By Sarah Spicer for The Wichita Eagle published March 7, 2021, see original article and a short video here:
K-State students building affordable, energy efficient homes | The Wichita Eagle (kansas.com)
On a recent Friday, three Kansas State graduate students, fondly dubbed the “A-team” by their professor were working on a house in St. John, a small town of less than 2,000 about an hour and a half northwest of Wichita. They had gotten up at 5:30 that morning to drive two and a half hours from Manhattan, Kansas for their class project.
To design and build a home that will make as much electricity as it will use, but will be affordable enough for a median-income family to live there.
It’s a seemingly tall order, but the students are building the home and soon there will be nine more like it built by contractors throughout central Kansas.
The house will have three-bedrooms and two bathrooms and is expected to have $0 in annual net energy costs, if the homeowners operate the house right, being conservative in their energy use. The mortgage will be between $100,000 and $125,000.
The Net Positive Studio was started in 2018 by Michael Gibson, a licensed architect and associate professor of architecture at Kansas State University, who teaches students to design and build homes for demonstration and partners with nonprofits to help fund the projects and get them built.
“K-state is not gonna build 50 houses a year, but what we can do is we can show a different approach to doing this,” Gibson said. “We can show a type of house and the type of construction that you don’t see very much in Kansas.”
In the U.S., median home prices have risen four times the rate of household incomes, and part of the reason is that the average size of houses has gotten larger and larger.
“We’re becoming this nation of big, expensive houses, and that’s not what people need,” Gibson said. “There’s this whole segment of society ... the workforce in an area just can’t afford the housing. And it becomes an economic problem because people have to live somewhere.”
Workers being unable to find affordable housing is a problem across the state, as cheaper housing is disappearing and the cost to own a home or rent is rising. The issue has been documented in Johnson County and more recently in January when a Salina company wanted to double the number of employees but struggled because their workers couldn’t find a place to live.
In The Net Positive Studio’s project study, they found a similar problem in Stafford County. Every year since 2000, an average of 2.6 homes were built, but 13.9 homes were demolished.
SOLAR AND AFFORDABLE HOUSING
The house is a demonstration project, showcasing how solar can be used on affordable housing, according to Gibson. The house was designed by a previous year’s class, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, they couldn’t build it.
The K-State house is designed with multiple integrations of technologies, like solar panels, insulation, and energy-efficient windows. Since the house is well designed, the solar system can be smaller and less expensive because the house needs less energy to function.
“The sad truth is that those who can least afford inefficiencies are usually in the least insulated, worst conditions in terms of energy bill,” said Donna Schenck-Hamlin, the project manager for the studio. “The challenge that the studio is making to the public and to the construction industry is that we are going to demonstrate that we can afford to create, and homeowners can live in, houses that are not going to gouge them and make them cost-burdened.”
The house also will have insulated walls and vaulted ceilings, which help with energy use, ceiling fans and lots of external light.
“Quality of housing has always got to accompany discussions of affordability,” Schenck-Hamlin said. “Quality, not just in terms of what it’s going to run in the housing advertisement like the number of bedrooms or bathrooms, but the durability and the insulation and energy quality of the house, because to afford to reside in a place is more than just the mortgage you’re paying.”
ONE OF TEN
The K-State house will be one of many as the Stafford County Economic Development, a local nonprofit, received grant funding to build nine more houses of this design. They presented the K-State house as a prototype and received two grants from the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation HOME Program and the Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program.
Now, they’re just waiting on contractors to sign on.
Stafford County Economic Development plans to develop the homes and then rent them out because rental housing is the hardest to come by in St. John, and there is high demand.
“It’s kind of a paradox, here in rural Kansas. We want more people, but we don’t have good housing,” Dunn said. “If we were to build what is considered moderate-income housing that’s still $200,000 and that’s not cracking the nut here.”
They will build nine more of these houses, three of which will be in St. John, three in Stafford, two in Macksville and one in Hudson, using land where dilapidated houses were torn down so the streets, sewers, electric and other infrastructure are already in place.
