By Boyce Thompson. Now that the jobsite signs are gone, it's hard to imagine that 58 and 60 Clay Street, in Annapolis, Md., easily the nicest homes on this gritty block, were built by Habitat for Humanity with volunteer labor. Yet they were.

The Arundel (County) Habitat for Humanity chapter constructed these homes as part of a project co-ventured with The Hanley Foundation, Builder magazine, Speight Studio Architects, and the NAHB Research Center. The project was an experiment -- an attempt to build a prototype for sustainable inner-city housing. The homes pushed the limits of Habitat's development model, mostly with success. But they also exposed pressure points.

The stately duplex, elevated with dentil molding, columns, front porches, and shake siding, speaks to the neighborhood's architectural past. Before desegregation, Clay Street was a thriving mixed-income neighborhood, home to many prosperous minority-owned businesses, including entertainment clubs. Now the neighborhood, considered the heart of this city's African-American life, is slowly returning to its former glory.

If the neighborhood has a history, so does this street address. The dilapidated structure that used to stand here was a favorite drug dealer hangout. Its demolition forced the action to move down the street in front of a public housing project, where a dealer was shot to death earlier this year. Razing the old structure revealed syringes, matches, and other drug paraphernalia. Other "artifacts" indicated the property was probably used by prostitutes.

Clyde Queen, who moved into 60 Clay Street last month after putting in more than 350 hours of sweat equity, isn't too concerned with the home's seedy past. A maintenance worker with the city's housing authority, he's joyful to have a place to call his own after renting in often sketchy buildings his entire adult life. As with all of Habitat's buyers, Queen will pay no interest on his loan. Handed the house keys tucked in a Bible, with neighborhood leaders and the mayor of Annapolis looking on, Queen was pretty much speechless. "I had a lot to say, but it's gone now."

Home sweet home

Queen will have a lot to tell neighbors about his new home, located only five blocks from the Maryland statehouse. First, his utility bills should be pretty modest because the home was built with an ambitious set of energy details. Second, the space-efficient floor plan will live about as large as an 11 1/2-foot-wide house can live. Third, the indoor environment should have Queen breathing easy, given the attention paid to sustainable materials and methods.

The project meets several criteria for sustainability, including a critical one for urban planners. By selling the home to Queen, who lived nearby, this project qualifies as urban revitalization rather than gentrification. The Arundel Habitat has built four other new homes in the community and 50 in the county. "But this is the crowning jewel of what we've done so far," proudly says R.B. Belch, project manager.

Which is exactly what Mike Hanley, who sponsored the project, hoped to achieve. Hanley, the former chairman of Hanley-Wood, LLC, which owns BUILDER, wanted to demonstrate that low-income housing can look great and conserve resources as well. "Habitat has come a long way since we first started supporting it 20 years ago. It now closes about 12 houses a day. One or two improvements in design or construction could make a huge difference," notes Hanley.

The Arundel chapter wants to make a huge difference in the Clay Street neighborhood. It has designs on several other nearby properties. President Linda Gray makes it clear she doesn't buy land without first consulting with neighborhood leaders. "We're here to serve this community and its goal for homeownership for low-income families," says Gray, adding that in Clay Street the chapter will drop its annual income requirement to $10,000.

Neighborhood leaders, who garnered $3 million to renovate a community center down the street, appreciate the attention. "A lot of people said Clay Street would never change," says Bertina Nick, who leads the neighborhood association, which recently implemented a Neighborhood Watch program that involved putting surveillance cameras, linked to the Internet, on the street. "But we kept pushing. We should be proud."

Many neighbors helped build or looked out for the project, which was subjected to only two minor acts of vandalism. "Even the loiterers on the block would stop and chat," says Belch. "They'd ask how big the house is, how you qualify. Sometimes they'd help us carry buckets to the truck."

Hometown roots

A desire to improve the urban fabric of his hometown drew architect Wayne Speight to the project. Speight, who is known primarily for contemporary variations on traditional styles, stuck to tradition on this project. He began by composing a photo collage of buildings on three blocks of Clay Street. He looked for ways to weave the new building into the streetscape by aligning window and roof lines.

The urban colonial elevation was one of three Speight submitted to city planners. In an unanticipated move, the city sent the drawings up to the state for review. It turned out that Clay Street was in line to receive a historic district overlay. "Unexpectedly, we had to conform to Maryland historic state guidelines for its historic character," says Speight. "They picked the elevation that was most sympathetic to the existing neighborhood."

