Rhode Island development pairs affordable housing with net-zero design

By November 27, 2019Press & Events

Published by Energy News Network — November 18th, 2019

Developers of five new Providence homes aim to reduce residents’ long-term costs by eliminating their utility bills.

Residents of an affordable housing development under construction in Providence, Rhode Island, will get more than a break on the home price — they will have zero energy bills.

Five two-bedroom homes are being built to net-zero energy standards on a 0.75-acre lot in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Olneyville. The two-level, 750-square-foot homes will be equipped with enough rooftop solar panels to supply slightly more energy than they are expected to consume.

The project, called Sheridan Small Homes, marks the city’s first attempt to pair zero-emission design with affordable homeownership. It is a case study of sorts for future projects, as the city has identified some 250 vacant, tax-reverted lots that might be suitable for small, affordable homes, said Bonnie Nickerson, director of planning and development.

“When you think about affordable housing, it’s both the cost to acquire the unit as well as the long-term cost to maintain it,” Nickerson said. “We think any investment we can make upfront to reduce those long-term costs is really good for future buyers or tenants.”

Low-income households are often disproportionately burdened with utility bills because the units are often older and inefficient. In Providence, low-income households spend 9.5% of their income on energy, compared to 4.7% for all households, according to a 2016 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The $1.4-million Sheridan project is being funded through a variety of sources, including an award from a new grant program designed specifically for the development of zero energy units for low-to-moderate-income households. That program, called Zero Energy for the Ocean State, is a public-private partnership between Rhode Island Housing, National Grid, and the state Office of Energy Resources.

The homes will be bigger than so-called tiny houses, but small enough to make net-zero construction possible from a cost perspective, said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, the nonprofit developer overseeing the project.

When they are completed next year, they will sell for around $140,000 each, about half the construction cost. But that’s right in line with other affordable housing projects without green features, Hawkins said.

“The cost for these homes is more per square foot, but the overall subsidy isn’t out of whack,” she said.

Hawkins enlisted the help of a Rhode Island School of Design architecture professor, Jonathan Knowles, to come up with a feasible design. Knowles, a partner in Briggs Knowles Architecture Plus Design, made it a studio project for 12 of his students, gradually winnowing down their designs to settle on a final two.

“I was asked to provide a prototype home with two bedrooms and two floors,” Knowles said. “It was a real challenge to do a zero energy ready house on two floors, and bring it in on budget, but they wanted the houses to have flexibility in case of live-in grandparents or kids. It required three months of all hands on deck for the students to figure it out.”

The zero-energy design elements include triple-glazed windows, 11-inch thick walls, electric heat pumps and air exchange systems, and highly insulated roofs. The homes will be positioned to maximize solar gain.

Knowles said they shaved off some costs by using slab-on-grade foundations, and no-frills finishes like polished concrete floors and tub surrounds instead of tile.

The development will be set up as a condominium, and the managing association will own the solar panels. That way, all residents will share equally in the solar savings, Hawkins said. Buyers will also undergo training in how the home’s energy features work.

So many would-be buyers have already expressed interest that she is anticipating having to hold a lottery. In order to qualify, buyers must earn no more than 80% of the area median income for two of the homes (about $52,000 for a couple), and no more than 120% of area median income for the other three (about $79,000).

The development is part of a larger revitalization plan underway in Olneyville. It is adjacent to Sixty King, a former knife factory that was recently converted to mixed-income rental apartments, and the popular Riverside Park, on the Woonasquatucket River. It will be constructed by trainees with Building Futures, a nonprofit organization that trains workers in the construction trades with the goal of increasing wage opportunities for low-income adults.

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