TRADE-OFFS OF THE HOUSE
The house won’t have a basement, which is a cost-cutting measure, as digging and pouring basements can be 20-30% of the house cost, Gibson said. Kansas is in tornado alley, and St. John has a town tornado shelter, but Gibson said a better option is to put a shelter in the yard. They usually run about $2,000 and offer more protection than a basement.
“The house is engineered to withstand more wind force than traditional homes,” Gibson said.
When talking to St. John residents about the homes, they often cited the lack of a basement or an attached garage as a reason for not wanting to own the home, Dunn said. But for renters, they said the tradeoffs are completely acceptable.
The house also doesn’t have an attic, which was an intentional choice to add to the energy efficiency of the home. Instead, the students have designed the house with extra storage and high ceilings.
Additionally, the house is prefabricated, which can turn people away from homes, as people usually think about trailers when it comes to prefabricated homes. But trailers have a lot more trade-offs than a project like this, according to Gibson.
“We needed to find a way to make new housing that’s affordable and can compete with the mobile home in terms of affordability, but offers much more energy efficiency, can be mortgaged and won’t carry the stigma because it’s a permanent structure,” Dunn said, adding that mobile homes lose value or are done after 30 years, while most mortgages are being paid off at 30 years.
On Kansas' 160th anniversary of statehood, we wanted to share a Kansas Day essay written by Executive Director Carolyn Dunn for the 150th anniversary.
Last summer, my boys then age 6 and 4, decided they wanted to build a tree house from scrap lumber. My initial reaction to them was, “Building a tree house is harder than you might think” to which my oldest son gave me a level look and retorted “We can do it if we want to.” Well, I was put in my place; far be it for me to define what is and isn’t possible. As a 6th generation Kansan, a dose of grit and determination must be in his blood. Over the past 150 years, that sense of determination has directed many a Kansan to not give up so easily.
When I was young and my dad thought I wasn’t giving something the proper effort, he used to tell me “Can’t never could do anything,” a phrase his mother used on him when he was a kid. Colloquial grammar aside, I got the point: you can’t succeed if you don’t try. So don’t give up. In Bob Dole’s memoirs, I read that his mom used the exact same phrase with him as a kid, and that they were words he drew upon in the trying days following his debilitating WWII injuries and his subsequent rise to the highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate.
On January 29, nearly every grade school classroom conducts a review of the famous Kansans who exhibited the pioneering spirit. Along with Bob Dole, there’s Dwight Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, and Carrie Nation. And anyone who’s walked the halls of the state capitol can’t forget the larger-than-life mural of angry John Brown. I think it’s safe to say HE wasn’t ready to give up.
But there are plenty of not-so-famous Kansans who carried that banner as well. My first Kansas ancestor was my great-great-grandfather Isaac Farris. A member of the Iowa regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War, he made his way to Kansas after being wounded in the battle of Gettysburg and being discharged. His health reportedly was never very good following the war injuries, but he did succeed in establishing a farm and having a family. He used his Civil War pension to buy land that was part of the farm where I grew up. I can remember one time as a child my dad showing me the deed that Isaac signed when he purchased the land. It was signed with an X by the Chief of the Chippewa Indian tribe.
Around 1904, my great-grandmother Charlotte May Williams Farris journeyed by herself and her two young sons to homestead in Morton County in far southwest Kansas while her husband and oldest son maintained the farm at home in Franklin County in eastern Kansas. The three of them lived in a sod house at a time when there was little other settlement besides the Santa Fe railroad. During their stay there, my grandfather and his brother were reprimanded on at least one occasion for “borrowing” the railroad’s hand cart - the ones that pumped like a teeter-totter - to ride to town a couple of miles away. Secretly, the adults were a little amazed that the boys had enough “lead in their britches” to power the cart. Two years later and land deed in hand, Great-Grandma and her sons returned to Franklin County. The businessperson of her generation, she later sold the land to make improvements to the home farm. I’ve listened to my dad’s generation describe Grandma as hell on wheels, while mild-mannered Grandpa was along for the ride. What a perfect combination to pass along those core Kansas traits: salt of the earth peppered with a spirit of adventure, persistence, and risk-taking.
