The Equinox House on a summer day in Urbana, Ill. Credit: Build Equinox

By Kalyn Nowlan

 

As it turns out, saving the world is a multi-faceted challenge. Climate scientists worldwide agree that extreme weather patterns documented since the industrial revolution are not only here to stay but will only increase in frequency as the planet warms. Understandably, individuals respond to these terrifying projections in various practical ways: donating to environmentally conscious organizations, attending climate marches, embracing sustainable practices in their daily lives, or preaching the importance of reducing one’s impact to their loved ones. They might even vote for politicians, like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who use the term Green New Deal in their rhetoric. As supporters of the Green New Deal have emphasized, the environmental crisis of climate change is closely related to the social and economic crises of poverty and racism — and one way these intersecting crises might be addressed all at once is through the development of green housing.

Those who study sustainable housing are conscious of how a Green New Deal could not only control and manage the climate crisis, but help mitigate America’s socioeconomic crisis as well. According to his most recent publication “A Green New Deal for Public Housing to Deliver Racial, Economic, and Climate Justice,” Daniel Aldana Cohen, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, asserts that a Green New Deal would “deliver massive health and economic benefits to disadvantaged communities.” With plans to “invest $119 billion to $172 billion in green retrofits that include all needed capital repairs,” this plan for green housing would not only dramatically reduce carbon emissions but also improve “health, safety and comfort.” The plan would reduce annual carbon emissions by roughly 5.6 metric tons, which is “the equivalent of taking over 1.2 million cars off the road,” while also reducing public water bills by up to 30% and energy bills by 70%. Not only is the plan cheaper annually and radically more environmentally friendly; it also has the potential to “create up to 240,723 jobs nationally across multiple sectors” due to the redirection of government funds toward a modern, retrofit economy. These jobs would benefit low-income areas, which struggle with both high unemployment rates and the impacts of environmental racism.

In addition to his research, Cohen collaborates with the Climate + Community Project, an organization that explores the impacts of environmental racism and aims to release briefs that will “make recommendations … that center the needs of [low-income communities], expand democracy at all scales of governance, and facilitate flexible implementation.” According to this project, green housing, an idea that has been mentioned but not successfully implemented by the political left, is not only an important step toward addressing climate change, but an essential one for the planet — particularly those who are currently living in low-income housing. “We know how to do this,” Cohen argues, but getting the public to really understand the importance of housing as a part of a broader agenda of climate justice remains a challenge for its advocates.

Solar technology has the potential to bring lower-impact housing to people around the world. Credit: StockSnap via Pixabay

One approach to this challenge is simply to provide examples of what successful green housing might actually look like. While Cohen’s focus is on sustainable housing in urban settings, the kinds of retrofits he describes will be required everywhere, including the most rural parts of America. As the home of one of the world’s leading universities, Champaign-Urbana is not just a major hub of climate research; it is also a testing ground for climate solutions, including housing.

Having lived my whole life in the Champaign-Urbana community, I was privileged in my proximity to top scholars in the area, some of whom even made home renovations that would limit or eradicate their house’s carbon footprints. A few of these Chambana homeowners strove to make their homes “net zero,” or the ability to “generate sufficient energy on-site over the course of a year to supply all expected on-site energy services for the building users.” This feat isn’t always achievable, and while there are homes that come close, truly net-zero homes are currently few and far between.

But in Spring 2021, I learned about Equinox House — a completely solar-powered and net-zero home in Northeast Urbana. Equinox House is a miraculous feat of engineering, but it’s also a home, situated in an ordinary-looking neighborhood. From the highway, the solar panels are visible, but as you drive toward the family home, you are shocked by how ordinary it really looks. There’s a two-car garage, manicured vegetation, a back patio, a flower garden off to the side. It appears no more than a nice house in an up-and-coming development. Unless, however, you are lucky enough to speak with the owner: University of Illinois Engineering Professor Emeritus Ty Newell.

Newell argues that the technology needed to lower the carbon footprint of an everyday Midwestern home is already possible for ordinary Americans — they just don’t know it yet. Occupied since 2010, Equinox House was designed by Newell’s son, Ben, following the 40-year Newell family dream. The house regularly hosts more than 100 guests and is toured annually by thousands. But the most innovative part about Equinox house is not just that it is sustainable but that it is a sustainable home.

