By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

Front of zero energy solar home.
Solar home photo by Rebecca (Becky) Robinson in Whitehall, Montana.

Whitehall, Mont. – In the late 1970s, Barbara Miller was a newspaper reporter writing about Missoula and Butte, Montana, and as such, she paid attention to all sorts of trends—from the local and national economy, to housing, to scientific breakthroughs. As it turned out, her reporting and stories eventually intersected when she came across some technological research that would have a significant real-world impact in Butte.

It was 1978, and researchers at the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte were working on groundbreaking research that resulted in extremely energy efficient housing for low-income owner-builders. Miller had an academic background in economics, and housing development experience, so she was curious to know how the applied research would really impact homeowners. And she lost no time finding out.

“That was when I quit reporting to become a translator,” she says. She worked with building science researchers to interpret and explain their findings for other researchers and a national audience. Later, she too went to work at the center, where she was a building science projects coordinator; and in that role she developed groundbreaking field research projects with a regional team of building scientists.

Backyard solar
The 7 KW solar system sits on the home’s back roof, which is 1,288 Sq. Ft., three bedroom, two baths. A one car detached garage protects homeowners from auto fumes that would be unwelcome in the home, which qualifies as a clean home in health terms of pollution sources—ceramic tile and laminate flooring, with no outgassing sources. Photo by Zack Weigg, intern with NAHN.

She eventually co-founded the National Affordable Housing Network (NAHN) with fellow researcher and house plan designer Bob Corbett. She is now NAHN’s executive director. NAHN began housing development work in 1995, collaborating with Habitat for Humanity of Southwest Montana. Since 2014, the organization has increased production to more than eight homes per year.

Miller recently directed a particularly noteworthy project—zero energy housing for low-income and disabled residents.

Last year, Rural Community Assistance Corporation’s Loan Fund provided a $606,000 loan so NAHN could refinance Mountain Horizons, which consists of 11 single family and eight four-unit condominium lots in Whitehall, Montana. The small rural community’s economy is largely dependent on healthcare, small service businesses and tourism. NAHN had a two-year term U.S. Department of Agriculture 524 site loan for part of the original land development financing and later received a two-year extension of maturity on that loan, but the organization was still short on financing. RCAC’s loan helped NAHN continue building the homes, which are surrounded by a 365-degree view of mountains and valleys and are within walking distance to Whitehall’s schools, shopping and downtown area.

RCAC loan officer, Chuck Miller, was instrumental in helping Mountain Horizons get off of the drawing board, Barbara Miller says.

Front solar zero energy home.
A gable-front facade varies the streetscape, but prevents solar installation, which has been switched to a shed roof with optimal solar orientation. While solar can be installed on any surface facing east, west or south, the subdivision in this case is designed for maximum solar output. Photo by Zack Weigg, intern with NAHN.

“Chuck was such an excellent listener that he made best use of his time and ours in processing the financing with the RCAC Loan Fund. I’ve never experienced such a positive lending experience. He respected our mission to serve the families most in need – disabled heads of households, seniors, very low-income families, many of whom have lost hope of ever achieving home ownership.”

According to NAHN, affordable housing is in severely short supply in southwest Montana, especially housing designed for disabled residents. This was confirmed in a June 2012 study conducted by the Montana Department of Commerce and the Montana Board of Housing, which revealed that many area residents see themselves as “permanent renters,” with no sustainable affordable housing options.

The solar-power homes that NAHN designs and builds are based on original research for cold climates in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The technology rests on the principles of superinsulation, energy recovery ventilation, high performance windows and maximizing solar energy. The first of the Montana micro-load passive solar house plans combined research from S/B Saskachewan, Canada and Arizona. Between 1984 and 1987, the Montana Superinsulation Project tracked hourly performance data from super-insulated homes in Montana and it’s this data, Miller notes, “that explained how the superinsulation approach felt to homeowners. The homes lost so little heat in winter that occupants and appliances provided 55 percent of the space heat needed, along with a limited amount of south-facing windows, which provided 20 percent of the needed space heat.” A decade later, this approach would be echoed in the German Passivhouse movement, which emphasizes superinsulation and maximizing solar gain.

View of north side porch on solar home.
A cool north-side porch and an R-40 wall panel are used in this construction. Attics have R-60. Photo by Meghan Boyce, NAHN.

Aside from these building advances, however, Barbara Miller says the region “has a troubled health profile, a lot of pollution and the highest suicide rates in the state. It’s one of the hardest hit economies in the country, so I see it as one of the best focus areas for eradicating human misery, poverty and hopelessness.”

It is why a well-built home can make such a difference, she says.

One of Mountain Horizons’ first buyers, Becky Robinson, is a bank teller who works in the town of Ennis, 45 miles away in Madison County. She was living in an uninsulated trailer—“constantly wrapped in blankets,” she says—before learning that she might qualify for self-help housing.

“I’m in my 60s, and I’ve worked all my life,” says the Montana native. “But Ennis is a very expensive place to live. There are very few affordable rentals there.”

Robinson is not alone in her observation. Realtors, too, have asked Miller and her staff for more affordable housing in the area. NAHN prices homes below market so they are affordable to households earning less than 80 percent of the median household income.

In Robinson’s case, “Friends and kids, just about everyone helped with the building.” She herself cut lumber for the house’s siding and learned how to put up walls. She worked with sheet rock, painted and helped put in the tile floors.

“Years ago, I helped my ex-husband work on our homes,” she recalls, “but nothing to this degree.”

Bedroom with window.
Passive solar comfort. A south-side bedroom, where a single window provides significant heat during winter. In summer the window is shaded by the roof overhang. Photo by Meghan Boyce, NAHN.

“Residents suddenly have this great comfort they hadn’t known before,” Barbara Miller says of the Mountain Horizons project. “Suddenly, their electric bill is down, the ventilation is better, often their health starts to improve, and their mood improves; a child’s life can be completely transformed. It is a powerful tool in addressing poverty.”

NAHN joined the USDA Mutual Self Help program in 2003 and since then, NAHN and Habitat have produced more than 100 owner-built homes in a joint effort. This includes four Mountain Horizons homes that have solar electric arrays affordable for very low-income self-help homebuyers. The result is a net-zero all electric home, where solar panels fit on southward facing rooftops. Every home in Mountain Horizons has solar access, Miller says, and—at a finished price tag with land and solar electric of $155,000 to $180,000—remains affordable.

And those electric bills?

“Compared with where I came from, that old trailer,” Robinson says, “well, there’s just no comparison. I never touch my thermostat, ever. My electric bill? It used to be $135 dollars per month. It’s now $5.60. And I am extremely comfortable in my home.”