Buoyed by the success of home builders and their trade partners during the housing boom, throughout which many building industry participants generously donated some of their profits back into the communities where they worked, Irvine, Calif.–based HomeAid America grew to become one of the largest developers of transitional housing for the homeless in the U.S.

But as profits became losses for the home building industry, the non-profit lost many of its contributors, and those who remained had much less to give. CEO Jeffrey A. Slavin realized that if HomeAid’s mission was to survive, it had to add a new operational model beyond building big, new shelters and doing major renovations. It needed a less-ambitious, yet still helpful program for those temporarily in need of a roof over their heads.

“We wanted to keep the industry engaged to benefit shelters for the homeless,” Slavin said. So the organization’s leaders came up with the idea of making shelters that already exist cheaper to operate by retrofitting them to save energy costs. “That way service providers get to put that back into blankets, food, services, whatever,” says Slavin.

The cost of projects has shrunk from between $500,000 and $1 million to $50,000 or less. “We just felt it made sense to do some kind of an intermediate program that will tide us over” until the home building market improves, he said.

In order to find the necessary cash, HomeAid turned to the country's largest retailer. “We approached Walmart and they thought it was a good idea,” said Slavin. Walmart granted HomeAid $600,000, with $500,000 to go toward direct construction costs, for the new national Environmental Sustainability Program (ESP). The grant will fund energy-efficiency upgrades for existing facilities that serve homeless and at-risk people.

The program has been a bit slow to get out of the box, said Slavin, adding there is a learning curve in hiring the most qualified energy auditors to assess what needs to be done to make shelters the most energy efficient at the best price.

“Energy auditors range very broadly in terms of skill sets from very qualified scientists to home inspectors,” said Slavin.

So far three projects have been completed in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and outside of Los Angles in Santa Clarita County. Projects under consideration now are in St. Petersburg, Fla., Phoenix, Ariz., San Diego, Sacramento, Calif., Las Vegas, Northern Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

The first D.C. project was an energy retrofit for REACH Youth Home, part of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a program that helps at-risk youth and their families. While Sasha Bruce is best known as a shelter for runaway youth, the REACH Home houses 12- to 18-year-olds who have had minor brushes with the law. The purpose is to help the young people avoid jail by re-socializing them and integrating them back into the community while living short-term in an extremely old row house in the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood, said Jim Beck, development director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

The retrofit was just completed in October and exact savings numbers aren’t available yet, but it is expected to save $5,000 a year in energy costs. “It allows us to use more of our resources for services for the young people who live there, counseling, safety-net services,” said Beck.

The REACH house renovations are valued at about $60,000. Burtonsville, Md.–based Efficient Home and Davidsonville, Md.–based Newport Partners each donated more than $10,000 worth of in-kind services to the project. Walmart provided $41,000, and more than half a dozen Energy Star–rated appliances were donated by GE Appliances and Lighting.

The work included installing dual energy-efficient HVAC systems, energy efficient water heaters and appliances, windows, energy-efficient lighting and water fixtures, sensors and controls, and insulation, duct, and air sealing.

James Lyons, a research engineer with Newport Partners, said the renovations were challenging because they had to be done while the residents were living in the home and because the house is so old and leaky. To keep from tearing out walls to install better insulation, which would be expensive and disruptive to the residents, Newport concentrated on sealing and insulating the home’s attic, closing holes with spray foam insulation and adding more insulation in general.

Because most of the HVAC system’s duct work is inaccessible without tearing into walls, Newport used a new technology that sprays a mist of a type of glue into the ducts that sticks, collects, and seals off air leaks. Before-and-after blower tests of the house revealed that the measures sealed off leaks the equivalent of a 46-inch-square hole in the homes wall.

Lyons is confident that the renovations will save the targeted 40% of energy use for the home, and through a partnership between Newport and the Department of Energy, Newport will know exactly how much energy is saved thanks to sophisticated monitoring equipment installed in the house that will create a record of energy use.

“I think they (Sasha Bruce) are very excited,” said Lyons. “They are eager to see the energy savings, the cost savings.”

Teresa Burney is a senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC, Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, CA.