The Burlington Free Press
By: Rebecca Ellis
November 10, 2013
In my town of Waterbury, we lost 11 homes at the Whalley Mobile Home Park in Tropical Storm Irene. An additional 19 homes were lost at the Patterson Mobile Home Park in neighboring Duxbury. Across the state, despite making up seven percent of Vermont's housing stock, 15 percent of all housing damaged by Irene were mobile homes.
After the storm, Vermont energy and housing advocates began collaborating to closely examine the quality of options available in the low-income housing market. Led by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and Efficiency Vermont, and with funding from the High Meadows Fund, the Vermont Community Foundation and other donors, the collaborators convened a working group with an ambitious goal: how to build a manufactured home to better withstand extreme climate conditions, while being energy efficient and affordable to operate.
Not an easy task, for sure, but a much-needed focus of work on behalf of low-income homeowners.
After two years of study, the Vermont Manufactured Housing Innovation Project unveiled its solution recently in White River Junction - a "high-performance" manufactured home that is specifically designed for northern climates. It looks like a mobile home but has the structural resiliency of a traditional home, and is extremely inexpensive to operate and maintain.
The 10 new homes under construction in this pilot project represent the culmination of this collaboration, and I believe a profound paradigm shift in the national conversation about housing. Vermont, I'm proud to say, is once again leading the way on both resiliency and energy conservation.
While resiliency is a big buzzword now and typically refers to how we adapt to the facts of a changing climate, we also need to combat its root cause: greenhouse gas emissions. Adaptation, then, is not just about building stronger structures and lifting base floors above the flood level, but about creating affordable housing options that use as little energy as possible. This is precisely what this project has done.
The 10 pilot homes being built by Vermont High Performance Homes and purchased by Vermont buyers reflect the fact that durability, resiliency, energy efficiency and homeowner comfort are each extremely important and interrelated issues in building design. It's high time that the national housing market adapts and designs with these characteristics in mind, especially for low-income homeowners.
The new homes are projected to use one-third the energy of conventional mobile homes, thanks to better insulation, a high-tech heat pump, triple-glazed windows and Energy-Star appliances. The anchoring design is more flood resistant, with a solid foundation that makes it harder for the homes to be swept away and which also provides added energy efficiency compared to the traditional "skirt" surrounding mobile homes on concrete blocks.
We finally have a new type of manufactured home that combats climate change through energy conservation, efficiency and increased durability. The final piece of the puzzle is the cost of such a home, because if nobody buys this new type of home there will be no impact on our energy landscape.
A study by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and Efficiency Vermont suggests that if fuel costs continue to rise, within two years the owner of this high-efficiency manufactured home would save enough money on energy costs to offset and even surpass the additional cost of purchasing such a well-built home. This is a pilot project and only time will tell if consumers will favor tremendous energy savings down the road versus a higher up-front cost.
I, for one, hope that these high-efficiency manufactured homes take off, and there are currently subsidies in place to encourage initial adoption. Not only would it benefit the environment and many low- and moderate-income homeowners, but it would also be a boon for Vermont's energy and manufacturing economy.
I truly believe that increased energy efficiency is closely connected with the basic principle that drives homeownership itself - a desire for freedom and independence.
Rebuilding for disaster resiliency is one of the key lessons we learned from Irene. With the introduction of the high-performance manufactured home in Vermont, we can also say that Irene left us with lessons for how we can improve our energy and climate future.