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Green Build: Can a State College Duplex Be Economically And Environmentally Sustainable?

Ron Quinn and Peg Hambrick survey the future site of the duplex.
Erin Cassidy Hendrick

On a green patch of land on University Drive, there are several stakes and flags marking the ground. The executive director of the State College Community Land Trust Ron Quinn, along with Green Build  committee chair Peg Hambrick, are surveying the empty lot owned by their organization.

The Green Build project is uncharted territory for the Land Trust. Usually, it purchases houses and sells them at a lower cost to buyers who would otherwise be priced out of the State College borough.

This will be the first new residence they've ever built. But the Land Trust received an offer it couldn’t refuse. Lassie McDonald, a realtor who owned this property next to her house, reached out to the the Land Trust directly.

“She was looking at selling the property and wanted to ensure to the best ability possible that it became an owner-occupied house,” said Quinn.

The Land Trust bought the lot to build the duplex. They don’t have a price tag yet, but the plan is to make them affordable for median-income buyers.

The Land Trust also saw an opportunity to build homes that weren’t just affordable but also environmentally friendly. Integrating ultra energy-efficient features could help the future owners lower their monthly utility costs drastically. To see if this was possible, the Land Trust reached out to the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture.

In a moment of serendipity, a group of students were already a part of a competition by the U.S. Department of Energy to create a net zero home. So the two groups decided to team up to make their plans a reality.

Kyle Macht is the team leader and is helping to design the duplex. “So we are trying to get it so the home produces all the power that it needs for the occupants, while still trying to make it cost effective. So it’s sort of a tricky balance to play here, you need to be thinking about high-end and high-performance materials and really great mechanical systems and ventilation systems, while not pushing the boundaries of the budget,” he said.

While they didn’t win that competition, their unique vision for the duplex will now become a reality. The designs include a solar array on the roof and features to minimize heat loss and to conserve water and electricity.

Macht says this project has also given the students the rare opportunity to see their designs realized. “One of things I think lacks a little bit in the educational system, is that you end up doing what’s necessary just to get by or just to get that grade. You need to think about the long picture, someone is gonna be living in here. You can’t make mistakes, you can’t make errors,” he said.

The partnership between the Land Trust and the Penn State team so far has been a smooth one. They need more funding before they can start building, but the Land Trust is optimistic. If all goes well, they hope to break ground in the spring or summer of 2016.

Ron Quinn, the Land Trust director, hopes this housing development can be a beacon for future projects – a real-life example of how to be environmentally and economically sustainable.  “We constantly hear people mentioning ‘green, sustainable,’ but we’re actually gonna do it. And we would welcome anyone who would like to participate in this, to look at what we’re doing and borrow or take whatever they can into future builds,” he said.

The Land Trust is already offering other groups insight into their plans, hoping this duplex inspires them to do the same – create buildings that keep the “green” in the environment and in homeowner’s wallets.  

Erin Cassidy Hendrick was an associate producer at WPSU. She produced the programs “BookMark” and “This I Believe” for the station.