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State College Community Land Trust Breaks Ground on Energy-Efficient, Affordable Duplex

by on June 25, 2017 6:30 PM

A collaborative project to build two new, affordable, energy-efficient homes for middle income individuals and families in State College will soon be a reality.

State College Community Land Trust on Sunday broke ground for the new University Drive duplex, which will be equipped with green energy technology and designed for net zero energy use, nearly three years after beginning a collaboration with students and faculty in the Penn State Hamer Center for Community Design and its Energy Efficient Housing Research Group.

"This was a dream that is becoming a reality," SCCLT Board President Susan Venegoni said. "Home ownership isn’t for everyone for a lot of reasons, but for people who do want to own a home in the borough and put down roots here it can be a very daunting task. I’m so proud of the work that the land trust does." 

Over the past 20 years, SCCLT has helped nearly 60 low and middle-income individuals and families buy affordable homes in the borough. But this is the first time the land trust is building a new home.

The GreenBuild initiative is a result of partnerships not only with Penn State, but also with borough leaders, Centre County commissioners and West Penn Power Sustainable Energy Fund (WPPSEF), as well other community partners and donors.

The borough provided a grant that allowed SCCLT to purchase the property at 1394 University Drive from owner Lassie MacDonald. County commissioners approved a grant to support the project and WPPSEF, a nonprofit organization that invests in the deployment of sustainable energy technologies in the commonwealth, awarded a $100,000 grant and $350,000 construction loan for the project

"We’re here today because we’re committed to building energy-efficient homes for middle-income homeowners," said Peg Hambrick, chair of the GreenBuild project. "These are people who are often priced out of the State College housing market. We want to attract and retain those who prize living and working in the Centre Region. This is one step toward helping them buy a home which will be affordable in the long term."

Hambrick and GreenBuild co-chair Ron Quinn approached Lisa Iulo, associate professor of architecture at Penn State, in 2014 about possible energy improvements to existing homes. Around that time, MacDonald also approached SLCCT about buying the property on University Drive. SCCLT members and Iulo discussed the possibility of adapting a design the research group had done for the Union County Housing Authority, but they quickly realized there were opportunities to create something new.

"We have incredible students who are just so interested in getting involved in a project that can be in the community and really be able to be part of and contribute to our community," Iulo said.

She brought in Scott Wing, professor of architecture and associate dean with a background in design build, to work together with her and students. The first group of students were undergraduates who spent a semester working on a speculative project for what could be done on the site, which Wing noted has a south-facing exposure that works well for solar energy.

"We didn’t give many boundaries for what this needed to be and just let them experiment with what was possible with the site," Wing said. "This started with a really wide-ranging series of options."

The next group of students to work on the project, a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, refined the ideas to enter it into the U.S. Department of Energy Race to Zero Student Design Competition. That made it a more realistic project than students often encounter, having to develop it "down to the last quarter inch," and within a set budget.

With a plan developed, a small group of graduate students continued work on the project.

"All through that process we invited community members from the land trust and other housing advocates to come and critique the project and talk to the students," Wing said. "That was a really fulfilling part of the project."

Nearly 40 students played a role in the effort, including architecture, landscape architecture, civil engineering and structural engineering students.

SCCLT, meanwhile, was leading fundraising efforts. With the funding from WPPSEF, announced earlier this month, the project could move forward. Envinity, Inc., was selected from a field of six applicants to lead the design build.

"What the students and Lisa and Scott’s team developed in terms of a student-generated design and set of construction documents really was incredible," Envinity architectural designer Jordan Robb said. "Our job is easy and we’re going to start really soon."

Major work on the duplex will begin in the fall and is expected to be fully completed in the spring of 2018.

Each unit will be about 1,400 square feet with three bedrooms and will produce as much energy as it uses with solar panels. They will be equipped with high-efficiency appliances and lighting, have a low-water landscape and rain water catchment system and will use sustainable building materials.

"These are modest size houses. That’s one of the reasons they’re energy-efficient," Wing said. "The secret to energy efficiency is a very tightly sealed building that is then engineered to allow air changes to happen in a very planned way, rather than an accidental way, the way most of our houses work, which is that they’re leaky."

Though it is a duplex, each side will have a unique identity. The houses were designed with the idea that the future owners would likely be either young families or older people.

"The idea is to have fully accessible house and be able to move around as well as something that would be appropriate for young children," Wing said. "That’s a very different design, and we actually designed both of the units to be flexible enough that they could accommodate both of those scenarios."

In addition to providing an affordable home for the new owners, the duplex also will serve as a model.

"[It is] a project that can be a showcase for our community for sustainable building and landscape," Iulo said. "It’s going to be a really wonderful example in that way. And not only will the duplex be in this community, but it is truly of this community... It really truly is a community project."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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