Veteran Effort

The “Housing for Heroes” Project is a safe, stylish haven for homeless veterans.

Providing homeless veterans with a home that is healthy, safe, durable, and energy efficient enough to keep down operating costs for the sponsoring agencies, even on spendy Long Island, were all part of the wish list for Rick Wertheim, senior vice president of Housing and Green Initiatives for the United Way of Long Island Housing Development Corporation.

To make it happen, Wertheim built an award-winning, four-bedroom, two-bath, 1,936-square-foot group home in Medford, N.Y.

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The “Housing for Heroes” project was not well situated for solar due to the number of existing trees on the lot. To overcome that situation, the house was carefully constructed to the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) criteria.


Wertheim is no stranger to high-performance home construction, having built 20 homes to the exact requirements of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) program since joining it in 2015. In fact, every one of the five or so homes a year built by the United Way organization is certified to the program criteria, according to Wertheim.

Location Limitations

Most United Way homes include solar panels on the roof and are considered net zero energy homes because they produce as much power as they use over the course of the year. This home, known as the “Housing for Heroes” project, was not well situated for solar due to the number of existing trees on the urban infill lot. However, Wertheim was still able to achieve a HERS Index score of 33 for the structure, far better than the 80 to 90 score typical of most just-to-code homes.

To achieve the low score, Wertheim constructed Housing for Heroes to ZERH criteria, which requires builders to meet the checklists for ENERGY STAR Certified Homes and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Indoor airPLUS program.

The dwelling also conforms to items such as the hot water distribution requirements of the EPA’s WaterSense program; the insulation requirements of the latest International Energy Conservation Code adopted in the state; target HVAC and water heating efficiencies; third-party-verified air sealing targets; installation of Energy Star appliances, windows, and lighting; and ducts in conditioned space. Homes must also have solar panels installed or have the conduit and electrical panel space in place for them, even though this one is not the best candidate for such a requirement.

Efficient Heat and Air Prepared

In addition, Wertheim chose some exceptionally high-performance equipment for the house. The home’s space heating is provided by a ground source heat pump, a 2.1-ton system with a central air handler. The heat pump has Coefficient of Performance (COP) of 5.47 and an average energy efficiency ratio (EER) of 26.04.

The system’s cooling efficiency is rated at 22 SEER, far above the 13 SEER required by minimum federal standards. Rigid metal ducts are in the insulated basement or buried under 14 inches of blown insulation in the attic.

The builder uses a U.S.-made “thin triple” window consisting of two glass window panes and a thin center layer of stretched clear plastic film. The windows are primarily double-hung style and use insulated vinyl frames with an argon gas fill and low-emissivity coatings on two of the glass surfaces. These windows provide insulation values similar to a triple-pane window with a U-factor of 0.17 but without the weight.

The home’s walls are constructed of 2-by-6 studs installed at 24 inches on center. The walls incorporated advanced framing techniques such as 2-stud corners with drywall clips, open and insulated headers, and ladder blocking at interior wall intersections to reduce the amount of lumber needed and to provide more room for insulation.

After the studs were placed, the walls were sheathed with 1-inch-thick graphite-enhanced EPS rigid foam insulation board, then topped with 7/16-inch oriented strand board (OSB). Then the wall cavities were filled with 2 inches of closed-cell spray foam sprayed against the EPS. The remainder of the wall cavities were filled with 3.5 inches of loose-fill blown fiberglass insulation held in place by a membrane. This was covered with 5/8-inch gypsum board covered with latex paint, which serves as a class II vapor retarder.

This wall assembly provides an insulation value of R-28. The exterior sheathing was covered with house wrap and PVC clapboard siding. Liquid-applied flashing was used around all doors and windows.

The truss roof used raised heel trusses to allow full space over the exterior walls’ top plates for insulation. The vented attic was filled with 14 inches (R-49) of blown cellulose insulation. Soffit and ridge vents provide venting. The cathedral ceiling of the great room has scissor trusses.

The builder achieved a low air leakage of 1.44 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals (ACH 50), with exceptional air sealing practices, including spraying closed-cell spray foam directly to the backside of the rigid foam wall sheathing in each wall cavity, installing gaskets at the top and bottom plates, and installing rigid foam blocking between trusses at the eaves and gun foaming it in place. All interior wall top plates were spray foamed after the ceiling gypsum board was installed. The floors were air-sealed at the rim joists, with closed-cell spray foam where the gasketed plates and floor joists meet the foundation wall, and all floor-to-floor penetrations and bypasses were gun foamed or fire caulked.

