Humane Habitats

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 9
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Hurricane Andrew ravaged South Florida’s Dade County in August, 1992. In the aftermath, Habitat for Humanity not only began building houses with displaced families, but it also used the disaster as an opportunity to incorporate social and environmental sustainability into its mission.

In January 1993, Homestead Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, began negotiations to build a 200-home model community called Jordan Commons. The new development, scheduled for completion in 1997, was conceived with a commitment to community-building and ecological responsibility.

Habitat for Humanity pairs prospective homeowners with volunteer house-builders. Together they construct new homes, often using donated supplies and design services. Habitat then sells the homes at no interest and no profit to families, giving them both quality housing and home ownership. The Jordan Commons design offers valuable lessons about how to integrate family services, opportunities for self-sufficiency, and reduction of utility costs through energy-efficient technologies.

The Jordan Commons design started with the pro bono professional services of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who, with her partner Andreas Duany, has popularized the concept of "new urbanist" neighborhood design. They gained national attention for their design of Seaside, a planned community in the Florida panhandle, which they conceived with the principle goal of fostering a strong sense of community. Despite a design that is contrary to marketing principles of the secluded, country-club enclave, Seaside has created remarkable demand, reflected in a doubling of property values since its construction in l984. Zyberk worked with a team of designers to ensure that Jordan Commons will incorporate these same design principles, on a large scale, to a low-income community.

The design of Jordan Commons features:

  • Pedestrian-friendly streets.
  • Visual access to streets: porches and kitchens in the front of the house encourage close observation of street life, making supervision of children easier and establishing public spaces as safe places.
  • Common facilities: parks and playing fields, daycare center.

In addition to these social considerations, Jordan Commons will incorporate an ecologically sensitive design. With a self-contained sewage treatment plant, water will be treated and discharged into an irrigation system that will maintain playing fields and other green spaces. What is not absorbed by vegetation will immediately return to the aquifer. Houses will have low-cost solar water heaters and photovoltaic pumps, high-efficiency appliances, and natural cooling designs. Reflective steel roofs, reflective concrete pavement, and intensive planting of nearly 15 trees per house, will help reduce the heat-island effect (the rise in surrounding temperatures that occurs in most developments) by 3-5 degrees Farenheit. The energy efficiency and cooling techniques will produce, by conservative estimates, energy reductions of 38 to 48 percent.

Even the actual construction of Jordan Commons serves as a model of sound environmental practices. The National Association of Home Builders and the Environmental Protection Agency are using Jordan Commons as a demonstration site for appropriate methods of recovering construction waste.

When Jordan Commons establishes that it can support a more sustainable form of low-income community, it could significantly alter the way affordable housing is built in this country. Since policymakers often look to non-profit developers for new ideas, these developers now help shape public policy on community development. With Jordan Commons as a new working model, Habitat hopes to be in the vanguard of this movement.

Dorothy Adair has been President of Homestead Habitat for Humanity since its founding in 1992. For more information, write PO Box 1509, Homestead, FL 33090-1509.

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