On nearly five acres west of Reserve Street, Orchard Gardens is blooming. HomeWORD’s newest affordable housing project is the local group’s largest and most innovative yet. With 35 units constructed using a slew of sustainable building practices, some unprecedented and some proven in past endeavors, Orchard Gardens is shaping up to be a model project.
With construction having just passed the halfway point, the five-building project is slated for completion by November. When it’s done, 35 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments will house families that earn less than 50 percent of the area’s median income, which averages $53,450 in Missoula County.
The units, to be managed by the Apartment Store, will rent for roughly one-third of the renter’s income.
At the heart of Orchard Gardens is the idea that truly affordable housing is possible, and that development using sustainable materials and energy-conserving methods will reap rewards in the form of lowered utility costs and a healthier environment.
HomeWORD’s book defines “sustainable” in several ways, and even the smallest efforts—such as having bins to recycle contractors’ pop cans onsite—add up. HomeWORD has taken big steps toward sustainability, too. All lumber was sustainably harvested. That’s four 18-wheeler truckloads of locally, sustainably harvested wood—a measure neither HomeWORD nor the area mills that supplied the lumber have undertaken in the past. An underground parking lot beneath one of the structures will make way aboveground for a two-acre garden and orchard. A ground-source pump system will use Missoula’s aquifer to heat and cool air, and a photovoltaic system will help heat tenants’ water. The list goes on.
“We firmly believe that every aspect, every process is part of sustainable development,” says Heather McMilin, homeWORD’s development project manager, on a hot afternoon tour through Orchard Gardens.
McMilin says the architects, contractors and sub-contractors have all taken steps to incorporate sustainable materials and techniques into the projects—a practice that may take a bit more innovation and work up front but that she says is well worth it in the long run.
One major commitment was the use of sustainably harvested wood. Local forester and soil scientist Mark Vander Meer came to homeWORD with the idea, and worked with two local mills—Tricon Timber in St. Regis and Pyramid Mountain Lumber Inc. in Seeley Lake—to get lumber from timber sales that he verified as sustainable.
While it’s not unusual for green-minded individuals to use certified wood, in Montana it’s not necessarily truly sustainable: “You’ll find lumber at stores that’s stamped sustainably harvested, but if it comes from the coast, is that true?” Vander Meer asks. The cost and impact of transportation, plus the fact the lumber isn’t nourishing local economies, dissolve most of the benefits sought in the first place. So Vander Meer worked with Tricon and Pyramid, found two timber sales that were “real examples of honestly sustainable forestry,” and tracked the lumber from stump to building site. All told, the lumber cost just 5-10 percent more than usual as a result of the mill’s tracking work and Vander Meer’s work ensuring its quality. Representatives from both mills say they’d do it again.
“We truly looked at it as an investment in a different way of doing business, ensuring that products generated by sustainable forestry make their way to homebuilders and are put into quality homes,” says Gordy Sanders, Pyramid’s resource manager.
As far as homeWORD, the mills and Vander Meer know, this is the first time something like this has been done in Montana. McMilin says the project’s contractors are enthusiastic about using local sustainable lumber, and eager to see a steady supply of it in the future.
“There is a lot of good forestry going on that we should take advantage of,” Vander Meer says. “I provided the link, but [the mills] are the ones that deserve the credit.”
Besides the lumber, homeWORD has incorporated many other products and processes that add up to a development that oozes sustainability. One aspect often overlooked is left-over building material scraps. Usually, contractors make at least one trip to the dump each day, and the fees add up quickly. But homeWORD has set up a recycling system for all scraps—wood, metal, plastic, even drywall—and drastically reduced landfill runs and the accompanying $250 fee per load, one project contractor said. Even the wire scraps left over from electricians’ wiring of the buildings were gathered up and given to a local little league baseball team, whose members salvaged the copper, recycled it, and used the money to help buy new bats and uniforms.
Simple things like these, McMilin stresses, can be done by anyone at any building project—a message that’s part of homeWORD’s mission: “By proving it can be done, I hope it opens opportunities for other people to do this.”
And innovations some may consider experimental are also opportunities to show Missoula what possibilities await in creative homebuilding. Orchard Gardens’ community center, made from strawbales with bamboo supports instead of steel rebar, is an example. McMilin says obtaining a permit for the structure was difficult because it’s not a standard practice, but once people see how it works, it may become more so.
At the heart of homeWORD’s efforts, of course, is the goal of providing low-cost housing to those who need it most. “We want them to be safe, healthy, good overall homes,” McMilin says. “If you’re proud of where you live, it’s empowering.”
HomeWORD’s third annual Sustainability Tour, a self-guided green homes tour, takes place Saturday, July 23, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A Sustainable Building Materials Symposium follows from 5 to 7 p.m. Tickets are available at homeWORD, Rockin Rudy’s or Warden’s Market; call 543-3550, ext. 16 for more information.