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VOL. 122 | NO. 97 | Friday, May 25, 2007

Habitat, MLGW Officials Work to Promote EcoBUILD Initiative

By Eric Smith

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SAY CHEESE: Tomika and Kenneth Robinson take a break from the construction of their Habitat for Humanity home at 680 Jennette Place. -- Photo Courtesy Of Habitat For Humanity

Most new homeowners experience sticker shock when they receive their initial utility bill, especially if they're moving from an apartment complex where the monthly rent included it.

But that never happened to Tiana Sanders, who moved into her first home last November.

She was among the first beneficiaries of a partnership between Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis and Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division (MLGW) that builds energy-efficient homes through an MLGW initiative called EcoBUILD.

Soon after moving in, Sanders got her first taste of how it works.

"I love it!" said Sanders, 27. "In the wintertime, it was warm in here - we didn't even have to use the heater that much. If you keep it at the temperature where it's supposed to be, it really helps the bill. The utility bill, at the most, was about $90."

Upping disposable income

Lower utility bills are a central benefit of EcoBUILD, which reduces a home's energy consumption and environmental footprint through better building materials and practices, MLGW and Habitat officials said.

For example, EcoBUILD standards call for a high-efficiency HVAC system; double-paned windows with a film between them that reduces heat loss or gain; higher levels of insulation; ceiling fans in all non-dining rooms; a radiant barrier for the roof to keep the house cool or warm; and better sealing around windows, doors and pipes.

"It's a lot of things that are normally not done on the typical house," said Harold Walker, construction administration manager for Habitat's local chapter. "But in the long run, (these features) save the homeowner considerably."

EcoBUILD homes typically consume about 34 percent less electricity and 56 percent less natural gas, according to MLGW.

EcoBUILD materials do cost more, however - about $3,000 for the typical Habitat house. So MLGW has awarded Habitat a $20,000 grant to cover those costs for 12 new homes this year. This is the second year for the grant, which is being coupled with money from Panhandle Energy of Texas to complete the homes using EcoBUILD standards.

PERPETUAL BARGAIN: Lower utility bills are a central benefit of the MLGW initiative EcoBUILD, which reduces a home's energy consumption and environmental footprint through better building materials and practices. -- Photo Courtesy Of Habitat For Humanity

"It's a way to enable the organization to create some more energy-efficient homes compared to the typical construction standards," said Becky Williamson, marketing coordinator at MLGW. "With EcoBUILD we improve upon typical construction practices and local codes."

Spending and saving

Habitat homes normally cost about $62,000 to build, said Habitat director of community relations Jeff Capps, who said he's thrilled that MLGW has for a second year decided to provide the $3,000 EcoBUILD price difference.

"When this opportunity came along, we jumped at it," Capps said. "We know it's a unique program and we felt like what we do is so unique already, why would we not be a part of this unique initiative that MLGW is doing? It's good for everybody."

Capps said the idea of giving Habitat homeowners an opportunity to save money as they adapt to the many challenges of homeownership fits in perfectly with his organization's mission.

"By them residing in these energy-efficient homes, they were going to see a difference in their utility bills," he said. "That's very important to us."

Capps also noted it's important for an environmentally conscious organization such as Habitat to spread its mission to the homeowners it helps - and even through the homes it builds.

"Our little Habitat homes have this unique element in them and we're really proud of that," Capps said. "I think it is a good opportunity for our homeowners to learn about it as well. It has benefits for them in terms of the bottom line, but it's also a way for them to learn about a unique way of building and making homes more energy-efficient."

More on front end

Partnering with Habitat also has benefited MLGW, which is using the relationship to promote EcoBUILD on a larger scale. The program has been used extensively in the Uptown Memphis development, but also throughout Shelby County, including Arlington, Bartlett and Germantown, Williamson said.

"We're trying to generate awareness," Williamson said. "If we can get homebuyers and residents more aware of the opportunities and the benefits of energy-efficient homes - building it on the front end as opposed to trying to go back and remediate things later on - it will help create that market demand so builders will start building more energy-efficient homes."

Williamson was quick to point out that the EcoBUILD price tag shrinks when buying the eco-friendly materials in bulk, which can be a boon to builders looking to offer these features to potential homebuyers.

"People assume it's going to cost a whole lot more to build energy-efficiently and it's not necessarily the case," she said.

Long-term benefits aplenty

Sanders, who contributed "sweat equity" to build her home per Habitat policy, was pleased that MLGW spent time training her how to use the home's programmable thermostat to take full advantage of the home's energy efficiency.

"If you use it wisely, like you're supposed to use it, your bill will be fine," Sanders said. "But if you don't know how to use it correctly, you're in big trouble."

Now that the cold is long gone, and the hot days of summer have begun, Sanders already can tell that her home stays cool without cranking up the air conditioning. She also realizes that her energy-efficient home is easy on the earth and even keeps the bugs out thanks to tighter seals.

"It's definitely been a good thing," she said. "It is great."

MORTGAGES 54 374 1,120
BUILDING PERMITS 177 767 2,425