Front Porch Initiative

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.

Partners in Purpose: CADC’s 2021 Legacy Award

Both Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative and and the College of Architecture Design and Construction (CADC) share the common commitment to making a positive impact on the world. Informed by Auburn University’s Strategic Plan, we are committed to 1) enhance health and well-being, 2) build resilient communities, 3) shape intelligent solutions, 4) create a more secure world, and 5) promote opportunity and equity through education. And as we tilt into the holidays each year the CADC recognizes students, staff, faculty, and partners that share these commitments at our annual College Awards Banquet.

The CADC Industry Legacy Award recognizes organizations that share these goals and have demonstrated a sustained commitment in working with the CADC to meet them. This year we were delighted to host Maria Evans (Vice President of Community Investment and Development), and Tim Carpenter (Senior Director, Disaster Recovery & Rebuilding), in recognizing Fannie Mae for their ongoing commitment in developing innovative solutions to one of society’s most pressing, multi-dimensional social crisis: the lack of equitable access to high-performance, affordable housing. Together with Rural Studio, Fannie Mae is committed to eliminate the barriers to efficient and resilient homeownership in the communities that need it most but can most often afford it the least.

Left to Right: Vini Nathan, CADC Dean; Christian Dagg, APLA School Head; Maria Evans, Fannie Mae Vice President of Community Investment and Development; and Rusty Smith, Rural Studio Associate Director
Maria Evans, Fannie Mae Vice President of Community Investment and Development

1)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae Is committed to enhancing health and wellbeing.

Healthy housing is prevention, and prevention is the key to long-term wellbeing. By working to directly address the insufficient housing needs often found in low-wealth communities, Fannie Mae seeks to provide the liquidity and the incentives necessary to borrowers who incorporate health-promoting design features into their homes, ultimately working toward health and wellness outcomes for all homeowners regardless of their financial circumstance.

2)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to build resilient communities.

Fannie Mae is committed to creating better outcomes for those facing or affected by disasters. With the increased frequency and severity of disasters affecting communities nationwide, Fannie Mae is focused on engaging with with disaster-affected communities to forge partnerships and to learn about local needs. Their Disaster Response Network assists homeowners and renters affected by disasters by providing no-cost financial counseling so they can return to normal faster.

3)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to shaping intelligent solutions.

Fannie Mae seeks out thought leadership and leads the market in uncovering insights that drive business efficiencies, improve the borrower experience, and provide a deeper understanding of critical housing topics. Fannie Mae engages its industry partners to seek solutions to the housing challenges of our time and in the future.

4)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to creating a more secure world.

Chartered by the US Congress to deliver liquidity, affordability, and stability to the US residential mortgage market and promote fair access to mortgage credit, Fannie Mae’s mission demands that it address these complex environmental, social, and governance issues. In these challenging times, expanding equitable access to safe, energy efficient, and durable housing is the key to securing economic well-being for individuals and families—and is central to securing vibrant communities. As an important part of this mission, Fannie Mae is committed to improving environmental sustainability and durability in the homes they finance, as well as in the communities they serve. As the largest green bond issuer in the world, Fannie Mae offers the only mortgage loans backed by new-construction, single-family residential homes with ENERGY STAR® certifications.

5)   Along with the Front Porch Initiative, Fannie Mae is committed to promoting opportunity and equity through education.

Fannie Mae is dedicated to improving access to affordable homes for all families across the country. To do so means expanding access to reliable homebuyer and renter educational resources to help an increasingly diverse generation of homebuyers and renters make informed decisions. It also means fostering an inclusive workforce and industry that better reflects the diversity of the people it serves. Fannie Mae’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in both homebuyer education and workforce development in the home finance and construction industries is instrumental in delivering on this critical need.

Left to Right: Vini Nathan, CADC Dean; Tim Carpenter, Fannie Mae Senior Director, Disaster Recovery &
Rebuilding; Betsy Farrell Garcia, Rural Studio Front Porch Initiative Research Professor; Collette Garcia;
Rusty Smith, Rural Studio Associate Director; Aubie; Maria Evans, Fannie Mae Vice President of
Community Investment and Development; Mackenzie Stagg, Rural Studio Front Porch Initiative Research
Professor; and Christian Dagg, APLA School Head

Working together, Fannie Mae and Rural Studio’s Front Porch Initiative are dedicated to creating positive environmental, social, and economic outcomes for families and communities through responsible homeownership. By spotlighting and celebrating our collective values and shared commitments with Fannie Mae, the Front Porch Initiative aims to inspire other organizations, regardless of their size or scope, to join with us in driving positive change, and creating a better future, and a better world.

Photo credit: AU CADC Communications