Habitat chapter guidelines, intended to make resources go as far as possible, further complicated the project, turning the design phase into a puzzle-solving exercise. To assist in the process, Builder called in local architects Bill Devereaux and Dale Overmeyer. Devereaux's firm, Devereaux and Associates, based in McLean, Va., does considerable work in attached housing in suburban settings. Overmeyer, whose firm is based in Washington, is well-versed in historic Georgetown townhome styles.

Initially, the group set out to design two, three-bedroom homes at 11 1/2 feet in width, each with a maximum of 1,050 square feet of livable space and specific bedroom sizes. The primary bedroom had to be 150 square feet with a closet. Secondary bedrooms had to be 120 square feet with a closet. The team ran into a brick wall. "We couldn't design homes at 11 1/2 feet and still meet the Habitat requirements for bedroom size," Speight recalls.

Even designing a two-bedroom home at Habitat's limit of 900 square feet was a challenge. The biggest concern was not losing upstairs space to a long hallway. The design team considered a conventional approach done on many old Georgetown townhomes: a front-to-back hallway run with a parallel stair. "But that left only 5 1/2 feet for the bathroom," Speight recalls. "After leaving the charrette, I was convinced there's some other way to do this. I just hadn't found it yet."

Speight eventually settled on a brilliant solution: to use a split staircase as the hallway. The stairway goes up a set of risers then splits toward two upstairs bedrooms, one at each end of the house. A small landing before the secondary bedroom provides bathroom access for visitors. The arrangement results in a bigger bath with multiple fixtures.

Photo: Eric Kieley

Only 11 1/2 feet wide, this home reads much larger than it is. The first floor is divided into formal and informal zones, separated by stairs that serve as a noise barrier. Downstairs, Speight split the house into formal and informal zones, a hierarchy unusual for homes at a $65,000 price point. A parlor in front and a kitchen and eating area in back are divided by the stairway, which even cuts down on noise transmission. A front porch with ample room for a chair affords a vantage point for watching street life. The back porch provides a relatively private setting.

Habitat guidelines restricted many other design features. The homes could only have one linen closet, one hall closet, and modest ceiling light fixtures, for instance. They aren't supposed to have a basement, either, even though the building originally on this site had one. Habitat ultimately decided to include a basement utility room with a 6-foot, 6-inch ceiling. It was deemed necessary to house the washer, dryer, HVAC system, and hot water heater.

Builder called in Interior Concepts, an Annapolis interior design firm that works extensively with local builders, to give some definition to the rooms for a photo shoot. "Working with Habitat for Humanity gives us great personal satisfaction," says Phyllis Ryan, vice president of marketing. "There should be room for people at every income level to enjoy a good life in this special town."

Going green

The design challenges were nothing, though, compared to the formidable chore of building this unusual demonstration home. In keeping with the sustainability theme, the idea was to substitute "green" materials and systems wherever possible and minimize the use of virgin wood products.

The difficulties started with an insulated foam block foundation, reinforced with rebar and filled with concrete. The crew of eight that showed up on installation day had never worked with the system. Power lines prevented Belch from using a pump truck and a hopper to pour the concrete. Instead, the crew had to use a trailer hose, which got extremely heavy. Belch was pleased with the finished product, despite the difficulty the crew had in aligning the blocks and doing the pour. "It's strong as daylight," he says, adding that he probably wouldn't use the system again unless he was using it for the entire frame.

The project also marked Belch's first experience with stacked framing -- stacking studs on top of floor joists and more studs on top of those. The technique conserves wood by eliminating the need for double top plates. The theory is sound. But when the volunteers showed up to work on Saturday morning, Belch was still trying to figure out how to tell them how to proceed.

Habitat guidelines not only restrict a two-bedroom home to 900 square feet but limit the size of primary and secondary bedrooms. Architect Wayne Speight's design nevertheless provides for a large upstairs bathroom by cutting the space devoted to hallways and stairs. The first floor is divided into formal and informal zones, separated by stairs. The carefully wrought plan maximizes views to the street and rear yard from key rooms. A basement utility room houses HVAC, water heater, and washer and dryer, and provides storage.

"We didn't have the luxury of sitting down with a bunch of seasoned framers to plan the layout," Belch recalls. "We had a horde of volunteers coming in behind us, and we had to act fast. We had to work through some of the framing issues with the volunteers. To work through the opening sizes for the stairs, that was a real challenge."

