By Lidia Balanovich, Elorm Coch, Cindy Yuan, and Catherine Cooney
From January to June, four Dartmouth students partnered with Sustainable Woodstock to improve access to weatherization services in Vermont specifically for mobile homeowners and low-income communities. This collaboration was part of a course called Senior Design Challenge, a capstone class for seniors studying Human-Centered Design. The motivation for this project lies in energy justice, which is the goal of achieving equity in all aspects of the energy system. As a whole, energy needs to be more affordable, sustainable, and accessible. Throughout the project, the team sought to center the needs of underrepresented communities in their work in striving to fulfill this mission.
Mobile homes are an especially affordable housing option; however they are particularly susceptible to heat loss in the winter. As such, these households face a disproportionately large energy burden—the percentage of gross household income spent on energy costs. According to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, mobile homes consume 1.5 to 2 times more energy than a site-built home as a result of the home’s structural issues. However, because they still consume less than large institutions, they are frequently overlooked by initiatives that prioritize energy-usage numbers. The team believes that real sustainability must address these shortcomings at the community level.
One solution to this problem is weatherization—the weather-proofing of buildings, typically through insulation and air-sealing, to protect the interior from harsh weather conditions and improve energy efficiency. This process reduces energy consumption, lowers energy bills, and improves home comfort. Despite the existence of weatherization programs, they are frequently underutilized by low-income households. The team sought to understand and address this gap.
As the team approached this project, they were mindful of their positionality as newcomers to this topic and the influence of this perspective in shaping their research. Their initial research consisted of two parts: secondary research of academic literature and existing reports, and primary research through 15 ethnographically-informed, semi-structured interviews with non-profit organizations and mobile homeowners. This allowed the team to better understand the current state of weatherization in Vermont, the roles and services of weatherization organizations, and the experiences of mobile homeowners. Synthesis of this research revealed that there is a lot of embarrassment and anxiety in asking for help. However, residents felt supported and empowered by community weatherization services such as those provided by COVER. Furthermore, word of mouth was the most successful strategy in spreading the word about weatherization services.
The team presented this research to the Just Transitions subcommittee of the Vermont Climate Council. This council is a state organization focused on creating a plan to combat climate change for the next 50 years; the Just Transitions subcommittee works to ensure that their programs are made accessible to all Vermonters and do not unfairly burden any groups. In these conversations, the team sought to highlight the importance of community-centered weatherization, advocating for weatherization funds to be dedicated to these services.
In addition, the team created a pilot program guide for a model of community liaisons. In this model, neighborhood representatives partner with organizations to connect underserved communities with resources they might not otherwise have access to. This liaison is able to better communicate the needs of the community and, in response, co-design outreach strategies and programming. Sustainable Woodstock is engaged in a long-term process of building community relationships in tandem with weatherization outreach and increasing opportunities for sustainable energy services. These efforts align closely with the collaborative nature of a recently-completed campaign—Riverside Mobile Home Park’s raised garden beds, which was made possible with the active organizing and input of several park residents. Sustainable Woodstock will continue to explore the potential to expand this model of outreach in the coming months.
This design project brought unique and new insights to each member of the student team. They learned the importance of aligning with the work being done by organizers who have more expertise in this space. Moreover, they navigated how to create positive impact and minimize harm in the context of a course timeline. Lastly, they came away with the understanding that socio-economic issues are all intrinsically linked, with no singular need, like weatherization, existing in isolation.
The Dartmouth team consists of Lidia Balanovich, Elorm Coch, Cindy Yuan, and Catherine Cooney. They would like to thank Sustainable Woodstock, specifically Jenevra Wetmore and Michael Caduto, for their continued support and commitment to this project and, more broadly, this work in energy justice.
The Senior Design Challenge Team (left to right): Catherine Cooney, Elorm Coch, Jenevra Wetmore (Sustainable Woodstock), Lidia Balanovich, Cindy Yuan