“It’s a healthy, comfortable environment,” Newell said in a 2013 interview with the Grainger College of Engineering. “It took me a few years to research … but it’s like the stars have aligned now: the cost, the efficiency, the technologies, they are all here right now just waiting for people to figure out how to put the pieces together to this puzzle in an economically efficient manner.”

Hoping to learn more about housing, I looked deeper into how Equinox House differed from the “normal” American family home to potentially answer further questions of cost, efficiency, and comfort. According to a study by a team of scholars at Colorado State, 21% of the average American homeowner’s housing expenses are utilities. This is more than 8% higher than the average yearly food and transportation costs in the year 2009. In “Valuing Green Home Designs: A Study of Energy Star Homes,” Bryan Bloom and his co-authors contend that “by choosing to place more value on unseen amenities such as added insulation, infiltration reduction, duct sealing, or high efficiency furnaces” rather than aesthetic additions, “homeowners can realize significant reductions in utility requirements.” These reductions in cost, however, are not the only benefits of making green changes to a home. “It is evident that energy-efficient homes can play a significant role in reducing U.S. energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and home ownership expenses,” the article argues.

These figures are seen in action with Equinox House. In a 2011 column on Equinox House’s efficiency, factors such as lighting, cooking, dishwashing, and clothes washing and drying were analyzed to compare the footprint of the house to the average Midwestern home, and the findings were generally consistent. Equinox House is more efficient because of features such as subpanel circuits, a fresh air ventilation system, electric water heaters, and other energy-saving technologies. There is no denying that the home is state-of-the-art, but when we spoke, Newell emphasized that Equinox House’s construction costs are affordable and feasible for the general public today. Constructing a net-zero home, Newell said, “is doable now. This is not future technology.”

According to Newell, the cost of integrating sustainable technology into homes has substantially decreased in the last few decades. Equinox House has about 125 LED lights, and each bulb cost $25 in 2010, he said. “Now, you get like a 4-pack for 4 bucks,” Newell asserted during our interview in early March 2021. Solar panels were twice as expensive when he installed solar in his home and business. Today the cost is about $3 per watt installed, he said. “We really are getting to a place where we don’t need tax credits, we don’t need renewable energy credits to drive the market.”

If integrating LED lights or solar panels into a home was once only possible for the wealthiest and most innovative, argues Newell, it is becoming increasingly accessible. As he explains, many individuals without an engineering background have been able to build very efficient houses. “A Leal Elementary school teacher who all our kids had as a soccer coach… he retired; he built a very nice, all-electric solar powered home outside of St. Joe … so there’s another solar-powered house. Another fellow who’s a truck driver” did the same thing, Newell told me, citing examples of locals who worked to make their homes “net zero” without tremendous expertise or exorbitant cost. 

“It’s like a contagion. When somebody in a neighborhood that doesn’t have solar collectors, when they start building a house that’s going to be zero energy, they start infecting others in the neighborhood, and you start seeing clusters build up as people think, ‘Oh, I can do that!’ ”

After speaking to Newell, I was interested in learning more about the possibility of others, in Champaign-Urbana and beyond, embracing net-zero or near net-zero housing. Newell noted an important trend: In the past 15 years, the price of necessary features for net-zero housing have decreased to where the masses can already access them. According to a 2015 study by Stephen Berry and Kathryn Davidson, in the past “lower energy use homes [were] associated with higher construction and lower energy use costs.” But the years since have brought a decline in construction costs, which Berry and Davidson say “respond to regulatory changes.” When performance-based standards for net-zero homes are improved (whether on local, national, or universal levels), costs tend to decrease, they argue, because they require improvements in crucial sectors such as industry knowledge, supply-chain development, and production. While optimistic for those who are already invested in the environment, these findings focus on the individual level; the Green New Deal would involve investing national funds in larger-scale projects. They do, however, home in on a very important truth: If the average American family can currently access the resources that are needed for green housing, the American government certainly can. What we need to do for the future of the planet, and the quality of the communities that dwell here, we can do. 

The solar photovoltaic array on University of Illinois Physics Professor Scott Willenbrock’s Colonial Solar House seriously cuts down on the house’s electrical costs. Credit: Scott Willenbrock.

