equity can be an acceptable source for Fannie Mae’s HomeReady mortgage loans and add value to closing. The first implementation of this product was in collaboration with Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative in the Chipola Street development in Mariana, Florida.

Weaving the Work: How Strategic Partnerships and Collaboration Advance Black Homeownership

Presenters:

  • Maria Evans, Fannie Mae
  • Brooke Walker, Minnesota Homeownership Center;
  • Robyn Bipes-Timm, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity;
  • Aarica Coleman, City of Bloomington, Minnesota;
  • Talaya Lawson-Shoals and Shereese Turner, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity

In this session, the presenters covered the discovery of shared objectives, innovation, resource sharing, market access, risk mitigation, negotiation, and agreements, along with the evaluation and adjustments necessary for a fruitful alliance. The speakers elaborated on the Twin Cities Habitat’s ongoing collaboration with Fannie Mae, Minnesota’s Homeownership Center, and the City of Bloomington in weaving a tapestry of strategic partnership.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

The Front Porch Initiative team had a busy 2023. Over the course of the year, we provided technical assistance to twelve partners in six states. They built homes based on Rural Studio housing prototypes that incorporate climate-resilience and energy-efficiency. At the close of 2023, Front Porch Initiative housing partners had ten houses in development, six housing units under construction, and six homes completed. While recent blog posts shared the home dedications for Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County (SC) and Community Housing Corp of Madison County (NC), the team also celebrated the completion of another four homes in Greenville and the dedication of a home in Lafitte, Louisiana, 45 minutes south of New Orleans. 

Completed Homes in Greenville, South Carolina

These homes represent milestones for our housing provider partners: for Habitat Greenville, the accessible two-bedroom, two-bathroom design expands the client base the affiliate can serve, including single homeowners and those with limited mobility. For New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH), the home dedicated in April 2023 is the first in a disaster recovery effort to rebuild a working coastal town decimated by Hurricane Ida in August 2021. As a replacement home leveraging the homeowners’ existing property and infrastructure, the home is certified to both ENERGY STAR and FORTIFIED Gold for Hurricane standards to increase resilience for an uncertain energy future and potential weather events. Partnerships with these organizations have deepened our understanding of the housing procurement process, equipping us to share those findings with other partners working through similar challenges in land use, financing, insurance, or other areas.

Completed home in Lafitte, Louisiana

Auburn alum Christian Ayala joined Rural Studio as a Research Architect in January 2023 after receiving his Master of Science in Architecture with a focus on housing from Rice University. With the expansion of the team, our capacity to provide technical assistance expanded significantly, and the product line of homes grew to include two new additions: a new adaptation of the Dave’s House prototype with an added nook and a duplex prototype. Products offered to housing provider partners draw on the research conducted by faculty, staff, and students in West Alabama; for this version of Dave’s, the housing partner needed a home with additional living space, so we incorporated a quarter-bedroom concept developed by Rural Studio students, the 3rd-year team that built Ophelia’s Home. As part of prototype development this year, the Front Porch team explored new technologies, including insulated concrete forms (ICF) with NOAHH, in partnership with concrete industry partners; we even participated in the build. Future material and process investigations may include mass timber and offsite construction. 

In addition to meeting with partners across the Southeast, we traveled to Cosanti, Arizona, to present at the Building Technology Educators’ Society (BTES) Conference; to Salt Lake City, Utah, to present at the Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) Summit; and to Washington, DC, to attend the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) Conference. We welcomed an array of visitors to Hale County as well: representatives of Fannie Mae’s leadership team, participants in a HAC Placemaking Summit, builder partners, and regional policymakers. 

Fannie Mae visit to Newbern

In 2024, we already have some exciting opportunities lined up, including presentations at the Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Conference, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) 112th Annual Meeting, and the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center (PHRC) Residential Building Design and Construction Conference. Stay tuned!

Build with Strength: New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and Auburn University Rural Studio Construct with Insulated Concrete Forms

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) is involved in a groundbreaking nationwide initiative with esteemed partners like the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA), Holcim, BuildBlock, and Auburn University Rural Studio to support the “Build with Strength” campaign. These efforts are impactful in addressing the growing need for affordable, sustainable, and resilient innovative housing solutions. This interdisciplinary collaborative effort assembles industry partners with housing providers and designers to promote innovation in construction methods and materials.

