​Housing Sewanee Building Conservation Home

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

Housing Sewanee, Inc., a nonprofit which builds houses for people with limited income, is branching into a conservation experiment with its newest house off of Sherwood Road.
The two-bedroom, approximately 640-square-foot house will be the first Housing Sewanee project with a geothermal heating and cooling system and will also utilize a natural spring as the main water source for non-potable use such as bathing, laundry and dishes. A rainwater collection and filtration system will supplement the spring.
The house is one of nine planned Housing Sewanee homes in the future Sherwood Springs community, which will include one one-bedroom house, two two-bedroom homes and the rest three-bedroom structures, said Mickey Suarez, design and construction manager for the nonprofit. The conservation results of the first house will determine the techniques used in future houses on the organization’s six-acre property.
“It depends on how successful this is,” Suarez said. “In general, geothermal systems are very expensive, but are nice systems and not very costly to operate. We think we’ve designed a way to lower the initial cost of the system.”
This future home of a single mother and her two children will also serve as a teaching/demonstration house for water and energy conservation. The garage will be outfitted with diagrams of the geothermal and water systems and school groups and other interested people will be able to tour the home on certain days.
In the geothermal system, fluid will move through coiled tubing buried approximately five-feet underground where the temperature is a consistent 55 degrees, according to the organization. The fluid will move into a heat pump’s heat exchanger and heat or cool the house through an air duct system.
“We’re also going to teach about how to improve efficiency so that you’ll have lower utility bills,” Suarez said. “Board members are really excited about raising awareness of conserving energy.”
Because the house is small, officials said they were able to use the savings to purchase the highest-grade insulation available, Icynene.
Sewanee Utility District water will be available for drinking, but for other uses, the spring on the property is expected to produce about 12 gallons of water per minute, or 17,280 gallons per day for the community, according to Housing Sewanee. Officials also anticipate collecting enough rainwater to provide a year’s worth of toilet flushes and two loads of laundry each week at the initial house.
Volunteers started laying the foundation in February and Suarez said he expects the home will be finished by the end of the year. Volunteers, like Suarez, whose background is in engineering, are the heart of the organization. Volunteers range from retired people to students, some with construction skills and others new to building.
Two church groups also make regular summer pilgrimages to Sewanee to help build homes. A group from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mobile, Ala., has been coming for 24 years and a group from the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg, S.C. — which built the newest house’s frame — has been helping for 20 years.
“They not only bring talent, tools and enthusiasm, but they usually leave us a donation,” Suarez said. “We’re glad to see both groups come.”
Babb Lumber Co. in Ringgold, Ga., donated wood for the frame of the current house. Sewanee resident Jeannie Babb approached the group with the offer and her father Roger delivered the wood, which is pressure-treated with a fire retardant.
If volunteers are the heart, donations are the lifeblood. The group operates on approximately $60,000 per year, which includes significant donations in addition to income from mortgage payments and other sources.
The Sewanee Community Chest granted the organization $10,000 this year. The South Cumberland Community Fund recently awarded the group a $3,850 grant for the geothermal and rainwater collection systems and Dandridge Trust, an outreach program of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, recently gave them $500.
Since its inception in 1993, Housing Sewanee has built 17 homes. A selection committee picks families for the homes based on factors like need, income, stewardship and disabilities. The new homeowners are able to move in with a no-interest loan and low monthly payments.
Bruce Baird, a semi-retired dentist, is head of Housing Sewanee’s family selection committee. In addition to the current home’s future owners, Baird said the committee has also selected another single mother as the future owner of the next Sherwood Springs house, a three-bedroom structure.
“We look for people who are living in substandard housing and are trying to better their lives,” Baird said. “It (is often) single mothers who are trying to raise a couple of kids and they’re having a hard time making ends meet.”
Similar to Habitat for Humanity, homeowners must agree to spend four hours per week working on the construction of their own home and another person’s home.
Baird said the tough part is not being able to get everyone who applies into a home. There were eight applications for the first two homes in Sherwood Springs. But he added that the gratifying part of the job is when he can tell someone they have a house, like the two most recent selections.
“The one woman couldn’t even talk because she wanted a home her whole life and had given up hope that she’d ever own a home. There was silence on the other end of the line and I didn’t know if we were still connected or not,” he said. “The other lady just cried and cried because she was so happy. She had basically given up hope that she’d ever have her own place.”
Housing Sewanee also plans to help the new residents adjust to owning a home with a new support committee, chaired by Joe Porter, which will help counsel people in issues like money management, homeowner responsibilities and being part of a neighborhood.
Suarez noted that Housing Sewanee is ready to ramp up production.
“I think more than ever before we’re poised to build more than one house every year and a half,” he said. “We have home sites for nine houses and we have the land (Sherwood Springs). “We could double our efforts with just a little bit of success in recruiting with more manpower and more funds. But that’s the story of every nonprofit, isn’t it?”
In addition to houses, the organization also does construction work for people in need, like rebuilding porches, replacing flooring, foundation work, and other projects.
For more information, visit housingsewaneeinc.com.