Living la vida verde 

homeWORD's tours tout smart living

Listening to Community Outreach Coordinator Betsy Hands give a sustainability tour of homeWORD’s affordable housing projects around Missoula is a little like listening to a new friend tout the myriad benefits of yoga, or a caffeine-free diet: You walk away thinking, I want to live that way, too. homeWORD’s mission to raise awareness of sustainable building’s benefits is working. Their second annual July sustainability tours (the next one is July 29) are inviting busloads of attendees to learn more about four of homeWORDs sustainable building projects: Lenox Flats, Fireweed Court, two strawbale homes, and the Northside’s Gold Dust apartments.

“There are two very important issues that face not only Missoula, but the nation,” homeWORD Board President Chris Allen says, introducing the tour. “Affordable housing and sustainability…Most [buildings] are energy sinks and toxic heaps to live with, and they’re very material-inefficient and energy-inefficient. Green building strategies are coming now to reverse the trend and turn buildings into much more energy-efficient, healthy buildings that are also desirable.”

homeWORD’s buildings are arguably among the most attractive buildings that have been constructed in town in the past 10 years (homeWORD began as a project of Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, Inc. in 1995, and was incorporated as a non-profit in 1998). Hands says their office receives many calls from people who want to live in the Northside’s Gold Dust building—but only families whose incomes are at or below 50 percent of the median area income qualify.

“We strive to have beautiful projects,” says Hands. “One of the reasons we do that is we want to be good stewards of public money. And we recognize the fact that this housing needs to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood and be a place that people are proud of. Some residents say that moving into our housing has really lifted them up.”

The buildings on the tour do blend aesthetically with their neighborhoods, but they also each stand out for their less visible sustainable qualities.

At the first stop, downtown at Lenox Flats on Woody, Hands rattles off a list of green renovations homeWORD made in 2001 to the 1907 hotel: energy modeling upgrades through a partnership with NorthWestern Energy; low-toxin paint and carpet installations; drains running from the roof to the garden for low-maintenance irrigation; mixed-use of apartments upstairs and commercial space downstairs to help offset the cost of rent: $355 a month for a one bedroom. “Historic preservation is a very sustainable aspect of green building,” says Hands, “because if they demolish this [building], all of this would have gone to landfill. By being able to preserve the wood and the brick, you’re able to save extracting more resources to build another building.”

At Fireweed Court—12 durable concrete units behind a strawbale wall on Russell—families live in two- and three-bedroom townhouses for about $528 a month. Once a vacant lot, the site was developed in 1998 by homeWORD after one of their trademark design charrettes. “Charrettes are our stamp for how to develop and match the needs of the people in the community,” says Hands. During a one-and-a-half-day brainstorming session with neighbors and potential residents, the woonerf concept arose from the Fireweed charrette. Danish for “living street,” the woonerf is a concrete communal pedestrian area in the center of the development, where children can bike and families can gather for barbecues.

The Gold Dust building is built around a woonerf, too, with a 1,000-square-foot community workshop room (designed as an art gallery space, and available for public use) and a rooftop community garden. The building was constructed on the site of the old Gold Dust Hotel in 2003 and was designed to match the “warehouse feel” of the Northside neighborhood, says Hands. The units have a “live/work space,” she says, with rooms that have separate entrances and could be used for giving massages or setting up an art studio. With 88 solar panels, the building is also the largest single solar installation in Montana, says Allen, who estimates the panels generate 22,000 kilowatt hours per year and account for one-quarter to one-half of the residents’ power needs.

When homeWORD finishes the historic renovation currently underway at the Acme Hotel in Billings, however, that building will trump the Gold Dust as the largest solar installation in the state. Both Hands and Allen smile that, yes, homeWORD does continue to outdo itself. With six projects completed since 1995, the Acme scheduled for completion this fall, and a semi-rural 35-unit development soon to begin on 4.6 acres west of Reserve, “Each project builds on the previous knowledge,” says Hands. “We add more and more green elements and get to use the newest technologies out there.”

In doing so, they also bring these technologies to market, showing other developers and homeowners the successes of sustainable living. HomeWORD was the first to build a strawbale house in Missoula in 1997 (built by an all-women construction crew, who were then qualified for well-paying Missoula construction jobs), and the first in Western Montana to build the homes on a land trust. “We own the land and the family owns the house,” says Hands, “and that reduces the cost of a home by $30, $40, $50,000.” Strawbale is extremely efficient insulation, she says; she estimates that the highest monthly winter heating bill in the strawbale house visited on the tour is $60.

The tickets for homeWORD’s July 29 tour are more cost-efficient still: $18 for a tour followed by dinner and live music at the PEAS Farm. Proceeds benefit homeWORD. Tickets are for sale at Rockin Rudy’s, and the tour leaves from the XXXs downtown at 6:00 p.m. Call 543-3550 for more information.

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