[This article was written by Kevin Soubly and first appeared in the July 25, 2011 issue of MiBiz publication]
ADA, MI – Four years after the town was almost completely destroyed by a tornado, the town of Greensburg, Kansas is reinventing itself. Led by Greensburg GreenTown, a local grassroots nonprofit founded one week after the tornado hit, the town’s officials, businesses and residents are working together to incorporate sustainable principles into their rebuilding process and have claimed the title of “America’s Model Green Community.”
HIB-System, LLC, a German architecture design firm with its U.S. headquarters in Ada, Michigan, is a key player in that rebuilding process. Its award-winning building system is behind Greensburg’s Meadowlark Eco-Home, the town’s most prominent building prototype currently under construction.
Referred to simply as Meadowlark, the three-bedroom 1,600 square-foot house is the first HIB-System building in the United States. Greensburg and HIB both hope for it to encourage construction opportunities elsewhere in the country.
Once completed, the building will receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification for green buildings based on a number of factors including its high energy efficiency, toxin-free construction, sound insulation, use of renewable materials, and very little waste product. Meadowlark is expected to use only five to ten percent of the electricity normally required to heat and cool the average American home and will also meet the far more rigorous European Passivhaus (German for “passive house”) certification.
HIB-System’s world headquarters are in Meissenheim, Germany and the majority of their business to date has been in Europe. Banking on the success of their building designs, however, the company is looking to expand their base within the United States and is considering partnerships with contractors in West Michigan.
“We are looking for a partner who is interested in various levels” of the construction process, said Jan Hoetzel of HIB-System. Because HIB’s patented system requires several stages of production, “we are looking for strategic locations in the U.S.” that will enable the company to locally-base multiple levels of production, he said. “We have lot of skilled people here [in West Michigan], we have woodworking experience, we have a nice housing market and supplying the surrounding region is even possible.” But he remained cautious, admitting “I can’t say that [these things]are not available elsewhere.”
Because discussions with possible partners are ongoing, Hoetzel called it “too early in the process” to comment on any level of commitment to West Michigan companies and has not ruled out looking out of state.
At the core of the HIB system is a wood block wall construction, achieving most of its energy efficiency through its thick walls and airtight construction. “Basically, it’s a pre-manufactured system that stacks together like Legos,” described Joah Bussert, the Meadowlark Project Manager for Greensburg GreenTown. “You send [HIB] a floor plan and they input it into a computer system that models the house in 3-D. They are then able to manufacture the wooden blocks based on the computer system. The blocks are all numbered, so the assembly goes fairly quickly.”
The assembly process is so simple that homeowners untrained in building construction can “get involved in the construction and save some labor costs,” Bussert said.
The building components are mechanically joined together without any glue or toxic materials. “The blocks themselves use dovetail joints – a really strong method of joining wood,” Bussert explained. “Dowels run through the blocks to hold them together and they also use screws or staples to add another level of strength. Once the blocks are assembled, another structure of posts and beams run through the walls. It’s kind of amazing how many connection points there are in the system,” he said.
In addition to high energy efficiency ratings, HIB-System structures are lab-tested to withstand up to 180 MPH winds and earthquakes up to 8.0 on the Richter scale.
For comparison, the tornado that destroyed Greensburg in 2007 had estimated wind speeds of over 200 MPH, but was admittedly one of the strongest on record. “I can’t say if it will withstand a tornado,” commented Hoetzel of his company’s buildings, “but surviving a hurricane is very possible.”
The Meadowlark prototype was donated to Greensburg and is valued at over $200,000. Some of that cost is a result of feature demonstrations that wouldn’t normally be found in a commercial home, however, and additional expense stems from the cross-Atlantic transportation of the disassembled house; HIB’s only manufacturing sawmill is in Germany and uses only German-grown Black Forest pine.
Following a potential establishment of a multi-level partnership here in the United States, HIB plans to offer its building system as affordable to both the average home buyer as well as assistance-related programs like Habitat for Humanity. HIB-System is making special efforts to market its product to organizations that use volunteer construction labor or are located in disaster areas.
“I’ve been doing this for 41 years and this HIB house in Greensburg is by far the most economical and best construction system I’ve done,” said Orval Howall, a Kansas-based general contractor working on the Meadowlark project. No other construction system can compete in an apples-to-apples comparison of efficiency and durability, he said.
Howall expects Medowlark’s utility bills to be so “incredibly low” that “you could put this house together on a farm, put up a windmill to generate a little power, and be completely off the grid,” he said.
The HIB system has significant economic development potential in the United States, Howall said, not just for HIB-System and its partners but for the home-building industry as a whole. “If the HIB system hits the mainstream it could help reinvigorate the home building industry,” he said. “I’m convinced that if [HIB] were to set up a manufacturing plant to build here in the States, it could ship out to all 50 states. They’ve really got something here,” he said.