Today’s Solutions: December 06, 2023

In a quiet residential neighborhood in Brant County, Ontario, lies a home that outperforms neighboring houses not only in sustainable design, but also in affordability.

Boasting Passive House standards — a highly energy-efficient building standard — the new house is an experiment for Habitat for Humanity Canada. Since the nonprofit organization relies on volunteer labor to help build affordable houses, the new design consists of prefabricated modules that are easy to assemble.

The experiment, called the Upstart Project, grew out of a conversation about fundraising amidst a time when construction costs have risen sharply, further exacerbating the housing affordability crisis.

“They were relying on traditional construction methods to build houses, rather than optimizing that process and leveraging the great volunteer workforce that they can bring to projects,” says Sumit Ajwani, founder of Makers, a creative consultancy that’s also part of the experiment. “It was clear that there was an opportunity to make a more affordable, better home, that also better uses their volunteers.”

The new design consists of prefab parts built off-site. This means that components like walls were already assembled when they arrived at the building site, requiring less specialized labor to build the dwelling.

What’s more, in addition to its modular features, the design meets Passive House standards which require the building envelope to be airtight to save energy. In fact, thanks to the strict insulation standards, the building is expected to use 76 percent less energy for heating, allowing owners to save significantly on energy costs.

While building the house still requires some skilled labor, the design enables those builders to work more efficiently compared to traditional home construction, helping reduce costs.

With that said, the house’s sustainable-design features simultaneously make it more expensive than a typical Habitat home. Nonetheless, the benefits of having a highly energy-efficient home make the added upfront investment worthwhile, with costs also expected to decrease over time.

“As our new model for leveraging volunteers improves, we’ll see a more dramatic reduction in overall costs, and we believe we can one day achieve a comparable cost to standard construction, but with the added long-term benefits of a high-performance home,” says Ajwani.

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