While Newell makes it very clear that sustainable housing is the way of the future, and that it is only becoming more and more economically viable, not every American family is willing or able to start from scratch when it comes to sustainable home improvement. Built in 1929, Colonial Solar House began as a scantily insulated family home in Champaign. For decades, the home was powered with natural gas, which kept residents comfortable during many frigid Midwestern winters but also released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributed to ongoing climate change. That is, until University of Illinois Physics Professor Scott Willenbrock was inspired by Newell’s Equinox house and sought to find out more about how to make his 90-year-old home more sustainable.

Almost on a whim in 2013, Willenbrock installed a solar PV system in Colonial House, which consists of a solar panel and a separate inverter, which “inverts” solar energy that is generated from the solar panel to a format where it can be used throughout the house. Willenbrock followed in the footsteps of a colleague, Phil Krein, a Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, who with the help of photovoltaic panels made the switch to solar energy in 2012. Willenbrock felt that Krein’s process seemed safer and better fit for a beginner. He makes the point that “the microinverters don’t produce any voltage until the system is connected to the grid, which makes them inherently safe to work with.” Though he describes himself as “well below average in handiness,” he has made it very clear that he believes others are as capable as he is in home renovation.

So, if the technology needed to transition to lower-impact housing is not only available but more affordable for ordinary homeowners, it seems like it would be feasible, on multiple levels, to transform American public housing into an integral part of a Green New Deal. What do we need to do to get there? Newell and Willenbrock are encouragingly transparent about the resources that made their renovations possible, and about the net good that even small changes can make to a homeowner’s carbon footprint. But in a country that in 2019 recorded 34 million people living under the poverty line, it is inevitable that these changes are not yet possible for every family — which underscores, as Cohen has shown, the need for more sweeping policies for green housing across the board. But if these changes can be made by ambitious individuals in Champaign-Urbana, and if those who have the means are willing to make similar changes to their homes, the supply-in-demand will go up, paving the way for families who may be waiting for cheaper materials.

Newell argues that many people who may have otherwise been able to afford sustainable changes to their homes often don’t know that they are already capable of doing so. In 2006, a study found that the initial building investment of a net zero house would be between $8,432 and $15,166. But those costs have dropped significantly, as Berry and Davidson’s study shows. So, if you are currently able and interested in making environmentally conscious changes to your home, you play an essential role in driving governments and the people who vote for them toward a greener future.

Local programs such as Geothermal Urbana-Champaign are wonderful places to start. The program is focused on educating the local public on geothermal as a more sustainable energy source, hosting free “Geothermal Power Hours” that outline how going geothermal can save families money through making the switch. They assert that “whether you adopt geothermal this year or in five years from now, we truly hope you gain a better understanding of this technology and the energy options available to you through this program.” But it’s clear from innovation that has happened right here in our little college town that net-zero is the way of the future.

“We are there right now, technologically and economically,” Newell promises, “but we have a lot of battles to win along the way.” Newell’s optimism is reflected in Cohen’s New Deal research as well, where he concluded in October 2020 that “With Joe Biden, There’s Still a Case for Climate Optimism,” citing Biden’s commitment to “1.5m new units of green affordable housing [and] 4m building retrofits (half commercial, half housing),” as well as his promise to “fund green retrofits of schools and electrify school buses [and] to decarbonize the postal service.” These changes, while potentially lofty, could result in the decarbonization of building materials and the greening of global supply chains in ways that go hand-in-hand with rights and justice for marginalized and currently impoverished groups. Cohen concludes that Biden’s environmental aspirations and claims, if followed through, would provide “huge” benefits for workers, unions, and worker cooperatives.

There are certain to be challenges in embracing green housing, like convincing the wealthy that it is worthwhile to invest in poorer communities, overcoming the preconceived notion that green housing is “too expensive,” and redirecting government funds toward a modern system of living. But it’s what we must do, and it’s more than possible.

About the Author …

Kalyn Nowlan is from Champaign-Urbana, Ill. She graduated from the University of Illinois in May 2021 with a B.A. in English Literature and the Certificate in Environmental Writing, and is now working on her Master’s of Library and Information Science at the iSchool. She hopes to pursue a career in academic librarianship with a research focus in sustainability.

This article was written for ESE 498, the capstone course in the Certificate in Environmental Writing, in Spring 2021.