Special Issues » The Give Guide 2008

Habitat for Humanity's Nikki Seibert builds affordable, energy-efficient homes

A Green Hammer

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Nikki Seibert was halfway home when the skies opened. Unfortunately, she was on a bicycle, with a trash can strapped to the frame with duct tape, filled with 32 three-ring binders. Half an hour later, the 25-year-old walked into her first U.S. Green Building Council class on LEED-certified homes (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Sopping wet, she looked around and realized she was likely the youngest person in the room. Then she introduced herself and began to teach.

About a year ago, Sea Island Habitat for Humanity realized it needed to update the design of the homes the organization builds for low-income families on Johns and Wadmalaw islands. Habitat had been using the same blueprint for 30 years, and the opportunity to utilize cost-effective, energy-saving, and sustainable construction techniques seemed like a no-brainer.

But how do you build green when your first priority is to be affordable? (Most Habitat mortgages are around $350 a month.) Fortunately for Sea Island Habitat, they already had their ace in the hole.

An environmental studies major at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Seibert first came to Charleston with AmeriCorps to work with Sea Island Habitat as a construction crew leader in 2006. Her eco-background led her to quickly notice ways that the homes she built could be more efficient, and she backed up her instincts by enrolling in classes on green building at College of Charleston. Those sparked her interest in the school's Masters of Environmental Studies graduate program, but to apply, she needed to maintain a job to fund it. So she created one, writing a full position description for a green building coordinator and presenting it to Habitat.

A year later, each of the 30 houses built by the chapter since her hiring is more efficient and sustainable, incorporating everything from reflective roofing to more tightly sealed windows, rain barrels to site plans that preserve trees. The new designs also include wide front porches, native plant landscaping, and even some tin roofs — all aesthetics one might not expect at a Habitat house.

"I would love to live in one!" says Seibert, who's managed to bring the homes to EarthCraft-certified standards (another program like LEED) for just $1,000 more, per house. Homeowners will save more than that in their first year of utility bills alone.

"When I first started, people weren't really sure if it (green building) was appropriate for an affordable housing provider," says Seibert. "I think a lot of people have this perception that green is a trend or an aesthetic thing, or that it's something really upscale like geothermal or these giant solar fields. In reality, a lot of it is just making a tight envelope on your house. Planning ahead is the biggest part of green building."

Under Seibert's guidance, Habitat reevaluated how it clears land, purchases materials, and builds homes. The 20 hours of classes new homeowners take now includes portions Seibert's designed on recycling and water and electricity conservation. They're simple, money-saving pieces of information that a family working hard to put food on the table might not have time to research or learn elsewhere.

Seibert says that new homeowners are thrilled about the low electricity bills and that some have gotten excited about things like composting and using rain-collection barrels to water their gardens. "It's all about planting that seed in their head, and even just exposing them to the idea," says Seibert.

The monthly newsletter homeowners receive now includes a column on greening tips, penned by Seibert. But the residents aren't the only ones getting an education. Habitat homes are built by volunteers, and any new techniques have to be easily and quickly explainable. Each volunteer group now walks away from their experience with a healthy new dose of knowledge about how they can make their own house more efficient.

This week, Seibert will be awarded the S.C. Sustainability Institute's annual leadership award for an individual. That comes on the heels of the American Institute of Architects honoring Sea Island Habitat with their 2008 Sustainability Award.

Outside of Habitat, the full-time grad student serves as CofC's recycling coordinator and sits on the Charleston Green Committee. And this summer, she sold her car and committed to traveling anywhere she couldn't carpool by bicycle, a project she's documenting at her website, livingcar-free.blogspot.com.

For her graduate program internship requirement, she's writing a guide to help other Habitat affiliates around the nation transition to green building. After school, she hopes to remain with Sea Island until the program is strong enough that she can step away and let it self-maintain. Seibert says. "I want to make more of a difference than just locally — I want to expand." At her current pace, that should happen easily.

Even the most run-of-the-mill home builders are beginning to understand that they've got to learn green building techniques to stay in the game. Fortunately for Sea Island Habitat, wherever Nikki Seibert lends a hand is likely to be ahead of the curve.


Sea Island Habitat for Humanity
2545 Bohicket Road • Johns Island, S.C. 29455 • (843) 768-0998 • www.seaislandhabitat.org

What It Is
The third oldest Habitat affiliate in the world, Sea Island has built 265 homes for low income families on Johns and Wadmalaw islands over the last 30 years.

What $25 Would Do
Purchase hammers, paint, caulking, a bundle of 2x4s, a stack of sheeting, a mailbox

Wish list
Materials and volunteers for a wetland restoration project at Habitat's Brownswood Road neighborhood on Johns Island

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