E-co homes reduce cost of upkeep



By Jenette Sturges

When Beth Simpson, a refugee from Hurricane Katrina, moved back to Champaign-Urbana there was no home waiting for her. She lived with friends until she saw an advertisement for an E-co house, her very own ecologically-friendly, energy-efficient home located at 1007 Fairview Ave.

These passive houses, which are called that for their lack of environmental effects, are popping up in Canada, Europe and now a third is about to be built in Urbana.

“The main feature of the house is that it is extremely energy-efficient,” said Katrin Klingenberg, the director of the Ecological Construction Laboratory, or E-co Lab, the Urbana-based non-profit agency that built Simpson’s home. “So if somebody around here pays about $100 a month to heat their house, this house will cost about $10.”

The plan now is to recreate this success in the lot next door on Fairview Avenue.

“I’m really surprised that there’s not more people pushing for it,” Simpson said. “What a novel concept, that poor people can’t pay their energy bills.”

E-co Lab has requested $25,000 in funding from the City of Urbana to begin construction on a new home this year. They have been recommended to receive the funds by the city’s community development commission, and are now awaiting approval from the city.

“It’s kind of a goofy process to understand,” John Schneider, Urbana city grants manager, said.

Now that the community development commission has recommended the funding for E-co Lab, their request is being included on the city’s annual action plan, which will be presented to the Urbana City Council. Following their approval, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will approve the plan before the city can release the federal funding, Schneider said.

Last year, the city granted E-co Lab funding for the project, as well as the lot that Simpson’s house now sits on.

“The City of Urbana is very forward-thinking,” Klingenberg said. “They are trying to promote green and healthy construction for their affordable housing programs.”

E-co Lab used a simple, commonsense approach to construction by installing south-facing windows, using efficient insulation techniques and building the house to be completely air-tight.

The result is a house that costs about 10 to 15 percent more up-front, but is significantly less expensive over time in the face of rising energy costs.

It also has fewer ill-effects on the environment as the E-co house uses less fossil fuels for heating and cooling and is made from non-toxic, recyclable materials.

The new home will be approximately 1,300 square feet, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and the same energy efficiency as Simpson’s house.

The city has once again donated the lot. E-co Lab is now searching for a family to buy the house, which will be sold for about $125,000, slightly less than the cost to build.

In addition, Klingenberg said families will be required to do about 300 hours of light-duty tasks on the house, like painting.

To qualify, families must be first-time home buyers and make no more than 80 percent of the local median income. That works out to about $48,000 for a family of four, according to E-co Lab’s Web site.

“We will have requirement like that of Habitat for Humanity homes, which is sweat equity,” Klingenberg said. “If people want to do more heavy-duty work like swinging the hammer they can do that too and we are always looking for volunteers to the build those homes.”

Meanwhile, Simpson is still settling in and looking forward to her new neighbors, which she hopes will share a garden and host events with her to raise awareness about low-energy living and E-co Lab.

“This is a really valuable project in a number of ways, in addressing oil dependency, in addressing community development, in addressing low-income housing,” she said. “This project is getting recognized nationally and internationally, but it’s being overlooked locally.”