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The greenback effect
Story by Tony Illia
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Habitat for Humanity's ultra-efficient new homes save families money - and may spark a new wave of green housing for all
Habitat for Humanity helps put budget-strapped families into affordable homes - but that dream can suffer a few dents when those families later face $500 power bills in the notoriously hot Vegas summers.
But now Habitat, a nonprofit that sells homes at-cost to families earning less than 80 percent of area median income, plans to help families save even more - with an ultra-sustainable house.
Think monthly power bills that cost about as much as two tickets to the movies, carbon emissions slashed by a third and even a rainwater collection system that encourages families to grow their own vegetables. Habitat officials hope to clone their recently completed Henderson prototype home to spread the green - and the savings - to other candidate families throughout the valley.
"We wanted to see how sustainable we could make a home while still making it affordable," Habitat for Humanity Las Vegas President and Chief Executive Officer Guy Amato says. "It's twice as energy-efficient as a normal house." He's being a bit modest. Completed in September, the one-story, three-bedroom home at 1808 Merze Ave. landed a rare, platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED is a building sustainability report card that awards points for air quality, recycling and energy efficiency. (Platinum is the equivalent of an A plus.)
And there's a local hero in this story, too. Rick Van Diepen, an associate principal with architecture firm PGAL, gave up his weekends and spare time to design the roughly 1,200 square-foot home. Van Diepen knows green. He served as the Green Building Council's 2010 Las Vegas chapter president.
"I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity while I was in high school," Van Diepen says. "I always liked their mission. This is a lifelong dream for me."
Green inside and out
The modest-looking home is a dream for its owners' pocketbook, too, with money-saving features that lower utility bills while reducing impact on the environment. Light-colored reflective concrete roof tiles and low-energy windows, compact fluorescent lighting and a solar-powered, tankless hot-water system trim electrical costs. There are also tubular skylights in the hallway and bathroom for bright and lamp-free interiors.
"We opened up the living area to let in more natural light, making the space feel larger than it really is," says Van Diepen. "It also creates natural ventilation to move through the house from east to west."
[Read more: Who will bring eco-friendly living to the masses. This guy with the $20 power bill might be the one: The green knight]
The residence is sealed up airtight with caulked joints and rigid, Styrofoam insulation that keeps heat from escaping through the building's wood frame. It works similar to the way a Styrofoam cup keeps coffee warm. The result is high-efficiency air conditioning and heating that doesn't bust the wallet.
"We suspended insulation from under the roof tile, which moves the building envelope up to the roof," Van Diepen explains. "The mechanical equipment consequently operates at near-ambient temperature, thereby reducing the system needs by a ton."
The green thinking ventures outside as well. The home also reduces water use through drought-tolerant landscaping, and low-flow showerheads and faucets. A rooftop collection system, meanwhile, gathers rainwater for planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden that lets homeowners grow their own. As a result, the prototype design trims water use by 40 percent. And as long we're talking stats: Compared to an average home, the Habitat house cuts carbon emissions by 35 percent, solid waste by 70 percent and energy consumption by 30 percent. But for homeowners, those stats translate into bottom-line savings.
"Habitat wants to help people help themselves by become more financially stable," says Van Diepen. "That becomes possible when utility bills are lower and homeowners can grow their food."
What about everyone else?
Construction of a similar home might be pricier, since the project attracted 50 civic-minded sponsors who donated time and cash, materials and labor. Kitchen cabinets, for instance, were built and installed by Sierra Vista High School wood shop students using reclaimed materials.
"This house had a lot of sponsors because we went for the LEED certification. So, people viewed it as a sustainable showcase opportunity," Amato says. "We want to get the most bang-for-the-buck and incorporate those design elements into future homes."
Habitat built a mirror image of the prototype on the lot directly behind at 1809 Berden Ave. The two residences share a fenceless and communal backyard. Although both homes have since sold, more are on the way. Habitat bought six residential lots across the street with future plans for duplicating the super-green scheme. Prices are expected to run about $140,000 to $150,000. Habitat helps qualified buyers with financing. The Henderson hamlet could consequently become the country's first LEED platinum neighborhood.
"It's a very community-minded project," says Van Diepen. "I always felt, as an architect, that energy efficient, high quality homes could be built for around the same as standard tract homes." And now, much more earth-friendly.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
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September/October 2010: "Guided by voices." One locavore's quest to change the way Las Vegas eats
Want an eco-friendly home in the new economy? The new mandate: Don't buy stuff. Instead, go frugal
By Heidi Kyser
Remember when people showed off their green bona fides by incorporating reclaimed bricks and bamboo floors into their home renovations? One blessing of the recession is that it shifted consumer attention from buying stuff to saving energy - you know, where it should have been to begin with.