The exterior walls sit on an 8-inch poured concrete foundation that is protected with a roll-on capillary break over the footings, and an elastomeric foundation waterproofing on the home’s exterior. This was then wrapped with 2 inches of EPS graphite-enhanced foam insulation. The above-grade portion of the EPS was protected with fiberglass-reinforced panels.

In-House Energy Savers

A whole house dehumidification system was installed for swing-season humidity control, when the thermostat was not calling for cooling. An energy recovery ventilator and exhaust fans are connected to each other and to sensors; they are controlled from a ground source heat pump control system. The heat pump air handler has a MERV 13 filter at the main return.

The home is equipped with a 50-gallon heat pump water heater with a Uniform Energy Factor (UEF) of 3.75. The geothermal (ground source) unit provides backup hot water. The water heater is in the basement and uses a central manifold distribution system with PEX piping to speed water to hot water taps.

The refrigerator, dishwasher and clothes washer are all Energy Star qualifying.

The whole home is certified to EPA WaterSense program standards, which requires water saving features such as the use of WaterSense-labeled plumbing fixtures, efficient hot water distribution, and smart or predictive irrigation. All stormwater roof runoff from downspouts is collected in a subsurface leaching pool system.

Housing for Heroes was designed to be ADA compliant, with aging-in-place features that include a universal-design kitchen with knock-out panels for future sink base cabinet modifications, lower-placed thermostat heights, higher-placed electrical outlets, 36-inch bathroom doors with roll-in showers, lever handle sets for doors, with color contrast between kitchen cabinets and the countertops for the visually impaired. There are no stairs to enter the home; entrants instead rely upon a grade-level porch and doorway.

The home meets all EPA Indoor airPLUS requirements, including the use of low- or non-volatile organic compound (VOC) paints, and solid wood and plywood cabinets that are low-formaldehyde products. Hard-surface luxury vinyl tile flooring is used throughout the home. An indoor air sensor is provided to measure particulates, VOCs, and humidity in the home 

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Affordable and Available

“Healthy, affordable housing should be universally available and attainable for all Americans,” Wertheim says. “It should not be an afterthought or a zoning concession.”

The United Way calls dwellings such as Housing for Heroes, “attainable housing,” because they are a convergence of affordable and high-performance sustainable housing. “High-performance homes are, in fact, healthier homes to live in,” he says. “Not only do you get superior energy savings and comfort, but [DOE ZERHs] are detailed to provide better indoor air quality and a healthier indoor environment.”

The builder is well aware that this, like all of his United Way projects, is funded with public or donated funds, and he stresses that the energy efficiency and resiliency built into these homes support the goal of responsible stewardship of those funds over the life of the project.

A Generous Effort

This home was built on land donated by Suffolk County from a tax foreclosure of an existing home that was later torn down. Construction funding was provided by the New York State Homeless Housing Assistance Program. The group home will be operated by the not-for-profit Association of Mental Health and Wellness.

“This project is ‘affordable’ because it provides the taxpayers of New York with a cost-effective housing solution for homelessness,” said Wertheim. “Typically, homeless individuals are placed in shelters or transitional housing facilities, like a motel. These options are costly and not conducive to a healthy lifestyle for the occupants.”

Bottom-Line Benefits

A DOE Zero Energy Ready-certified home has sustainable energy savings, lower operational costs for the Agency, and a better quality of life for the residents. When stable, supportive housing is provided, occupant health (both physical and mental) increases, and health care costs are reduced. “These cost savings to taxpayers are long term,” Wertheim says.

Like all of his United Way projects, Wertheim used the construction of this home as an opportunity for training via workforce training programs that Wertheim operates through United Way. Those training programs include the U.S. Department of Labor YouthBuild program for low-income young adults, and the VetsBuild program for veterans. 

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A “thin triple” window consisting of two glass window panes and a thin center layer of stretched clear plastic film provide insulation values similar to a traditional three-pane window.


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The home meets all EPA Indoor airPLUS requirements, including use of low- or non-volatile organic compound (VOC) paints, low-formaldehyde solid wood and plywood cabinets, and hard-surface luxury vinyl tile flooring.


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Because its residents may have physical disabilities, much of the house is ADA compliant, with features such as lower-placed thermostats, higher-placed electrical outlets, and 36-inch bathroom doors with roll-in showers.


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Advanced framing techniques such as dual-stud corners, open and insulated headers, and blocking at wall intersections provide more room for insulation.


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The home has low air leakage thanks to practices such as spraying closed-cell spray foam directly to the backside of the rigid foam wall sheathing, and installing rigid foam blocking between trusses and gun foaming it in place.

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