In need of workforce housing, NOAHH sought the assistance of Rural Studio to design and develop a multi-unit prototype for workforce housing that will serve their AmeriCorps employees and NOAHH volunteers. To achieve this vision, BuildBlock and Holcim provided materials and technical support for the project, with insulating concrete forms (ICF) and ECOpact, a low-carbon concrete mix. The goal is to create affordable rental housing, with the initial duplex situated near NOAHH’s office and ReStore.

Ownership of the structure will be retained by NOAHH, so they will be able to observe how the duplex performs over time. NOAHH is exploring the possibility of constructing the same design out of wood in order to directly compare the two construction types (wood and concrete). The concrete structure of the house will provide resilience against high winds. Should the structure ever flood, the concrete material is less susceptible to mold, potentially shortening any post-disaster renovations, resulting in decreased displacement from the home.

The project aims for ENERGY STAR 3.0 certification, a HERS rating of 38, and FORTIFIED Gold certification. NOAHH may pursue Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH) certification, delivering an energy-efficient design that prioritizes resiliency. The use of ECOpact, a low-carbon concrete for reduced environmental impact, is a key sustainable feature in this housing endeavor. This innovative concrete mix boasts a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions compared to standard concrete.

During a public build week led by BuildBlock, NOAHH’s project materialized with the active participation of BuildBlock, NOAHH, members of the Front Porch Initiative team, and community volunteers. The advantages of ICF construction were evident as the exterior walls were assembled efficiently, engaging minimal crew in a couple of days. With the walls set, the next milestone is installing trusses in the upcoming week. The aim is to have the house “dried-in” by year-end, entailing the installation of the exterior roof, and sheathing to shield the interior from the elements. The anticipated completion for construction is set for the summer of 2024. As NOAHH continues its collaboration with industry partners, its mission remains to construct resilient, energy-efficient structures in the community.

“Behind the build” media event

Recent Press:

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity: About Habitat and Build with Strength

BuildBlock: New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity ICF Project, November 2023

Biz New Orleans: Habitat Partners to Build Concrete Housing

Build with Strength: Habitat Partners to Build Concrete Housing

Strengthening Neighborhoods in Greenville, South Carolina­

Habitat partners with new homeowner on the front porch

On June 1st, 2023, Habitat for Humanity Greenville (HFHGC) dedicated their seventh home at Heritage Hills development in the neighborhood of Nicholtown. The Heritage Hills Development is a former Hope VI subdivision of which the City of Greenville did not complete development. HFHGC plans to build 29 homes over the next couple of years to strengthen this historically African American neighborhood southeast of downtown Greenville. This is the first of six Rural Studio prototype homes to be completed in the neighborhood, with the other five expected to be completed by the end of 2023.

Group raising wood-framed wall on concrete foundation

HFHGC has historically offered three- and four-bedroom homes but recognized that four adjacent parcels could be subdivided to accommodate five smaller prototypes. In planning conversations, Rural Studio offered several two-bedroom prototypes, of which HFHGC selected Sylvia’s two-bedroom, two-bath model (2/2). The design is well-suited to the narrow sites (with parking at the rear) because the back porch, which can be screened, serves as an informal entry. This prototype has expanded the affiliate’s client base; for the first time, two single individuals have qualified to purchase homes through the affiliate. The accessibility of the prototype will also allow an owner with limited mobility to age in place.

As the Sylvia 2/2 House prototype was new to the affiliate, HFHGC elected to proceed with one house before moving forward with all six; this process allowed the procurement and construction teams to learn the nuances of a new prototype. Construction of the first house allowed the teams to adjust wall alignments, insulation material, and window and door types in subsequent iterations. Because the high-efficiency mechanical system differs from the typical conventional systems specified for the affiliate’s larger houses, this prototype prompted the affiliate to seek out a new mechanical contractor with more competitive pricing.

HFHGC has adapted the drawing sets to reflect their palette of finishes and standard details, which will streamline production for their volunteers and incorporate the finish offerings typically offered to their partner families. Because the affiliate typically builds to ENERGY STAR, beyond-code aspects of rigorous air sealing and high-efficiency equipment are familiar.

Financial Stack

Site work and infrastructure were funded through grants and a capital campaign, Building New Communities One Neighborhood at a Time, that raised approximately $2M. Two-thirds of the construction budget for each individual home is sponsored by organizations or through fundraising, with grants and profits from ReStore sales covering the remaining third. The mortgage portfolio also brings in funding through a combination of mortgages currently serviced and those sold to other lenders after origination. HFHGC received funds for this first home from their build partner, BMW Group Manufacturing, based out of Spartanburg, SC. Rural Studio will continue to work with HFHGC to explore their interest in third-party lending.

