Celebrating the Congo Street Green Initiative's Six New Homes

Saturday evening marked a big finish to Ella Garrett's long, tough summer, with a party full of neighbors and friends outside her new house -- the sixth home built by bcWorkshop's Congo Street Initiative along Jubilee Park's historic, improbably narrow stretch of road.

June was the hardest for Garrett, who left her home of 34 years -- "a little shack," she says -- and watched from next door as it was demolished, then had a stroke she says nearly killed her. She spent the rest of the summer living next door, recovering from her stroke as volunteers built an ultra-modern, energy-efficient home where her old one once stood.

Garrett told architect Brent Brown and project leader Benje Feehan that she wanted a screened-in porch, and helped pick out the features in her new kitchen. The boldest feature on her new house -- the bright red metal stairway jutting out on one side -- wasn't her idea, she said, but she likes it. "Everybody was looking out for me," Garrett says. "I told them I could be patient. I've been patient all my life."

The picnic in her yard Saturday evening was also a sort of wrap party for the award-winning project, which rebuilt a handful of homes along Congo Street without uprooting any of the folks who lived inside. "Our promise was that if we'd start a house, we'd finish it," Brown says, so the party also celebrated his group's following through on the deal they'd made with the neighborhood two years ago. "It's been a rich, rich time," Brown says.

"A lot of times, people try to make it out to be more than what it is," Brown says. "The system didn't value the place, but the people here didn't want to leave it. All we wanted to do was try not to screw it up."

Black-and-white photos on the wall inside Garrett's new house show the condition of her old place when it was torn down: the roof was falling apart, there were gaps in the siding. Garrett says the old place was just too hot to live in. The new places have solar panels, double-thick insulation and other features to make them far more efficient. On Congo Street, Brown says, where "the street really is your front yard," the density of the neighborhood helps make it a great model. "It's really the future of sustainability," he says.

Each house is different, Feehan says, depending on the unique needs of each homeowner. As a homeowner, he says, "there's certain social pressures where you think, well, I want a 2,500 square-foot brick house," but the project ultimately was about the most efficient way to meet the owner's needs. Garrett's house, he says, is probably the most energy-efficient of all the new homes.

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