Gulf Coast Upgrade

Affordable and efficient can co-exist — even after a disaster

July 01, 2011
July/August 2011
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Building America

Unless you’ve experienced it yourself, it’s hard to imagine the many ways in which postdisaster reality completely alters the conventional patterns of daily life. This is especially true in the wake of severely damaging natural disasters that affect an entire region. In the case of hurricanes Katrina and Rita—which wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas in late August and late September 2005—individual lives, whole communities, and local businesses experienced personal and professional chaos, dislocation, and loss. This dramatically transformed operating landscapes and posed humbling challenges on a scale, and for a period of time, that would have been previously unimaginable for everyone involved.

ECT DepartmentLaney energy efficiency students practice duct sealing. (David Hanks)

In the city of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, for example, 80% of the city sat under 3–12 feet of water for three weeks, resulting in the damage or destruction of more than 70% of all housing units. In the Gulf Coast region as a whole, the combined effects of both hurricanes left more than three million people without electricity, displaced more than one million people, and damaged or destroyed more than one million housing units.

In these, as in all disasters, there is only one constant: The crisis at hand will become a marker for change. In the case of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, this helps account for a remarkable wave of social visionaries, rebuilding experts, and urban planners that flooded the city within months of the storm.

No matter their reason for being there, all of the people that came to the affected cities had the same understanding: The fact that nothing will ever be the same again presents an opportunity to influence events that will help define the future for the better. This was precisely what researchers from the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) at the University of Central Florida had in mind when they made their first visit to the Gulf Coast region in December 2006.

The FSEC houses the Building America Industrialized Housing Partnership (BAIHP), one of five DOE-sponsored Building America teams nationally, and the only university-based team competitively funded by both the U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and the Renewable Energy-Building Technologies program. Focusing on improving the energy efficiency, durability, and indoor air quality (IAQ) of manufactured homes since its inception in September 1999, the BAIHP program estimates that it has helped improve construction in more than 230,000 homes and has encouraged energy efficiency improvements that are currently saving more than $23 million a year.



Project Design Based on Recent Case Studies

The FSEC had recently completed a series of case studies as part of a multiorganizational, multiyear study for DOE. Three of those case studies, in particular, documented climate-
specific strategies for achieving cost-effective improvements in production-built homes. Along with a case study based on a pair of commercial production home builders—G.W. Robinson Builders and Tommy Williams Homes—FSEC researchers also produced one based on work done by the Lakeland (Florida) Habitat for Humanity affiliate between 2000 and 2006, when it built and sold more than 50 homes.

The Lakeland Habitat affiliate results—which mirrored those of the commercial home builders—demonstrated that a $2,500 package of incremental construction and mechanical improvements could achieve a 30% Whole-House, Source-Energy Savings (WHSES), equivalent to a HERS Index of approximately 73, with energy savings that created positive cash flow for homeowners.

The FSEC subsequently obtained financing to conduct a demonstration project to introduce a similar package of performance improvements in homes being built along the central Gulf Coast—a swath of coastal cities and towns stretching roughly from Panama City, Florida, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana—as part of the massive postdisaster rebuilding effort. And while FSEC researchers have worked with Habitat for Humanity since 1995, previously consulting on a total of more than 500 houses built by 50-plus affiliates in more than 20 states, they simply were not prepared for what they encountered.

“The personal challenges, the industry challenges, the code challenges, and just the sheer magnitude of the need that existed at that time are just hard to fathom without actually having been there,” recalls FSEC research analyst Janet McIlvaine. And when McIlvaine and fellow research analyst David Beal returned to the area in October 2007, things had not gotten much better. While it was true that rebuilding in general had already built up a head of steam, the operating environment still appeared to be extremely unstable.

While Habitat affiliates throughout the region now enjoyed more financial and volunteer support than they ever had before, “the basic process of just getting a single house started proved extremely challenging,” McIlvaine explains. “Supply chains were broken, and a range of building materials were scarce. There was a tremendous amount of confusion regarding local codes and issues regarding flood-plain elevations. Individuals were still sorting out their own situations regarding insurance payments, federal assistance money, whether to renovate, rebuild, or relocate. As a result, the construction industry as a whole was in flux.”

Challenge and Incentives in Postdisaster Building

The pressure on organizations, both commercial and nonprofit, has ramped up significantly. Habitat for Humanity’s 20 or so Gulf Coast affiliates, according to Habitat International headquarters in Americus, Georgia, increased the pace of home building by an average of more than 30%, increasing the number of houses built or rehabbed per year across the region from fewer than 60 to more than 400. For some affiliates, the pace increased exponentially—in New Orleans, for example, an organization that built houses from 1984 to 2005 at the rate of approximately 12 to 14 per year, completed 300 houses between 2005 and 2010, an average of 60 per year.

