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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sandra Lawson and her 76-year-old mother gave up their trailer in West Virginia about six years ago when they decided to move down to Winston-Salem to be closer to Doris’ other children. The house on Leo Street was the seventh their realtor showed them.

Sandra, who is 51, and her mother, Doris, are devout Christians, and the number seven seemed auspicious considering that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. The two gathered with their realtor and said a prayer of thanks.

The house, which listed for $66,000, suited them perfectly. The rumble of traffic can be heard from US Highway 52 nearby, but Leo Street has a secluded almost rural feel that particularly suits Doris. It boasts a generous backyard and the neighbors proved to be welcoming.

The 1945 house had one flaw: It was constructed with cinderblocks and then wrapped in vinyl siding, but the building neglected to use insulation. The new occupants soon noticed a draft.

Sandra saw an item on Channel 13, Winston-Salem’s local government station, about Block by Block, a weatherization program managed by the Winston-Salem Sustainability Resource Center. The Lawsons qualified, and a contractor came out to audit the house and then a team of volunteers showed up in January and February to perform basic weatherization with a kit valued at $200. The volunteers wrapped insulation around the hot water heater in the basement, ran caulking along the windows in the bathroom and bedroom, and placed weather-stripping inside doorframes.

As a condition of receiving the service, Sandra Lawson was required to submit her energy bills to the sustainability resource center before the upgrade was undertaken, and to provide copies of bills for a year after the work was performed. She immediately noticed a savings of $25 that will most likely be used for additional payments on the mortgage, to buy gas for the car or to stock the kitchen with more food.

A nonprofit that works closely with the city of Winston-Salem, the sustainability resource center had begun educating residents about energy efficiency last summer and signing up households for weatherization services last summer.

With the help of Wake Forest University professors and students they had identified target neighborhoods. They wanted to reach into areas with demographics reflecting the racial mix of the city as a whole that were within three miles of the city center. They were interested in neighborhoods with a significant population of poor people and elderly whose housing stock was built before 1960. They wanted to realize a multiplier effect by clustering the program in targeted areas so interest in energy efficiency would build from neighbor to neighbor.

They eventually settled on Sunnyside, Waughtown, Bellevue North, South Skyland Park and West Salem.

Jenny Halsey, program manager for Block to Block, said the sustainability resource center initially conceived of itself as a case manager for Regional Consolidated Services, or RCS, a nonprofit in Asheboro that received a $13.3 million grant from federal stimulus funds. RCS came under scrutiny from the state for quality control, fiscal management and personnel challenges, and is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation. RCS’ board of directors voted to withdraw as a weatherization contractor, according to a spokesman for the NC Energy Office. The state is currently soliciting proposals from local government units or nonprofits to deliver weatherization services for a territory including Forsyth, Guilford, Davidson, Randolph and Rockingham counties.

“We’ve got maybe 20 people signed up,” recalled Shawn Handy, a vice president at the sustainability resource center. “We’re not hearing positive things from Regional Consolidated Services.”

With RCS conspicuously stumbling, staff at the sustainability resource center started marshalling other funding sources last September, anxious to maintain credibility with residents to whom they had at least implicitly pledged results.

The sustainability resource center obtained $2,000 in federal funds from the city Community Sustainability Program Committee to purchase weatherization kits, Halsey said. They launched the pilot program on Oct. 30 and have weatherized 24 houses, more than half of which are located in Sunnyside.

Now, the sustainability resource center is on the verge of rolling out an expanded version of Block by Block, with a goal of weatherizing more than 200 houses by October. The next phase of the program will be financed by $125,000 in federal funds from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant that were approved by the Winston-Salem City Council in November.

The upgrades, which include about $200 worth of services, are free to families with an annual household income of less than $40,000 and discounted by 50 percent to those earning from $40,000 and $50,000. Those earning more than $50,000 are required to pay the full cost. Homeowners with the means are encouraged to buy their own weatherization kits and donate kits to the sustainability resource center. The center is focusing its outreach efforts in the six target neighborhoods, but the program is open to anyone who lives within the city’s corporate limits.

“Phase 2 are going to get blower-door audits, which are the mack-daddy of audits,” Halsey said. The blower-door increases air pressure in the house to precisely identify and measure leaks.

As with the pilot program, households will received basic weatherization services, including caulking, weather-stripping and insulation of hot-water heaters, but the audits will provide residents with information about more intensive retrofits such as basement and attic insulation that require additional investment.

The sustainability resource center itself opened in 2010.

Under the leadership of Mayor Allen Joines, the city committed in 2007 to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. An audit revealed that only 2 percent of emissions came from city operations, Handy said, so the mayoral-appointed Community Sustainability Program Committee started looking for ways to encourage homeowners to reduce energy use.

To avoid burdening local taxpayers the sustainability resource center was established as a self-sustaining nonprofit that receives no money from the city’s general fund or local tax revenues. Halsey said the Community Sustainability Program Committee granted the sustainability resource center $50,000 in start-up funds, while Duke Energy chipped in $10,000. The sustainability resource center has also received corporate donations from Caterpillar and Mercedes. The center has a small reading library sponsored by the Sierra Club located at its office suite in the Bryce A. Stuart Municipal Building.

Halsey said the center has received one application for the new phase of the Block by Block program. Once 20 to 25 applications pile up, staff will begin deploying teams to perform the work, with the first wave likely occurring at the end of the month.

The staff at the sustainability resource center hopes that some of the residents who receive weatherization services will be willing to host workshops at their houses to spread the word to neighbors. They would likely find a good candidate in Sandra Lawson and her mother, Doris.

When the mother and daughter first visited the house on Leo Street they found a red Bible on the mantle. It still bears a fleck of the white paint that once coated all the walls before Sandra began replacing it with warmer, earthier hues.

“This shows the beginning of where we started,” Sandra said. “I’m a first-time homeowner. My mother took care of me all these years; now it’s time for me to take care of her.”

Sandra, who works with mentally challenged children, has retiled the fireplace and waxed the floors. Outside, she’s laid in brick sidewalks and installed a decorative well bearing a wooden placard engraved with their family name that they brought from West Virginia. Sandra, a self-described “cleaning fanatic,” inherited a mile-deep energetic streak from her mother, who is preparing to celebrate her 82nd birthday.

“You can see the neighbors are starting to fuss with their houses, too,” Doris said. “I like to be an example: ‘Lord, let my light shine.’ Not to show off. I’m not in a gated community, but I can have a gated-community experience.”

To apply for weatherization services from the sustainability resource center, visit or call 336.747.6877.

Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Jordan Green