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VOL. 121 | NO. 33 | Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Little-known Program Makes Homes Energy Efficient

By Andrew Ashby

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BUILT TO LAST: All single-family homes in the Uptown neighborhood were built using MLGW's EcoBUILD standards. Since the program started three years ago, 104 homes in Shelby County have been constructed using the program's energy-saving techniques. -- Photograph Courtesy Of Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division

Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division has a program that can make a house 30 percent more efficient than a typical home. With natural gas prices on the rise, it seems potential homeowners would be clamoring for it - but is anyone listening?

MLGW started its EcoBUILD program about three years ago. EcoBUILD is a set of standards that includes everything from more quality insulation to ceiling fans in every room.

MLGW spent 18 months putting the standards together with a team of government officials, builders, architects, engineers and developers. Consultants were even brought in from Texas' Austin Energy, the nation's 10th largest community-owned electric utility.

"They have a green-building program that has been in place about 15 years and it's one of the most successful in the world," MLGW strategic marketing coordinator Becky Williamson said.


Time and energy

MLGW used local energy codes, typical building practices in the area and Memphis weather data to come up with its standards.

MLGW has certified 104 houses since the program started, including one in Germantown that was part of the Vesta Home Show. So far it's been builders, not individuals, who are constructing their homes with the EcoBUILD standards, Williamson said. Most of the certified houses were done in the last year, with the majority in the Uptown area.

Although 104 homes might not seem like a lot, it's pretty good on a national scale.

"You look at programs in other cities and we're a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of being this early in the program," Williamson said. "That's almost exclusively due to Uptown."

"You look at programs in other cities and we're a little bit ahead of the curve in terms of being this early in the program. That's almost exclusively due to Uptown."
- Becky Williamson
strategic marketing coordinator, MLGW


The building specs

The first part of the program involves using more efficient building materials. For example, instead of a window and a storm window, the standards require builders to use a double-pane window with a low-E glaze, or a coating that reflects light and filters UV rays to keeps homes cooler. EcoBUILD standards also require builders to use a radiant barrier for the roof, which absorbs heat, keeping attic spaces up to 20 degrees cooler.

MLGW also makes sure builders use proper installation techniques.

"There are lots of subcontractors and some of them do an excellent job, some of them do an okay job and some of them build a house, but they don't necessarily focus on the energy aspects of it," Williamson said.

Two inspections happen during the construction process: once when the builders have completed the insulation process and another when the project is finished.

"The end result is a house that's going to use about 30 percent less energy than one that was built with traditional construction practices," Williams said.


Builders on board

Steve Hodgkins is the secretary/treasurer of the Memphis Area Home Builders Association and owner of Oaktree Homes LLC. His company built two homes in Bartlett using EcoBUILD.

"I think it's sound from an engineering standpoint," Hodgkins said. "I think they have good ideas."

While Hodgkins knows the program's positives, he's not sure the public has been getting the message.

"MLGW does not do a good job promoting it and letting people know what it is and letting people ask for it," he said. "Because people don't know what it is, they think it's something that I do and they don't understand the whole concept of it. I think the public has to be educated to ask for it before they're going to be willing to pay for that to get it."

When MLGW put the program together, the goal was to have a cost increase of no more than 3 percent per home. Williamson said he thinks the utility has been pretty much on target. On a 3,200-square-foot home, it cost Hodgkins almost an additional $7,000 to implement the EcoBUILD standards.

"I think it's a good thing, I think it's something that's really necessary in the long run and there's no question that everybody could do a better job being energy efficient," he said. "The problem is that I can't do it and not get reimbursed for it."


Public perception

Until the public learns more about the EcoBUILD program, there might not be a large effect on the Memphis real estate market.

"It's kind of like a hybrid car - everybody wants one, but they don't want to pay the extra money," Hodgkins said. "Until people see that it makes sense from a dollars and cents standpoint, I don't think it's going to have a big impact."

MLGW is working to get the word out through a print advertising campaign. Officials have shown EcoBUILD standards at a previous Vesta Home Show and through the marketing of the Uptown development.

"Homebuyers are not used to requesting energy efficiency upgrades, they are used to asking for more visual upgrades like flooring and countertops," Williamson said. "So we're trying to increase awareness among homebuyers that just because you can't see the energy features doesn't mean they're (not) there and that a home is as energy efficient as it could be."

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