Production builders have long eluded sustainability in the name of affordability. With the national expansion of their "Partners in Sustainable Building Program," though, Habitat for Humanity and The Home Depot Foundation are raising the bar for this industry segment.

During the next five years, 123 Habitat affiliates representing 45 states will build 5,000 homes that meet Energy Star or more rigid national or regional green building standards.

"We're showing that it's possible to add green building into the affordable housing category," says Kevin Gobble, Habitat's sustainable building and design specialist. "This is an opportunity to learn lessons about cost-effective, sustainable building strategies for Habitat, but it's also an opportunity to affect the industry."

The Home Depot Foundation is providing a $30 million grant for the expanded program, a figure determined by a one-year pilot program.

The pilot proved a $3,000 reimbursement grant for an Energy Star-rated home, and a $5,000 grant for a home built to a higher standard, would be sufficient for affiliates. This incremental expense, Home Depot Foundation president Kelly Caffarelli says, should demonstrate that anyone can build green.

In setting an example for the industry, the program extends the affordability piece to more than 5,000 qualifying families by cutting maintenance and utility costs. Data from the pilot program show high-efficiency appliances and equipment saved families up to 50 percent in energy costs and 30 percent in water costs.

"The extra cost in mortgage that we are subsidizing for these homes is about $7 a month, and the average saving in utilities is $40 a month," says Caffarelli. "This makes economic sense."

Caffarelli noted that MLS listings in some Northwest cities state whether homes meet green building standards. "There is a demand for this information in the market, and builders can respond to it without losing," she says.

Part of the foundation's funding is for training and educating Habitat affiliates, which are responsible for purchasing building materials, including windows, heating and cooling equipment, light fixtures, ventilation fans, and appliances that meet Energy Star standards at a minimum.

Program volunteers will work under the auspices of eight Habitat State Support Organizations both on- and off-site, which will add staff to sites, secure third-party verification of a green building standard, and host training and educational sessions. Regional training also will be available.

The hope is that after making initial changes to their building process and construction management, and experiencing training and technical assistance support, Habitat affiliates will continue to meet green building standards after the program expires. Sixty percent of the affiliates in the national launch have not been building homes to Energy Star or other green standards. The homes erected in the program will make up 17 percent of all Habitat houses built in the next five years.

"Once builders understand the process and make the material selections, all of that is done," says Caffarelli. "The first home is the hardest."

She adds that green building materials continue to go down in price. "Our no- and low-VOC paint costs the same as other paint now," she says. "We are talking about brass-tacks stuff here—paint, insulation, appliances, etc." But, she adds, "bamboo flooring or solar panels are still premium products."

In the end, The Home Depot Foundation official says, "We hope that the endgame is not calling it 'green building,' but that it just becomes the way we build."

Maggy Baccinelli is a contributor to EcoHome. This article first appeared