Thursday, July 26, 2012

Collaboration and Innovation for Green Housing Success

By Leila Finucane Edmonds
NeighborWorks America, Director
National Initiatives and Applied Research
Community Housing Partners (CHP) in Christiansburg, Virginia has served low wealth and low-income communities for over 30 years with striking results. CHP has almost 6,000 rental homes in its portfolio, a NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center and a LEED Silver corporate headquarters. It’s a great example of diversified, resilient and mission-focused organization that has built its strength on being collaborative, open to early innovations and adaptive to conditions in its local markets.

I recently spent two days with CHP Executive Director Janaka Casper and his team. Also on the trip were Michelle Winters, NeighborWorks America Green Strategies senior manager, and David Dangler, NeighborWorks America Rural Initiatives director. Our goal was to learn more about their successes, and, in particular, their New River Center for Energy Research and Training. The center is one of only a small number of Department of Energy Legacy Weatherization Training Centers, and the first to be accredited by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council for energy efficiency training. CHP has trained more than 30,000 people at the center for jobs like retrofit installers, energy auditors, quality control inspection – so I wanted an on-the-ground view of operations. 

Grandma's House
Touring the facilities, we were able to see demonstrations on uniquely designed pressure houses, how to perform blower door tests on multi-family buildings and model homes for hands-on-training – a manufactured home and “Grandma’s House,” a model frame house.   Overall, I was impressed by CHP’s integrated use of technology in their training programs, their commitment to sustainable practices and the talent and breadth of their leadership team. 

During our visit, I heard moving stories about what CHP has accomplished, including that of CHP’s first multi-family project, a housing complex for seniors.  Back in 1980s, school consolidation was common in rural areas – and Pembroke, Virginia was no exception. When the local elementary school closed, one of the planning district commissions, which act as development consultants for local government, invited CHP to help redevelop the property. CHP successfully applied to convert the property into affordable senior housing and named the complex for Sam Robinson, a former principal of the original school.

S.A. Robinson building. The entrance still reads "Pembroke School"
CHP converted the 660 square foot classrooms into apartments of a similar size. CHP also worked to retain the character of the building. For example, CHP made chalkboards into tables where people could place their keys.  “Green housing” wasn’t much discussed in the 1980s, but CHP was conscious of energy efficiency – all windows were double glazed to more effectively regulate indoor temperature.

Residents of S.A. Robinson
The project was finished in 1987 and it is now a major resource for this small community. It provides 27 apartments for seniors making 80 percent or below federal area median income. Some of the early residents turned out to be graduates from the school. Janaka is most proud of CHP’s long-term ownership. Residents feel at home and nearly every door is decorated with crafts that express a personal sense of belonging.

On the drive back, my team and I spoke about further exploring and highlighting connections between our green program for NeighborWorks network members and our affiliates serving rural communities. Our goal is for two thirds of the NeighborWorks America network to adopt sustainable and energy efficient practices across their operations. With this visit, we are gaining a new understanding of the energy efficiency and weatherization work already underway in local markets and regions. Now, we look forward to collaborating with the network creatively to expand and share that knowledge.