Even in context, the upsurge in Habitat construction has been remarkable. According to the organization’s figures, the three Habitat affiliates currently bordering the southeast, eastern, and northeast portions of Lake Pontchartrain—a nexus of urban and suburban environments where damage and relocation rates have both been extremely high—were ranked (as of 2010) among the top ten most active private home builders in Louisiana. Post-Katrina, those three parish affiliates combined were responsible for repairing, renovating, and building a total of more than 550 houses, with 70 more planned for 2011 construction.

In the case of the New Orleans Habitat affiliate, this achievement is even more remarkable given the fact that basic utility services were not restored throughout most of the city until the first quarter of 2006. In the following four years, the organization recruited and deployed more than 120,000 volunteers, which included constructing two successive volunteer camps providing temporary shelter for 80,000-plus volunteers.

BuildingFigure 1. All 9 houses met the project's qualifying criteria—roughly translated as a HERS Index of 73 or lower. (FSEC/UCF)

Project Planned for a Difficult Environment

Fully aware they’d be pursuing that goal not only in a chaotic postdisaster setting but also in what they understatedly described as “the challenging affordable-housing sector,” FSEC researchers carefully designed their demonstration-program project to accommodate a wide range of newly recruited participants.

The basic outline included a series of workshops to introduce basic concepts and recruit participants; a clear assessment of each affiliate’s building practices; continued on-site training and hands-on support; an intermediate goal of first attaining Energy Star-certified performance before moving on to further improvements; and finally, a program that called for building a single demonstration house in which fundamental concepts would be applied, followed by the construction of a second demonstration house where lessons learned from the first house would be applied.

And as the project got under way, FSEC researchers felt the outlook was favorable based on conversations with prime potential partners. But while the project kicked off optimistically, signs that things might not work out as planned showed up from the start.

Although it was cosponsored by the Home Builders Association of Metro Mobile, and despite a mass mailing to 1,700-plus organization members, attendance at that first Mobile workshop, held in November 2008, was sparse. The following two workshops, held in Baton Rouge and Covington, Louisiana, attracted only 50 attendees.

Once the actual work began, things got even tougher. As FSEC research analysts McIlvaine and Beal wrote in their final report, “Researchers found that the builder partners and other builders who participated in the workshops were not accustomed to thinking about establishing a whole-house air barrier; a sealed duct system including the return plenum; neutral or slightly positive house air pressures; or a continuous drainage plane behind vented or water-absorbing exterior wall cladding. Training on these core concepts was essential to ensure successful implementation.”

The pair also found that “standard building practices in the area needed to be addressed prior to introducing the proposed improvements, as the area’s standard practice would undermine performance enhancements.” Add to that the fact that each Habitat affiliate, while connected to Habitat for Humanity International headquarters, is essentially an independent organization, each with its own building methods and acceptable standards. Then throw in the wide spectrum of postdisaster scenarios and local conditions faced uniquely by each affiliate, and you’ve got a series of disparate operating environments.

Given all that, it’s no surprise that with seven participants and the potential of 14 prototype houses being constructed, only 11 houses were actually built; and of those, only 9 finally met project-qualifying criteria.

The Mobile, Alabama, Habitat affiliate was the most successful among seven participating in the Florida Solar Energy Center’s postdisaster rebuilding project. (Mobile, AL, Habitat for Humanity Affiliate)

Outstanding Achievements and Slightly Compromised Findings

Of the 9 houses that finally met the project’s qualifying criteria, all met the initial target of a 30% WHSES, roughly translated as a HERS Index of 73 or lower (see Figure 1, p. 52). Of those, only three homes met the project’s ultimate goal of 40% WHSES (roughly translated as a HERS Index of 64 or lower). Only two pairs of prototypes demonstrated the project’s hoped-for showing of improved performance from the first to second prototype.

Final totals? Of 14 prototype houses that might have been built, 11 were completed, and 9 met the project’s qualifying criteria; of those, 6 met the project’s 30% WHSES target, and 3 achieved a 40% WHSES improvement. Cost results, however, were slightly less conclusive. To begin with, eight participants submitted incomplete invoices, to which project researchers then added estimates of unaccounted-for costs; and one failed to report any final costs.

