Habitat for Humanity aims to create Norwegian-inspired home

By : 
Jordan Gerard

For the first time in decades, Habitat for Humanity will build a home in Houston County for a family in need.

That home will be built in Spring Grove, designed by a local architect and students, built with local supplies and built by local volunteers.

The conversation started with the Spring Grove Economic Development Authority (EDA) and local groups about the lack of affordable housing in Spring Grove.

“People want to move here, but there’s not a lot of space for young families,” Courtney Bergey, EDA director, said.

Last fall, high school students met with several community members, members of the EDA and staff from Spring Grove Public Schools including Superintendent Rachel Udstuen and teacher Karen Tisthammer. 

Udstuen took notes from the students’ discussion about what they’d like to see in Spring Grove’s future, such as a mini-golf course. Another topic that surfaced was affordable housing.

Ideas about tiny homes swirled around the minds of community members and students. Tiny homes being extremely small homes that are energy efficient and space saving.

Meanwhile, Bergey was introduced to Miranda Moen, a local architect student from Freeburg, currently studying for her Master of Architecture degree and the Master of Design in Sustainable Environments at Iowa State University. She has a particular interest in Norwegian architecture and Scandinavian small home living.

Norwegians used every space available in their homes. If storage could be put in a nook, it was put there. If a bed could be housed for guests, then so it was. 

Moen has been working with Tisthammer’s Makerspace class, the result of a Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) grant that encourages hands on learning such as robots, making fishing rods, woodworking and other practical skills. 

As they started to design the Norwegian-inspired home, they thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could actually build the house?”

Bergey met with Kahya Fox, executive director for Habitat for Humanity-La Crosse Area, which covers Houston County and La Crosse, Vernon and Trempealeau counties in Wisconsin.

It was an opportune conversation when Bergey pitched the idea to Fox. Habitat for Humanity was looking for opportunities to build in Houston County. 

Even better was the fact that Semcac owned a vacant lot in Spring Grove that was begging for a home to be built. The lot was sold to Habitat for Humanity for this purpose.

The La Crosse Area chapter has been active for 26 years and built 44 homes in that time. In 2016, they celebrated their 25th anniversary, and put together a strategic plan the following year.

“We said we need to do more. We want to expand our housing production and do a home and a half per year,” Fox said. “In three years, we want to go from one and a half homes to three homes a year.”

And though the city of La Crosse has the highest population of any city in their service area, Habitat also serves three other counties.

“We weren’t being receptive to our service area, and then we started looking at possibilities for partnerships,” Fox added. “We’re focusing on small housing that is decent and maximum utilization of space.”

Currently, Moen and students have discussed different floor plans, natural lighting, energy efficiency, use of space and many more architectural features of homes.

Two weeks ago, she showed a 3-D model of the home they had designed together. Students enjoyed being able to see their creation come to life, which featured an open-space living room and kitchen and a second story with three bedrooms.

With feedback from students about what they liked and wanted to change, Moen will convene with the students one more time, then pass their designs off to the Habitat for Humanity architects to finalize the entire home.

Once finalized and spring has sprung, Habitat is ready to hit the ground running with permits, contractors, volunteers and a partner family to build the home. The home should be completely done by September/October 2019.

Even the students are able to help with building, though there are age restrictions as to what students can do on the job. Habitat has experience working with students from Western Technical College.

Students 15 and under are not allowed to be on an active jobsite, however they can still help with landscaping and painting. 

Students 16 to 17 can be on the active site, just not using any power tools. Those 18 and older can use the power tools and help with more duties on the jobsite. Training from experienced professionals will be available.

Fox said it takes about 175 volunteers and 2,000 volunteer hours to complete a home. No experience is needed to volunteer. Construction skills are taught as the home-building process moves on. Construction days are Wednesday through Saturday.

Habitat provides two full-time construction staff members who oversee the building process. More importantly, they look for local suppliers, subcontractors and partnerships with electricians, plumbers and the like.

“When you start with a community, you have to talk to the community and build a group of people that will make it happen,” Fox said.

Habitat also creates a committee of three to four people who are willing to find and work with a partner family to build the home.

Oftentimes the misconception about Habitat is that they give homes to families without hesitation. However, the partner family chosen must apply, meet several requirements and complete 350 hours of sweat equity in order to buy the home at the appraised value after all is said and done.

The partner family often has low income and in need of a new housing situation. In order for a family to qualify, they fill out an application similar to applying for a home loan at a bank.

They must have a minimum credit score, pay bills on time, have willingness to partner and a need for affordable housing. In return, the committee does home visits to the family’s current home and has a face-to-face conversation about why they are interested in being a homeowner.

The 350 hours of sweat equity creates a connection to the home for the family and ensures their partnership.

Once the home is complete and the family has completed 350 hours of sweat equity, they buy the home at the appraised value.

The family will pay full property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Habitat looks at 30 percent of their gross income as an affordable mortgage payment and brings in assistance if needed. The mortgage is for 30 years.

The organization works with families to structure a monthly payment package to make sure they can pay the payments.

Fox said the structure of the payment plans have an “extremely high success rate” and there have been “no closures ever.”

The family is able to sell the home if they want to, such as if they had to move for a job change. They also earn equity during their time as homeowners. 

For the first 10 years, they earn 10 percent of the equity and then in another 10 years, earn another 10 percent. Eventually the family comes to have 100 percent equity in the home.

Recently, subcommittees have been created for finding a partner family, local businesses to serve as subcontractors, donors and volunteers.

The subcommittee for a partner family hopes to hold an informational meeting for interested families in late January.

The goal is to raise about $75,000, Bergey said. In-kind donations to the project are also accepted. Though Habitat for Humanity is volunteer driven, there are still costs such as supplies, subcontractors and more.

Volunteers are needed from all groups and individuals who would like to help out. 

Construction will start as soon as the ground thaws out in 2019.