Energy & Sustainability

Honors students explore Habitat for Humanity's sustainability practices through new minor

By Robert Cremins

Habitat for Humanity Houston

These days, building smart means building green, as a team comprised of students in the Introduction to Energy & Sustainability class has discovered. They have taken a close look at acclaimed non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity’s involvement with environmentally savvy approaches to house construction.

One of the team members is Honors student Asit Shah. He took the class as the foundation course for the Energy & Sustainability minor. The interdisciplinary nature of that program is evidenced by the pairing of a historian, Dr. Joe Pratt, and a chemist, Dr. Ognjen Miljanic, to teach the class. Shah has been impressed with this dynamic duo’s instruction: “[They] have taught and led us towards developing practical solutions … that balance economy, energy, and our environment (the three E's)—a challenge that we have faced in the past, are facing now, and will continue to face in the future.”

A challenge for the class itself was to form into teams and carry out a case study that counts for a quarter of the overall grade. The team Shah was part of also included Caroline Denigri, Brandon Ray, Ryan Ackley, and Thomas Stacey. All five are in the Bauer College of Business’ Global Energy Management track. Shah was delighted that they got to work with Habitat, as he has volunteered for the organization since his high school days. According to the team, the goal of their project was “to survey Habitat’s sustainable practices and their involvement in equipping low-income affordable homes with solar energy.” There was plenty to survey, given “the expansive role that Habitat takes in being one of the world's most energy efficient residential builders.”

In all, the team examined the “sustainable portfolio” of six U.S. and international Habitat affiliates, including Houston, which has been a green trailblazer. Our hometown affiliate, according to its Development Manager Stephen Sye, “has successfully been recognized as an Energy Star® Building National Leader since 1997, and is a four-time recipient of the National Energy Star Award-winning house design.”

Sye impressed the team with his enthusiasm for solar energy, emphasizing that “solar panels constitute a ‘win-win’ scenario for Habitat Homeowner families as the panels are sturdy ([they] can withstand [winds] up to 130 mph), are hail resistant, produce an economic benefit, and uphold Habitat’s mission.”

Sye certainly made believers out of the Energy and Sustainability team. “More than anything,” the team said on their web site, “we hope to enlighten critics of solar energy in residential housing with the possibility that [it] can be made economical.”

And the class has made Shah into a believer in Energy & Sustainability: “Now that I have taken [Intro], I can confidently state that any student interested in pursuing an energy-related career should start their journey with this course.”

As he moves on to the minor’s capstone course, Shah will get a chance to do more of the research he and his teammates enjoyed doing in relation to Habitat for Humanity: Dr. Pratt, who is also director of the minor, points out that students in the capstone class “are required to complete a more ambitious, semester-long interdisciplinary group project.”

That component gets a thumbs-up (or, should we say, a green light) from Shah, as he also believes that “universities are a natural incubator for experimenting with ideas of our energy future.”