Revitalizing a Community with Environment in Mind: A New Hope in New Norris

Guest Blog | November 14, 2011 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy, Utilities
5984633104_36a6c7f915_bThis blog was written by SACE intern Jeannie McKinney and Natalie Mims.

Our nation has seen an exponential rise in environmental activism and energy problem solving within the last decade, and the Southeast is no exception.  Today, community groups are starting to create their own energy and sustainability solutions to local and national environmental problems. I recently discovered an exemplary model of such a movement right in my own backyard: The New Norris House.

The Norris House History
TVA originally built a community in Norris, Tennessee in 1933, as an example of a remote yet connected and modern living situation. The main attraction was the “Norris House”, a set of homes that were built as models for more sustainable and efficient contemporary lifestyles. The idea was to be able to enjoy a simpler life away from suburbia that left less of an environmental footprint, while still being an active and informed part of society. Over the years the area has fallen out of popularity as jobs and development pulled members of the community back into city limits. According to the Norris 2008-2013 Strategic Plan, there are only 500 homes remaining in Norris, and the median price of a home is $118,000. Now, this once thriving area is in desperate need of revitalization, and the New Norris House project is hoping to make that happen.

A group of university students and faculty from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) has taken it upon themselves to drive this revival. Since 2008, the university has been working with the Institute for Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE) and nearby community groups to build a new version of an old concept, designing and constructing a house that could exist detached from the larger metropolitan areas but still be connected to them. Specifically, they wanted to prove that modern living could be simple, sustainable, and efficient – without sacrificing comfort and contemporary living – and that technology today could make it possible.

With initial grant money from winning the EPA’s 2009 People, Prosperity, and the Planet Competition, as well as private and public funding, students and faculty have been able to turn a drawn concept into reality. Over the last two years, professors and students from landscaping, environmental studies, and design and architectural fields have spent hours in the classroom and in the field, working with community groups to make this dream a realization.

The New Norris House Reality
In August of this year, after two years of planning and building the structure from scratch, the house was officially declared operational and unveiled to the community.  The most significant measures and systems are highlighted in the table below; however, every bit of the house plan was designed with sustainability and efficiency in mind. From the pale color chosen for the roof – which is meant to reflect light – to the drought-resistant plants used in the landscaping – which require less watering than traditional garden plants – every decision was made in an environmentally-conscious way. Currently, the university is in the process of applying for LEED Platinum status for the house, and the building is more than qualified to receive the certification.


But project managers wanted to allow homeowners to recreate this set-up for their own houses, so all materials that were used in construction are commercially available technologies. Furthermore, members of the project think that such investments are now more affordable for residents than ever before, lending credence to their hope of potential Norris community rebuilding. The New Norris project received a few donations and discounts for some of the equipment that was installed. Though they do not currently know the total cost of the project, researchers estimate that the cost for purchasing the donated equipment – such as the rain water system, solar hot-water equipment, and energy recovery ventilator – ranges from $8,000 to $15,000.

4nxft2gg0f31f03tPhoto of the rainwater treatment and distribution system, by the BRAE rainwater group in NC.

It should be noted, however, that this price range only takes into account the in-store price of purchasing these technologies, not the cost of labor or the other measures – increased insulation, for example – that were taken to make the New Norris House more efficient. While initial purchase of these technologies is quantifiable, we will have to wait until the project’s team gathers enough data on their building’s energy use, water flow rates, daylight and air quality, resource use, and other key factors before we can know what the overall operating costs of the house will look like.

The New Norris House is currently the home of a university couple that fit the target market for future Norris residents: families with active, involved lifestyles interested in living away from city lights. The wife, a distance-education MA student at UT, and the husband, Chair of the Landscape Architecture Program at UTK, have been able to make the switch from downtown living to rural homestead without sacrificing their previous lifestyles or professions.

These two residents are only consuming about 500 kWh a month, which, according to the US Energy Information Administration, is less than half of the 1,250 average kWh electricity consumption by residential utility customers in Tennessee. Though the house, at less than 800 square feet on the interior, is a third of the size of the average home in our area in East Tennessee, the small nature of the home is not the reason for their low energy usage. While a single occupant consumes, on average, about 12 kWh of residential electricity per day, each resident in this house is only using about 8 kWh a day, a 33% reduction.

Photo of the New Norris House’s kitchen interior.

Supporters of the New Norris House want to bring local economies together with global functioning, and believe that there can be “a middle ground where a new type of strengthened local economy becomes possible precisely because of the products and technologies resulting from the previously destructive forces of globalization”. Essentially, the hope is that other residents of the Knoxville and nearby areas will see the ease with which this couple has adapted, and realize that this house and this community can offer residents the ability to be active members of society and live normal and more sustainable lives in a smaller, more picturesque setting.

Special thanks to Samuel Mortimer, a post-master’s graduate from UT’s architecture program, who took the time to meet with me and share details about the project and the group’s success. Samuel has done a significant amount of work with this project over the last couple years, and has stayed on as Project Coordinator since graduation to finish the application process for LEED Certification. To learn more information, and to stay updated on the future of this project, you can contact members of the New Norris House project, or follow the couple’s New Norris blog.

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