Energy-efficiency meets affordability at home

First-time buyers get conservation-conscious homes

Staff WriterJuly 20, 2010 

When David Stiff moves into his new house in Henderson in a few weeks, ending a lifetime as a renter, he'll be able to look from his front door on a preserved area thick with native plants surrounding a wetland.

His new neighborhood, designed by a nationally known conservation planner from Rhode Island, is one of six in the state where the Conservation Trust for North Carolina has helped develop affordable neighborhoods that save naturalspaces.

Homes built around conservation principles aren't restricted to high-end owners worried about their carbon footprint. First-time home buyers are moving into affordable homes that conserve heat and water, emit less dust and chemical fumes into the air and take advantage of nearby park space.

"Certainly, we need more affordable housing, and it's a wonderful thing when we can incorporate values into it in terms of clean air and clean water," said Barry Williams, diversity coordinator for the Conservation Trust, a nonprofit that works with landowners to save green space.

The Henderson development's collaborators include Williams' office, the Conservation Fund, the Black Family Land Trust, a Raleigh land planning firm and the N.C. Community Development Initiative. The partners envision a natural jewel in the center of the neighborhood that will include a boardwalk and areas where local school children can use the land as a natural laboratory.

"People can walk around their neighborhood in a nice loop," said Randall Arendt, the well-known conservation planner who designed the section of the subdivision where Stiff will live. "People are more apt to take a walk when they can walk in a circuit. Also, it's a place where kids can observe the seasonal changes of nature - catch frogs, watch the dragon flies. It's an added dimension."

Developers of affordable homes and apartments are ahead of their market-rate counterparts in incorporating environmental sustainability into their plans, said Chris Estes, executive director of the N.C. Housing Coalition, a group that advocates for more affordable housing.

Some of the impetus comes from incentives and requirements from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency, a clearinghouse for money and tax credits to build affordable housing.

The agency gives $4,000 incentives to nonprofits and local governments for each home built to strict energy standards, said Bill Dowse, the agency's director of strategic investment. Recently, developers began earning an additional $1,000 grant for each home that meets a green-building standard.

Energy bill guarantee

Part of the deal for homes built to the energy standard is a guarantee to the homeowner that if heating and cooling costs exceed a set limit, usually $25 to $35 a month, an independent nonprofit called Advanced Energy will reimburse the homeowner for the difference.

Sustainable building features aren't luxury add-ons for working-class homebuyers. Part of "affordability" means being able to pay the utility bills.

"When we recognize that to make houses affordable, they have to be energy-efficient, it's a logical extension of what we're doing," Dowse said.

Adonis Brown is enjoying low utility bills thanks to the solar-heated water in his Durham home.

During the summer, he turns off his hot water heater and lets the sun do all the work. A hose hooked to a rain barrel waters the flowerbeds.

Durham Habitat for Humanity put solar heat collectors on the roofs of 12 of the 32 homes in the Hope Crossing development where Brown lives. The group found sponsors to support the extra cost of solar panels, a highlight in a community with energy-efficient homes and a walking trail to encourage exercise.

Brown figures he's saving about $15 to $20 a month on his energy bill, and he can't tell the difference between sun-heated and mechanically heated water.

"You'd think without the electricity, the water would be lukewarm," he said. "But no, it stays hot."

One-of-a-kind project

Tracy Lynn proposed her own plans for an energy-efficient house in Pittsboro. Chatham Habitat for Humanity embraced the idea and built the home, which includes solar hot water and radiant floor heat.

The Chatham nonprofit considers Lynn's house a one-of-a kind demonstration project but has adopted the ideals of green affordability for its new homes throughout the county. The new homes in its Chatham Oak neighborhood in Pittsboro include dual-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads, and they are designed to make efficient use of lumber.

The floors are ceramic tile and laminate wood rather than vinyl and carpet to cut the sources of chemical gases, dust and dander.

Lynn sought out Habitat and sponsors for her affordable, energy-efficient home because she was looking to build a place with clean indoor air that would meet the needs of her 8-year-old son, Tristan, who has respiratory problems.

"That had to be a priority," she said.

She sees energy-efficient, affordable homes at the leading edge of broader changes in people's choices for housing.

"People don't realize how natural it is," she said.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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