Good thing, too, because that spirit was needed in following generations as persistence was put to the test: keeping the farming business afloat wasn’t easy in the 1930s, nor the 1980s, but the descendants of Kansas pioneers were determined, and they succeeded.
When I came of age my idea of adventure was to venture to the big city, and for a time I lived in Washington, D.C. Still rooted in my Kansas values to help a neighbor, I volunteered to teach remedial math and English classes to adults seeking their GED. The classes were held in a basement of a church in a rough part of the inner-city, but I wasn’t daunted. One night I came out of the building with my guard down, and a young punk grabbed my purse and took off. My reaction was indignant, and I started to chase him. A bystander started running with me, and emboldened by the assistance of someone who knew the neighborhood, I continued to chase up the street, down an alley, and to a building where the purse-snatcher entered. The door was glass, and I could see that he had simply dropped the purse when he got inside. Cautiously, I opened the door and retrieved the purse, all contents intact, and the neighborhood watchman escorted me to my car.
I know full well how easily that story could have had a very different outcome, which leads me to reflect on how my experience ties together with the Kansans of my heritage: whether on a Civil War battlefield, homesteading the desolate prairie, farming through drought, or an inner-city mugging, we survive by the hand of God. But a good bit of personal persistence doesn’t hurt, either.
My sons did build their version of a tree house last summer. It is three boards of uneven length, nailed to two branches to create a very uneven platform. During the summer, leaves concealed it and for the boys it was the perfect hiding spot to sit and eat snacks. As fall came and the leaves fell, the unsightly boards were exposed. Objectively speaking it’s an eyesore, but I’ve not had the heart to take it down. When I see it, I see a real-life example of the spirit “Can’t never could do anything.”
Photo by Lizzy Baker
ST. JOHN— Waking up before dawn and biking 80 miles in the summer heat may sound extreme to some, but doing so is just a normal day for participants of Bike and Build, an affordable housing nonprofit that bikes cross country annually. In years past, Bike and Build teams have stopped in Stafford County, spending two nights in St. John to work with Stafford County Economic Development (Eco Devo).
Due to COVID-19, the summer of 2020 is the first time in its 17-year history that Bike and Build has not sent riders across the country. Eco Devo and Bike and Build adapted quickly to this change of plans in the spring, and the two organizations collaborated to create a summer internship in St. John.
Two cyclists-turned-interns, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Baker and Eliza Lawrence, arrived in St. John in late June and began work with Eco Devo. Baker and Lawrence have since worked on a variety of projects in St. John, including the development of an outdoor community space and working on the renovation of an old photography studio in town.
While not the typical Bike and Build summer, this collaborative internship has still given Baker and Lawrence a unique chance to do hands-on affordable housing and economic development work.
Normally, Bike and Build sends 75 young-adult cyclists across the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean along northern, central, and southern routes. In late May, riders dip their back wheel in the Atlantic, beginning a journey that travels over 3,000 miles in ten weeks. Along the way, these teams complete an average of 10,000 hours of service and raise over $375,000 for the affordable housing cause.
During their summer trip, Bike and Build riders spend one day a week off their bikes, constructing homes and participating in community-based education work. In 2014, the Bike and Build central route team passed through Dodge City, Kansas, where they first met the founding Executive Director of Eco Devo, Carolyn Dunn. Dunn traveled from her home in St. John to speak to the Bike and Build team about rural affordable housing. The following year, Dunn reached out to Bike and Build organizers, and St. John has since hosted a Bike and Build team in 2015, 2016, and 2019.
The work that Bike and Build has completed in Stafford County varies widely, as projects depend on the specific needs of Eco Devo. In years past, volunteer days have included the partial demolition of a home in Hudson, the painting of houses in Stafford, and construction work on an apartment in St. John.
Stafford County Economic Development
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