Success Stories

Students build sustainable home

Green House on Watson

On the Westside of Grand Rapids, a low-income family has a brand-new environmentally friendly home thanks in part to Grand Valley State University engineering students. Those students will now be able to study data gathered from the house.

GVSU's School of Engineering and Heartland Builders partnered with Westown Jubilee Housing -- a non-profit housing agency on the west side of Grand Rapids -- to build an exceptionally energy efficient home for a low income family. More than 70 engineering students worked on this home and more than 20 local businesses have joined the effort. The result is a six-bedroom home, dubbed the "Green House on Watson," that is exceptionally energy efficient.

The homeowners are Daniel and Melita Powell. The couple has eight children. Melita is the director of the food pantry and as a staff member of The Other Way Ministries, a sister organization to Westown Jubilee Housing and also a non-profit community development organization. Her husband, Dan (affectionately known as Boone), works at a Grand Rapids YMCA and officiates at college basketball games. Her mother also lives with them.

"This is exactly how a university with an urban campus should interact with the neighborhood around the campus -- using our expertise to enhance the quality of life of the people who already live there and investing time and energy to build relationships and also value into our neighborhood," said Shirley Fleischmann, a professor in the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing at Grand Valley who helped spearhead the project.

She added: "Energy efficient housing and wise use of resources -- good stewardship -- is important for everyone but especially for those lower-income families for whom energy related bills are a major part of total expenses. This house brings together many strategies for energy efficiency and provides us with an opportunity to study and evaluate which strategies are most effective."

This is the fifth house in Grand Rapids to be certified under the U.S. Green Building Council's Pilot Program of LEED-H (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for residences). The utility costs will be very low, even with a large family living in it. The home has nine-inch thick insulated concrete form walls and windows that beat Energy Star requirements by a third. Nu-Wool donated insulation to make an attic with an insulation factor of R-50. The house hasEnergy Star appliances, a high efficiency furnace, low-flow faucets and toilets to further reduce demand. The Green House also captures energy from the sun. Solar panels on the roof provide hot water, and photovoltaic cells generate 2 kilowatts of electricity.

GVSU's engineering students will be able to learn a lot from the house once it is occupied. The solar panels will be remotely monitored, sensors embedded in the walls will provide temperature data, and the family has agreed to provide copies of their gas, electric, and water bills. This data will be shared with other engineering schools, with schools in the K-12 system, and with professionals in the building industry.

by Brian J. Bowe