Building Hope One House at a Time

by Bill Chameides | November 20th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 1 comment

Nice house, right? It’s from the Builders of Hope, a North Carolina-based nonprofit. They didn’t exactly build it, but they did put it there.

Nancy Murray has taken recycling to a whole new level — she recycles houses.

When I met Murray at a meeting at Duke University last week, my first impression was of a sharp but typical professional making her way through the business world. I was right and wrong: she is sharp, she is professional, but she is anything but typical.

Building Hope and Sustainable Solutions

As the CEO of the not-for-profit Builders of Hope, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Murray is on a mission to save the world one house and one neighborhood at a time. Her organization collects, moves, and refurbishes abandoned houses to build new sustainable neighborhoods of affordable housing. Not your typical businesswomen.

When I asked Murray about her background, she seemed a little embarrassed to say that she began her career in marketing and then as a developer. But through her work, Murray began to see some serious problems that cried out for attention:

  • Abandoned Homes: There are about 13 million vacant housing units [pdf] in the United States. Obviously, those are in need of tenants.
  • Homelessness: At the same time the estimated 3. 5 million Americans who likely experience homelessness in a given year are in search of homes.
  • Landfills filling up: If left abandoned, homes deteriorate and eventually must be demolished and carted off to a landfill. A typical home yields about 50,000 pounds of rubbish, according to Murray. That means the standing crop of abandoned homes represents a potential three billion tons of material destined for our nation’s landfills.
  • Climate change. Residences are responsible for one fifth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and most of our homes are unnecessarily inefficient. Making homes more efficient — through better appliances, tighter insulation, etc. — is easy and could make significant cuts in those emissions.

It’s one thing to see a set of problems. It’s another to have the vision toward an elegant solution and the wherewithal to make it happen. Murray had that vision, and to make it a reality, she abandoned her traditional career track and founded Builders of Hope.

Her Vision: Match up the Homeless with Abandoned Homes in New Green Neighborhoods

Murray likes to say that each house has a story — the story of the lives of all the people who have lived in it — and so each house, even an abandoned one, is worth saving, She has developed a five-step process to do just that.

Step 1. Save that house.
Demolishing a home is not free. You’ve got to pay someone to do the demolition, you’ve got to pay someone to haul the stuff away, and you’ve got to pay the landfill to take your stuff.

Now, what if you owned an abandoned home and were fixing to knock it down when someone came along and offered to take it off your hands for a small fee — much less than the cost of demolition. You’d do it right?

And that’s the Builders of Hope’s first step: they convince owners of abandoned homes (often banks) to let them take that house off their hands for a small fee. 

Step 2. Move it.
Next you might wonder: what are Murray and the Builders of Hope going to do with an old abandoned house?

Simple: They move it. That’s right, they pick it up off its foundation and cart it off to a new location to be part of a new planned neighborhood based on sustainable principles like proximity to mass transit, pedestrian friendly, infill/urban as opposed to suburban locations.

Step 3. Refurbish that old house.

Okay, so now you have a formerly abandoned house sitting on a lot somewhere, What’s next? Fix it up of course.

Once the Builders of Hope have moved their homes to new neighborhoods, the organization gives each house a major overhaul: new wiring, new plumbing, new walls, new HVAC — the works. The end result is a home that most people would love to live in.

Step 4. Make it green.

But as long as they are refurbishing a home, why not do it right? The Builders of Hope don’t just refurbish homes; they make them green in every way they can. Specifics include: EnergyStar appliances, low VOC materials (e,g., no carpets), landscaping with native plants and grasses, low-flow fixtures, and rain collection systems for irrigation.

Step 5. Sell the home at cost.

Finally the group finds new owners to live in the homes. But not just any owner. All of the homes sold by Builders of Hope are sold at cost to families earning below the median income. In many cases, Murray reports, the new owners are able to:

  • own their home with monthly payments lower than the cost of renting and
  • reduce transportation costs because of proximity to mass transit and retail markets.

You’ve heard of killing two birds with one stone? Well, the Builders of Hope are tackling four problems (abandoned homes, homelessness, landfills, greenhouse gas emissions) with one solution.

One of the group’s first projects, the Barrington Village in Raleigh, is a great example of the organization’s work. It’s a 24-home subdivision build on a six-acre plot. All the homes, of 1940s–1960s vintage, had been slated for demolition in the Raleigh area. Instead they now sit together in a neighborhood, with families inside.

Kudos to Nancy Murray.

filed under: business, climate change, faculty, global warming, sustainability, waste
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1 Comment

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  1. Ken Towe
    Nov 23, 2009

    The existing homes that have made use of wood and wood products have kept carbon dioxide essentially buried. The trees that provided this wood may have already been reforested…. 30 years? To demolish these homes or allow them to disintegrate (biodegrade) accelerates the time frame of that sequestered CO2 back into the atmosphere. Recycling them extends the burial of their CO2 and keeps new trees from being cut down for the construction of new homes.

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