It's one of the greenest affordable-housing developments ever built in Canada, and the low-income Winnipeg families living there are reaping the benefits.
About three years ago, the Winnipeg chapter of Habitat for Humanity began work on its largest affordable-housing project to date -- a 50-home development being built on the former Sir Sam Steele School property on Nairn Avenue.
The goal from the outset was to make the homes energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable -- something Habitat is committed to. But it wasn't until they were well in the planning stages that Habitat Winnipeg CEO Sandy Hopkins and Marten Duhoux, principal architect with Ft3 Architecture Landscape Interior Design, decided to go for broke. They decided to have the first 32 homes built to platinum or gold standards under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which is the internationally recognized standard for the design, construction and operations of high-performance green buildings.
"(Initially) it wasn't our goal to aim that high because this was the first time this was being done (with affordable housing) and we just wanted to do it as well as possible using the LEED system as a guide... " Duhoux explained. "We figured we could easily obtain LEED silver, but as we went through the (planning) process, we found we could improve upon that."
He said the challenge was to make the homes as energy-efficient and sustainable as possible, but still keep them affordable enough for low-income families to buy. Once the homes are completed, Habitat provides qualified low-income families with no-down-payment, interest-free loans to purchase the homes. In return, the homeowners must provide "sweat equity" -- 500 hours for couples and 250 hours for single homeowners.
Duhoux, who was the lead architect for the project and is also chairman of the Manitoba chapter of the Canada Green Building Council (CGBC), said the first dozen homes that were built received their gold or platinum certification about a year-and-a-half to two years ago. The other 20 received theirs this past summer.
"I think this is a real success story," he added.
Habitat's Hopkins said while it cost more -- about $10,000 per house -- to qualify for gold or platinum certification, it was worth it.
"The reason we do these things is to significantly reduce the operating costs for the homeowners," he said. "If we can... reduce their heating bill by 30 to 40 per cent and their water bill by 25, 30 or 35 per cent, that makes a big difference."
Janna Fowles, a single mother of three who purchased one of the side-by-side duplexes in the development, said she's thrilled with the savings she's seen since moving into her two-storey home in December 2010.
The home is heated with an electric furnace and Fowles said her monthly hydro bill during the coldest winter months never exceeds $300.
"I turn the furnace on in the morning for a little while, then leave it off for the rest of the day. I may turn it on again for a little bit before I go to bed... but it holds the heat very well."
Fowles said it also costs less than $60 a month to run the home's air conditioner during the hottest summer months.
"Even my water bill is dirt cheap," she said. "In a three-month period, it might be $100 max."
Hopkins and Duhoux said the homes are so airtight, very little heat can escape. Habitat had an outside expert run a test for heat loss in one of the bungalows on a -40 C night, and he found the heat loss was so low, the heat generated from three hair dryers running on high would have been enough to keep the house comfortably warm during the night.
"In fact, one of the challenges we had was finding a furnace that was small enough for the houses," Hopkins added.
According to the CGBC, which is the LEED-certification licensing body in Canada, the Sir Sam Steele development was the third affordable-housing development in Canada to achieve LEED gold or platinum certification. The other two, which are also Habitat projects, were in Ontario and Quebec. They were both certified in 2011.
The council's Manitoba chapter reported 45 residential and non-residential projects in Manitoba have achieved LEED certification as of the end of August. Another 130 are registered with the program, but haven't yet obtained their certification.
Duhoux said Ft3 has also worked on three Manitoba Housing projects in Brandon, Thompson and The Pas that have applied for LEED silver certification, but haven't yet received it.
There are still 18 more homes to be built on the Sir Sam Steele site -- two this fall and 16 next year. While they'll have the same energy-efficiency and sustainability features as the other 32, Hopkins said Habitat won't be seeking LEED certification for them because of the added cost involved.
He said the only reason it was able to obtain certification for the first 32 was because three companies -- Investors Group, Manitoba Hydro and Home Depot -- paid for the additional costs.
Hopkins said Habitat Winnipeg plans to adopt a similar approach with all the homes it builds in the future. As has been the practice in the past, the homes will also be built to Manitoba Hydro Power Smart Gold standards.