As this article by Sharon Thatcher for Construction Magazine shows, Post Frame building can be a green choice!

By: Sharon Thatcher | May 31, 2019

Habitat for Humanity Offers South Bend, Indiana, Clients an Affordable Passive Option

The City of South Bend, Indiana, is a quintessential Rust Belt community. After years of decline, the once-industrial city of 102,000 residents is now on its gradual climb back up, and post frame is part of its intriguing story.

Dwayne Borkholder, owner of Borkholder Buildings, from nearby Nappanee, Indiana, is also part of that story.

Each of the Habitat for Humanity post-frame homes in South Bend range from just over 1,000 square feet to 1,400 square feet. They are a story-and-a-half and have three bedrooms and two baths.

Borkholder became involved in the revitalization of South Bend at a time when the city had dropped to rock bottom. Prices for homes in one particular area were ridiculously low.

“South Bend lost a lot of industry, a lot of people in the last 25 years,” Borkholder explained. “When the population dropped, people left their homes. They tried to sell them, tried to rent them out. You had a lot of homes you could buy for $5,000 and $10,000.”

People were camping out in the abandoned buildings and vandalizing them to sell the copper wire and pipe. “It was on a bad section of town and it kept going down hill,” Borkholder said.

In 2013, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (you know him today as a Democratic candidate for President), introduced a plan to eliminate 1,000 abandoned homes in 1,000 days through either repair or demolition. Mike Keen, a sociology professor at the University of Indiana and director of the local Center for a Sustainable Future, lived in one hard-hit area and wanted to be part of the renaissance of South Bend. He approached Borkholder, who was promoting net-zero post-frame housing, to see if the post-frame system might be an affordable option for his community.

Before long, the pair were buying properties. First, they purchased one. “We were going to build one 

Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter are pictured at one of the net-zero post-frame homes they visited during the Carter Build in South Bend, August 2018.

home to just get started,” Borkholder said, adding: “But, you talk about mission creep, before we could build this home, there was this commercial property adjacent to it that came up for sale.”

If they could buy it cheaply, the men decided they would refurbish the commercial property first, then build the post-frame house.

“In the meantime,” Borkholder continued, “those empty lots kept coming up on sheriff’s sale, $50 to $100 per lot, and Mike would say, ‘We’ve got to grab these lots. Is that ok?’ And I would say, ‘Yes, do it. At $25-$50 a per lot and $400 in legal fees, you can’t afford not to go after it.’”

When all was said and done, Borkholder and Keen had 17 lots all within a block-and-a-half of each other, including two commercial buildings.

Soon to be added to the mix was the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity. The low-cost, new-housing organization owned four empty lots in the same neighborhood but had not yet focused its building efforts there. Borkholder and Keen approached the local director to see if they could coordinate efforts to generate more activity and excitement in the blighted neighborhood.

Just so happens, the organization was very interested in finding a way to build affordable net-zero homes for their cash-strapped homeowners. The reason was simple: Habitat homeowners pay an affordable mortgage; but, there are other expenses involved in home ownership that aren’t covered in a mortgage. “These families don’t just need a hand up, they need a high-performance home that’s going to help them the rest of their lives,” Borkholder explained.

Natural air space between the columns help to make post frame more easily adaptable to net zero. Insulation for the four homes included 6″ Textrafine batt (R19) and 1/2″ Thermal 3HT.

Most net-zero homes built in the U.S. are not cheap. “When I started researching this 10 years ago, I was finding net-zero homes at $250-400 per-square-foot market rate,” Borkholder said. “Most passive homes have two walls and they separate them to get the air space. They’re building two structures, and they use different films. It’s expensive. That’s why they’re $250 per square foot.  My goal from Day One has been to make net zero affordable.”

Post-frame has many built-in advantages to making it a low-cost net-zero option: wall and roof systems with built-in air spaces for improved insulation; the availability of cool-color technology for metal panels; and the option to use more affordable solar systems like thin film.

“When you look at passive homes, when you look at what I call high-performance building envelopes, post frame lends itself so well to those same ratings. If you are looking at ratings alone, we can hit LEED Bronze with very little modification at all,” Borkholder said.

An added plus, slab on grade makes post frame handicap accessible.

Borkholder and Keen were still interested in doing one net-zero home on their own property as a demonstration model for Habitat for Humanity. The South Bend Chapter for Habitat, however, had a secret to share and they didn’t want just one home, they wanted four on their four Habitat properties. The secret: former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn, whose association with the organization since 1984 had helped to launch it into the international spotlight, were due in South Bend for their 35th, and mostly likely their final, Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project or “Carter Build.” Along with them would come hundreds of volunteers who would converge for five days to help build or repair 41 homes in the South Bend and Mishawaka areas of St. Joseph County.

JD Metals Borkholder Habitat Green Net Zero RoofBorkholder prefers thin-film solar panels for buildings in Indiana because it performs well in low-light locations such as his. It is applied to the steel roofing panels prior to installation and comes from NeoSola, California.

Once again, the one house Borkholder and Keen had tried to build from the very beginning of their partnership was pushed back to focus on the four Habitat homes.

In a Habitat home, typically the future homeowner puts in at least 300 hours of sweat equity to build their own home with the help of volunteers. In this case, however, no homeowners had yet been selected for the four net-zero houses. Facing a strict deadline, coinciding with the impending arrival of the Carters in 2018, a Borkholder dealer—D&J Roofing and Construction, Nappanee—was contracted to build the four residential structures. They would be opened during the annual Carter Build to show the visiting Carters, the national Habitat directors and other volunteers how net-zero housing could be accomplished affordably with post-frame construction.

The event was a success and the work in South Bend continues. Borkholder said he can see the area coming back to life. Notre Dame University is located nearby and the school has reached out to offer a helping hand. Residents are encouraged. “The people in the local neighborhood are inviting others to come in,” said Borkholder. “They tell people, ‘we have a great neighborhood, buy while it’s cheap.’” 

Borkholder has more ideas he plans to unveil for the South Bend neighborhood as time permits.

In the meantime, what has happened to the one house that started it all for Borkholder and Keen? Did it ever get built? Borkholder reports that there is an interested buyer and they are hoping it will be built soon.

[About the author: Sharon Thatcher is editor of Frame Building News. This article was originally published in the June 2019 magazine issue.]