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University of Kentucky's HBEER prototype tour

Check out the first Houseboat to Energy Efficient Residences (HBEER) prototype home located in Monticello, Kentucky. | Courtesy of University of Kentucky.

In 1952, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed up the Cumberland River in Eastern Kentucky for the dual purposes of flood control and to generate electricity at a hydroelectric plant. The creation of the 101 mile-long reservoir accomplished both goals, and in the process spawned a new industry -- the construction and maintenance of houseboats.

By the mid-1990s, Lake Cumberland had an average of 4.5 million visitors a year who came to fish, swim, waterski and spend time on an estimated 2,000 houseboats, many of which were available for weekly, monthly or seasonal rentals.

When the housing crisis began in earnest, the houseboat industry and the lake communities that relied on the tourist trade were hit hard. There were too many houseboats and not enough potential owners and renters. 

Of the estimated 1,000 workers making houseboats and houseboat components in 2007, fewer than 200 were still working by 2009. 

In order to save what was once a robust industry cluster, a “lemons to lemonade” idea was developed by the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation (KHIC), a regional organization that focuses on economic development projects. 

If there isn’t a demand for compact, space-efficient houseboats, why not introduce green building technologies so the houseboat manufacturers can build small, energy efficient houses?

The effort, which soon became known as the Houseboat Energy Efficiency Residences (HBEER) project, has been a true collaborative effort that has included the following: KHIC, the University of Kentucky College of Design, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the Kentucky Department of Local Government, the City of Monticello, and Stardust Cruisers (a local houseboat manufacturing company).

In 2009, University of Kentucky design students were challenged to design a house that could be built in pieces on the line at a houseboat factory, then trucked to a lot and put together quickly. 

The total cost for the house and lot had to be under $100,000 and it had to be so efficient that the two-bedroom unit would cost an average of about $1 per day to heat or cool, which is half the cost of other housing alternatives. 

In a true display of American ingenuity, over 50 graduate-level architecture students took on the challenge and several innovative designs were produced.

The state used $125,000 of funding provided by their Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, which was made possible by the Recovery Act, and other grant funding to construct a prototype, which was unveiled in a January ceremony that included U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, state officials and over 100 local community leaders and houseboat industry workers.

Project Highlights:

  • The estimated energy costs at current rates are expected to be about $1.65 per day.
  • More than 80 percent of the home value is derived from in-state products and labor, which further increases the jobs created or saved.
  • When the partnership began in 2009, Stardust Cruisers had 12 full-time employees and 12 contract workers. It now has 56 full-time employees, including six who are dedicated to the HBEER project. As a result of this project, Stardust also has improved the energy efficiency of its houseboats and is one of the few houseboat manufacturers exporting new products. 
  • The next phase of the project will include a prototype for multifamily housing as well as classroom space for schools as an-energy efficient and more durable alternative to portable classrooms. In addition, the space will be flooded with natural lighting, which studies show improves learning.