Energy Efficient Homes

HFHGC is pursuing ENERGY STAR, Indoor airPLUS, and WaterSense certifications; they have a longstanding relationship with a third-party evaluator to ensure construction meets the standards. Financial incentives do not exist to justify pursuit of FORTIFIED. HFHGC has applied learning from Rural Studo’s technical assistance to their three- and four-bedroom home designs, yielding better air tightness results and lower HERS scores. Based on the research Rural Studio shared regarding the energy savings possible with hybrid heat pump water heaters, HFHGC has committed to installing them in all future houses and has modified their standard specifications accordingly.

Housing Access

Homeowners for the first five homes have been selected and are working to complete their 250 sweat equity hours. HFHGC is working with single homeowners for the first time, the addition of a smaller two-bedroom house to the Heritage Hills neighborhood has proved ideal. The prototype is also designed with accessibility in mind and can accommodate the limited mobility of one of these buyers. Since the sites are configured to offer parking at the back, a ramp will be added to the back porch.

Press Links:

Greenville Journal: Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County complete Habitat Arena Build” June 18, 2023

Fox Carolina: Habitat Greenville Builds a Home at the Well” June 13, 2023

Fox Carolina: Greenville Habitat for Humanity celebrates new home” June 1, 2023

Building Anew: A Rehabilitation and Rebuilding Initiative in Rural North Carolina

Marshall, North Carolina

Supporting its mission to increase high performance rural housing, Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative has partnered with the Community Housing Coalition of Madison County (CHCMC) in North Carolina. In 2022, the CHCMC secured funding to replace four substandard houses in their service area. The CHCMC has historically focused on the repair and rehabilitation of existing homes in their service area but recognized the opportunity to invest funding more sustainably through replacement housing. For the first of these projects, CHCMC chose to use a Rural Studio design, which will accommodate the challenging housing site. The site has both a restricted buildable area and a significant grade change.

Replacement home on the left and existing home on the right (red roof)

The Sylvia’s House prototype was well suited for the narrow and steeply sloped rural site where an existing home—which remained in place during construction—and septic lines limited the buildable area. The new home overlooks a stream across the road and nestles into a hillside while maintaining driveway access to the existing home. The selection of finishes favored durable and low-maintenance materials. Access and space planning considered the future mobility needs of the client: in addition to the ramp at the front porch, grading at the rear porch will allow a zero-step entry. Inside a roll-in shower will accommodate aging-in-place. Where possible, the Rural Studio Front Porch Initiative team incorporated equipment and appliances from the client’s existing home to reduce construction costs.

Construction began in mid-February of 2023 with CHCMC serving as the general contractor with some subcontractor labor. On August 2, 2023, CHCMC had an open house for all the partners involved to see the home as it nears completion. This first ground-up build will serve as a demonstration home for the organization to expand and provide homes that are affordable, high-performing, and efficiently designed to accommodate the needs of their clients.

Performance

In addition to ENERGY STAR 3.1 (a national energy performance standard program), the Front Porch Initiative team elected to pursue a North Carolina state standard: Green Built Homes. This point-based standard resembles LEED for Homes, but with less intensive documentation requirements. The organization’s experience in weatherization has proved valuable in design discussions of air tightness and insulation, and this new construction project has served as a learning opportunity for the construction team, informing their understanding of beyond-code construction. We want to give a special shout out to Hunter Dendy of Eco-Sense in Asheville, NC. Hunter graciously donated his consulting services AND the cost of HERS and ENERGY STAR certifications for the new home.

Long-term Affordability

As the first new construction project for an organization accustomed to housing repair work, this project has provided valuable lessons for CHCMC. Project development has highlighted the need for establishing clear expectations and communication with the client and for understanding the limitations of funding sources. For example, CHCMC learned that HUD funding precludes a deed restriction providing right of first refusal for the organization; furthermore, they recognize that some clients prefer to maintain the option of transferring a home to a relative or heir at default, potentially limiting the number of interested clients.

We are continuing our collaboration with CHCMC on future projects, helping to increase their capacity to deliver replacement homes in the community. 

Press Articles:

Asheville Citizen Times: “Madison housing organization breaks ground on replacement home program: ‘There’s hope again’” by Johnny Casey