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Can Lafayette build its way to a resilient future?

youngsville home built by Clare Homes
Fortified Roof houses, like this one built by Clare Homes in Youngsville, offer a potential example of how Lafayette's communities can build their way to long-term resilience by upgrading storm-vulnerable parts of houses and lowering homeowners insurance premiums. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The next house built on Ike B Street in Lafayette’s La Place neighborhood near Downtown will be state of the art. Roof-mounted solar panels, high-efficiency appliances, pressure-rated doors and windows, plus a roof designed to withstand 126 mph winds. 

But 217 Ike B St. is not going to be a modern luxury home. Instead, it’s a modest three-bed, two-bath, 1,170- square-foot house designed to blend into the historically low-income neighborhood’s older style

What makes 217 Ike B St. stand out among its neighbors? It will create more energy than it uses, meet some of the nation’s highest construction standards and be built by Lafayette’s Habitat for Humanity. 

Habitat’s Ike B Street house will be its first project to meet the Institute for Business and Home Safety’s Fortified Gold standard for home construction. IBHS has a three-tier system of Fortified designations — Roof, Silver and Gold — that require design and construction standards that go beyond state building codes by mandating tightly sealed and secured roofs, high-strength exterior walls and more resilient construction methods and materials.

Lafayette’s Habitat organization began building homes to the Fortified Roof standard in August after seeing the practice implemented in homes it was helping restore in Lake Charles following hurricanes Laura and Delta, according to Construction Director Ji Daily. 

The Fortified designations require a marginally more expensive construction method — typically under $10,000 for a roof — but they yield a substantially stronger home whose owners benefit from better storm resilience and lower insurance premiums thanks to the improved construction quality. 

Daily says the annual insurance premium for one of Habitat’s homes dropped by $400 after its Fortified Roof designation was factored in. “It makes economic sense for us to be able to produce a better product for homeowners by making that initial upfront investment,” she says.

That’s a crucial benefit in areas that are vulnerable to severe weather, and it makes a significant difference for Habitat’s lower-income homeowners. 

“For homeownership to be sustainable for people of limited income, you can’t have constant maintenance expenses that aren’t somehow covered in some way,” says Lafayette Habitat Director Melinda Taylor. “So, this is a more durable building envelope, and we hope that if there are weather events in the future — which we know we’re going to have — that the insurance is going to cover those repairs that are necessary, but there’ll be fewer of them.”

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Habitat isn’t alone in embracing the Fortified standards, which have become one of several solutions to the state’s homeowners insurance crisis supported by Louisiana’s Department of Insurance. 

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon is pushing the state Legislature to fund a grant program during this session that would provide up to $10,000 per household to retrofit homes to the Fortified Roof standard after seeing Alabama successfully implement a similar program. 

“If it works like it’s intended, it will actually provide some funding for homeowners who are having to replace their roofs to go to Fortified [standards],” Taylor says. “It just makes a whole lot more sense, and it makes us a much more attractive target for insurers.”

In order to make the homes more resistant to storms, and therefore cheaper to insure, the standard requires thicker and heavier plywood decking, comprehensive waterproof sealing and a continuous load path that links every piece of the home’s structure, from the roof to the foundation (much like links in a chain). 

That opportunity could make it far more affordable to build resilient housing in communities around the state, says Isaac Scott, who founded Lafayette-based Clare Homes with Kendall Gilmore in 2021 to build Fortified-rated, energy-efficient homes in the area.

“Fortified is playing a major role in the solution to the insurance companies remaining in Louisiana,” says Scott. “It’s something that we feel that we were early adopters of, and it’s starting to come now through building codes, through the insurance crisis. All of these building practices that we build to are now starting to become code and required in certain areas, and it’s all about resiliency.”

Building to the enhanced standard added about $3,000 to Clare Homes’ cost of building new houses, though it is typically more expensive to renovate existing roofs to the standard, Scott says. But the grant program could comfortably make up the difference in cost for the upgrade. “The grant is written for up to $10,000 per house per residence. So, on a re-roof, that should more than cover the extra cost to go Fortified,” he says.

Habitat’s Ike B Street house will also be its first Zero Net Energy project in Louisiana, thanks in large part to the sponsorship of natural gas company Atmos Energy. To make that possible, the house will rely on solar panels to meet its electricity needs and feed extra power into the grid to offset the use of natural gas for most major appliances, like its furnace, clothes dryer, range and water heater. 

The Ike B house’s solar power and gas stove offer a level of storm-proof functionality, since homeowners will be able to cook during power outages because they can use appliances under the right conditions. That benefit is somewhat limited, however, as a more expensive backup battery would be needed to power other appliances during prolonged outages. 

It’s something that we feel that we were early adopters of, and it’s starting to come now through building codes, through the insurance crisis. All of these building practices that we build to are now starting to become code and required in certain areas, and it’s all about resiliency.

Isaac Scott of Lafayette-based Clare Homes

The widespread use of gas appliances is a departure from Habitat’s previously all-electric outfits, Taylor says, but Atmos’ financial support made the home’s Zero Net Energy specification possible, greatly lowering electricity costs for the home.

Atmos is sponsoring the Ike B Street house and several similar Habitat for Humanity projects across seven other states in a bid to prove the viability of natural gas in energy efficient construction, particularly where it can replace conventional electric heating, which is generally more expensive and less efficient because of transmission losses.

“Atmos Energy wants to be able to provide this proof of concept to show that natural gas is part of our future energy mix,” says Atmos Vice President of Marketing Wes Harley. “Oftentimes when a zero energy home is built, it excludes natural gas appliances, they take those things out of there. [But] by having the combination of the natural gas appliances, the solar renewables, as well as a tighter building envelope, it allows us to be able to build a [Zero Net Energy] home that is affordable.”

Reaching the Zero Net Energy designation, which accounts for the use of natural gas but does not offset carbon emissions, can be a prohibitively expensive endeavor for private builders, Scott says, especially given the recent volatility in construction costs. 

But it is a goal he and his partner Gillmore hope to reach for their spec builds in the future and one they hope other builders will aspire to in order to make Lafayette’s communities more sustainable and more resilient to the future effects of climate change. 

“This will make our community more resilient, and also it’s all part of the bigger picture to get to net zero. … We’re trying to play that role in Lafayette, Louisiana,” says Scott. “That’s our goal. That’s our mission,” he adds. “And not only that, but also to become a leader in renewable energy, a leader in resilience.”