"It's great if you're buying recycled carpet or using low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, but in this economy, hardly anybody is remodeling," says Lance Kirk, a designer with Lucchesi Galati Architects and cofounder of local chapters for both the U.S. Green Building Council and the AIA's Committee on the Environment. "It doesn't make sense to invest a lot of money in a house that has lost half its value, and it makes even less sense if it's leaking hot or cold air into the atmosphere and wasting energy anyway."
If you really want to green up your home, conservation is the place to start. As a bonus, there are loads of free programs, rebates and DIY fixes that will lighten the impact on your wallet, as well as the planet.
Audit? Yes please!
"If somebody were to get serious about energy efficiency, I'd say, 'You should hire a reputable, trained auditing company to do an audit of your home.' Almost every home can benefit from energy efficiency," says Steve Rypka, founder of Green Dream Enterprises and cofounder of Nevada's USGBC chapter.
Easy to say for a guy who operates a small solar plant on the roof of his house. For the rest of us, an energy audit elicits the same emotion as a visit to the proctologist. One way to lessen the pain is by going through HomeFree Nevada (www.homefreenevada.org). That's our state's version of a national home performance program started by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy.
At the website, you can sign up for a home performance audit online, or print an application to mail in. HomeFree Nevada suggests three certified contractors, selected from a rotating pool of candidates. The chosen contractor will interview you by phone to assess your situation and goals before setting an audit date. On that day, one or two auditors poke around your house for three to five hours, inspecting heating and cooling equipment, duct systems, lighting and appliances. They'll follow up with a report, complete with recommendations for improvements, cost estimates and a list of contractors.
Paying (or not) to be green
The cost of a comprehensive audit depends on the home's age, design and other factors. A typical price is $500 to $700, but HomeFree Nevada includes an incentive that reimburses homeowners up to $1,000 for the total cost of both the audit and recommended fixes made (if you spend at least $2,000).
"It's not unusual that the cost of the audit can be recovered in the first year, by information the homeowner is taught by the certified auditor," says Les Lazareck, owner of Home Energy Connection and a certified energy auditor and trainer.
If $500 still sounds like too much, how about $0? That's what NV Energy charges customers for its (albeit less comprehensive) audits, which entails a web-based questionnaire that assesses your current equipment and usage. At the end, you get a pretty thorough understanding of where your energy is going and how much it's costing you, from clothes dryers to water heaters.
If all that doesn't warm up the odd cold room in your house, you can call NV Energy for one of its complimentary on-site audits. Both NV Energy and Southwest Gas free programs for income-qualified customers. These can include anything from advice on energy efficiency to installing attic insulation and blanketing hot water heaters.
The two major local energy providers also offer also offer a lengthy list of rebates for repairs, replacements and retrofits. There are rebates for everything from recycling your working refrigerator ($30 from NV Energy) to buying an Energy Star combination oven ($2,500 from Southwest Gas).
Remember: Conservation is free
One thing that's free to fix: your behavior. Energy experts readily offer a number of not-so-obvious tips to trim your power bill.
·Turn off ceiling fans when you're not underneath them. "It's a 100-percent electric heater, the way the motor works," says Lazareck. "It doesn't move the air around the house. The cooling effect is from it evaporating the moisture off your skin. They're about 75 watts, and most people have lots of them."
·Make sure your air filter is clean - and rated NRV-8 or less. "They're rated by how small a particle they can filter out. Costco sells some that filter out really small particles, but they put a drag on the blower, and make it less efficient," says Lazareck.
·Shorten your showers. "When you're looking at appliances within your home, the No. 3 energy user is the hot water heater," says Emily Huffman, NV Energy's energy educator.
·Avoid the hot water handle. "Even if you turn on the hot water automatically by habit, and you don't get any because it takes a while to get to your sink, you've still pulled hot water out of your tank and pulled cold water in that has to be heated. And you didn't get any hot water anyway," says Rypka.
·Vacuum your refrigerator coils. "That can add an extra 15- to 20-percent energy efficiency," says Lazareck.
·Use surge protectors that eliminate phantom power. "People who have phone chargers and other devices plugged in on standby are using power. It can add up to $5-15 a month in some homes," says Lazareck.
·Stop obsessing about windows, doors and electrical outlets. "Plastic and tape around windows and doors is the least of your worries. Only 25 percent of air leakage comes from there. The bulk of it is through your ceiling and floor. That's where you need to invest," says Lazareck.
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