The inclusion of a basement utility room meant that Habitat had to rethink its traditional method of ventilation, too. The chapter typically vents through an insulated basement crawl space. This home is vented through two bathroom fans, one more than Habitat usually uses.

The ventilation stakes were high because the home is built so tightly. Belch used draft stopping and caulking along the foundation to reduce wind penetration. He installed outlet covers inside the walls and foamed in around them. At window and door penetrations, he stuffed fiberglass insulation between the jambs and framing. And he installed dual-pane, insulated windows. The Arundel chapter uses these specs on all its houses. "No outside air can get in this house, except through an open door," says Belch.

The NAHB Research Center made recommendations during the design and construction phases that improved energy efficiency. It urged Habitat to reduce the number of windows shown on the plan, after performing a home energy rating system analysis. And it called for extensive caulking of OSB band boards to engineered I-joists in the first deck, followed by the installation of batt insulation in the bays.

Blower door and duct blaster tests, conducted on 60 Clay Street by the Research Center, "found it reasonably tight," says the Center's Marie Del Bianco. The unit received a rating of .28 natural air changes per hour. It would qualify for the Energy Star program. Del Bianco hopes the project will establish a benchmark for further work with Habitat.

"We've been talking [with Habitat] about how to build nice tight houses, design all the ductwork within the building envelope, rationalize the cost of even higher performance HVAC equipment, and mechanically ventilate with inexpensive timers," she says.

If some of the unusual system caused Belch fits, the flat ceiling system was cause for joy. The system, supplied by Vanco, came with tapered rigid foam that was screwed down to create a slight slope. Then a rubber roof was glued down over the foam to produce an R-37 ceiling. "Just from a geeky construction perspective, that's a really cool feature," says Belch.

Material choices

Habitat worked with the Research Center to develop the material specs for the project. Initially, the thought was to do a full-scale green project. The house succeeds in many respects. The foundation was built with foam blocks. The building makes wide use of engineered lumber but doesn't contain engineered studs because Habitat couldn't get them donated. It employs fiber-cement siding and trim. And composite lumber was used to build the decks in front and back. Fiber in the carpeting is made from recycled soda bottles, but otherwise sourcing green products for the interiors proved problematic. Budgets prevented Habitat from trading up from linoleum and carpet to bamboo and cork flooring. The project employs conventional cabinetry.

"We all discovered that being green is a pretty difficult thing to define," says Speight. "It seems like some of the green products have issues related to waste disposal. Others raised installation concerns. There is no absolute answer when it comes to green."

Photo: Eric Kieley

A private back porch appears as an outdoor extension of the kitchen area. It provides a private sactuary from the chaos of the street.

The complexity of the project, coupled with some big winter snows, resulted in a longer-than-normal build for Habitat. But the demonstration homes were built for about $41 per square foot, little more than Habitat's average of $34 a square foot. The house should cost its owners less to operate and maintain than a typical Habitat house.

"This was an extremely difficult project for us in a number of ways," says Belch. "But it was absolutely the right thing to do. Only by experimenting do you learn the ideas that will improve you going forward."

Project: 60 Clay Street, Annapolis, Md.; Donor: The Hanley Foundation, Washington; Builder: Arundel Habitat for Humanity, Arnold, Md.; Architect: Speight Studio Architects, Annapolis; Interior Concepts, Annapolis


* Appliances: Whirlpool Corp. * Carpet (recycled soda bottles): JJ Haines supplied Shaw carpets * Closet doors: Larson Manufacturing * Columns (fiberglass): Crown Columns * Electrical: Square D * Insulation: Devere Insulation * Locksets: Yale Residential Security Products * Roof system (EPDM roof and tapered ISO): Vanco * Siding (fiber cement): James Hardie Building Products * Trim (PVC): KOMA Trim * Window coverings: Hunter-Douglas


* Back porch (composite): Trex Co. * Drywall: USG Interiors * Engineered I-beams: LP Corp. * Exterior doors (fiberglass): Stanley Door Systems * Framing: American Plywood * Front porch (composite): Evergreen * Gutters and downspouts: Roof Center * HVAC: The Trane Co. * Insulated concrete forms: ARXX * Interior paint: Duron, Genesis low VOC * Interior trim: Southern Pacific * Kitchen cabinets: Merillat Industries * Plywood subfloor: American Plywood * Roof (rubber): GenFlex * Stairs and rails: Eastern Stairs * Vinyl flooring: Armstrong World Industries * Water heater: A.O. Smith * Windows: CertainTeed