Based on the final-cost estimates, five completed improvement packages that cost less than $2,500. In the remaining four cases, costs exceeding project goals were based solely on affiliate choices. One opted for a package that included a metal roof, raised heal trusses, and exterior rigid insulation totaling $2,800; and the sixth installed a package duplicating its first prototype. In another case, the costs of a higher-performance heat pump and a more-extensive insulation package pushed the project total to $3,300. And in two cases, affiliates opted for higher-end hot water systems including heat pump and solar options that pushed the total cost of improvements to $4,200 and $6,300, respectively.

While calculations of annual cash flow to the homeowner based on estimated final costs proved advantageous in all nine cases (assuming 30-year, 7% mortgages, and average energy rates of $0.12/kWh), cash flow figures recorded in the project’s final report were based on the fairly complex benchmarking standards using a late-1990s vintage house for comparison as required by Building America, rather than readily available HERS reference costs.

Nonetheless, researchers see the project as having been extremely successful, especially for achieving favorable, and impressive, performance-improvement outcomes under what can be described as some of the most challenging conditions imaginable. They also point to the fact that all nine completed prototypes calculated positive first-year cash flow, supporting the Building America goal. They also feel that the project’s value is enhanced by the fact that these outcomes were achieved with project partners who were exclusively volunteer-assisted builders.

Impressive Application Potential and Valuable Insights

Participants also reported great satisfaction with results gained from project participation. Summarizing lessons learned by his organization, for example, Josh Bontrager, construction director for the Habitat affiliate in East St. Tammany Parish, reported, “Having to complete these tasks expressly for the Building America program was the impetus we needed to begin thinking more directly and intentionally about energy efficiency. Our affiliate has now permanently adopted many of these requirements, making them the main talking point for the homes we build now.”

Researchers believe the eventual application of these achievements holds great potential for adoption on a worldwide scale. Comprising 1,500-plus affiliates in the United States and over 500 affiliates abroad, for example, Habitat for Humanity International, since its inception in 1976, has so far built a total of more than 200,000 houses, averaging a construction rate of approximately 5,700 houses per year.

learn more

For more information on the Gulf Coast High-Performance Affordable-Housing Demonstration Project sponsored by the Building America Industrialized Housing Partnership (BAIHP) through the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), go to

For more information on the BAIHP/FSEC Lakeland, Florida, Habitat for Humanity Hot-Humid Climate Case Study, go to

To download Katrina & Rita, Five Years Later: 2005–2010, a report issued by Habitat for Humanity International summarizing the postdisaster rebuilding work, go to

To download the 2010 High Performance Home Building Guide for Habitat for Humanity Affiliates, go to

Perhaps the most valuable takeaways from the FSEC/Building America’s Gulf Coast High-Performance, Affordable-Housing Demonstration Project are the fundamental insights gleaned by researchers that essentially recontextualize technology transfer in terms of cultural transmission. One primary aspect of these insights focuses exclusively on human behavior, and another on bureaucratic practice. In the first case, researchers emphasized the importance of fully comprehending and respecting each individual partner’s building approach and baseline practices. The key goal should then be to seek a workable compromise wherever possible, adapting previously identified performance improvements to suit each individual partner.

“In reality, there were slight differences in the improvement package as it was actually implemented among the different affiliates,” FSEC researcher Janet McIlvaine explains. “In general, the package was presented to the affiliate, and then if there were items they didn’t want to do, we tried to accommodate with adjustments elsewhere. On the other hand, things like the outside-air system, ducted exhaust fans, and the Energy Star thermal-bypass criteria, we categorized as nonnegotiable.”

Assuring Cultural Transmission of Technology Transfer

McIlvaine says she now recognizes that a specific set of organizational requirements must be in place to achieve project success. The first requirement is to make sure an organization is truly capable of taking on the project and participating as a full partner. To assess whether that exists, McIlvaine suggests looking at the organization’s overall trends and future projections for both funding and staffing levels.

She also recommends making sure there is full organizational buy-in, all the way from the board of directors to the subcontractors. One sure indication that buy-in can be relied on are signs that the project has become an element of organizational identity.

It’s also critical, McIlvaine says, to provide a framework for the adoption of building science concepts within the organization’s culture by establishing a consistent and hands-on program of presentations, workshops, and on-site counseling.

By successfully applying a carefully selected package of performance improvements in one of the most chaotic settings, project researchers may have actually produced a set of critical indicators to help bridge the specialized world of building science specialists and the larger world of everyday, commercial home builders and budget-conscious consumers.

Roger Hahn is a freelance writer and editor based in New Orleans. His work has appeared in Civil Engineering, Historic Preservation, and Next American City.


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