A Unique Partnership 2

OU, Habitat for Humanity Project to Build CEB House Deemed (Partial) Success

Partnership can be a beautiful thing, especially when two worthy groups come together to work on a solution to a valuable cause.

Nonprofits have many amazing assets, but partnering with university students can open up infinite opportunities. In 2014, volunteers with the Cleveland County Habitat for Humanity teamed up with faculty in the Division of Construction Science in the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture to find—and build—a viable option for affordable, energy-efficient housing.

The OU students designed, tested and constructed the building materials that would be used to create a house from sustainable Compressed Earth Block, made partially from dirt excavated from a site on the OU Research Campus. Together with Habitat for Humanity volunteers, they built this new house, alongside a traditionally built house, on East Apache Street in Norman so the advantages could be quantitatively evaluated.

The project took over a year to complete, and for the past two years, two different local families have been blessed with permanent housing and an opportunity to make an impact in others’ lives and future shelter possibilities.

I spoke with Matthew Reyes, assistant professor of construction science, and Linda Banta, executive director for Cleveland County Habitat for Humanity, to learn more about each and how countless groups can benefit from similar partnerships and thinking outside the box.

The OU team was responsible for the house design, manufacturing the CEBs, coordinating the construction of the foundation, installing the CEB walls and putting a plaster finish on the interior of the house over the CEB walls. Banta met weekly with the OU team to work out any construction issues, coordinate and plan the next steps for the project.

Funding for the project came from a $90,000 grant the College of Architecture received in 2012 to study the cost and savings of a home built using compressed earth blocks. Cleveland County Habitat for Humanity supplied the construction manager, volunteers, the family and some additional funding.

Data on the CEB house is still coming in but, Reyes notes, “At a glance, the CEB house appears to consume less electricity than an identically sized wood-framed house.” The family residing in the CEB house wasn’t able to offer a comparison since their prior living conditions were so poor; however, according to Banta, they love the home.

Unfortunately, construction took “a lot more time and effort for us and for the College of Architecture to make it happen,” Banta shared.

In the end, they determined the build wasn’t cost-effective because of the intensive labor that went into making the blocks. Had it not been done by volunteers, the build costs easily could have doubled that of a standard house. But this is just the first house to be built like this in Oklahoma, and both groups are looking into other alternatives methods that could be faster, less expensive and more energy-efficient.

Reyes believes this is “a viable construction method in this area if the circumstances are right–probably not on a large scale, but on certain individual homes.

“When a home lends itself to maximizing the benefits of earthen construction (layout, orientation, finishes, systems, etc.), then there are definitely benefits to building with CEBs.”

Both groups really enjoyed the partnership, and the OU students received invaluable hands-on experience that could never be gained in a classroom.

“The students all had a good time working on the project, and the ones who were heavily involved learned a lot about the planning, design, coordination and construction process,” Reyes said.

“In a discipline like ours, architecture and construction science, where there is a lot of visual and hands-on content, it (hands-on experience) is especially critical. What they learn in the classroom enhances what they are able to do outside the classroom, which in turn enhances their classroom learning. It really is a great cycle that enriches the learning process.”

“As challenging as the project was, it was also very rewarding,” Banta says. “Working with the architects and engineers from OU was a great experience. … When it enhances what they are learning, it is an even more powerful opportunity.”

Most importantly, Banta said, “Our family got a lovely, sturdy and energy-efficient home that they love. For me and Cleveland County Habitat for Humanity, the important thing was always that the family would have a home of their own.”