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Hot Ideas, Cool House

Builder teams with others to test the effectiveness of energy-saving technologies.

October 24, 1999|KATHY PRICE-ROBINSON | Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer specializing in home-related topics

At first glance, and even on closer inspection, the two upscale homes in Simi Valley's Heather Hills development look alike.

Each house has two stories, stucco exteriors and open floor plans, and each will sell for about $360,000.

But a year from now, the owners of one of these homes will save $600 in heating and air-conditioning bills, compared with the owners of the house two doors away.

That's because Beazer Homes, which is building the tract in eastern Ventura County, installed a number of products the builder doesn't normally use--among them, solar-powered fans to move hot air out of the attic, increased insulation and specially coated windows--in one house as a test project.

Both the test house and the standard house are equipped with temperature and moisture sensors that will be monitored for the next 18 months. The buyers of each house will be required to participate in the experiment.

So far, the first test results show that the owners of the test house will save 30% in cooling costs to keep their home at a comfortable temperature.

Beazer, the country's seventh-largest home builder, is among dozens of home builders, designers, manufacturers and others who have joined to create four teams around the country to learn how to build homes that are easier on both the environment and homeowners' pocketbooks.

Similar test houses are being built in Southern California by RGC of Newport Beach and by Lee Homes, which is building an entire neighborhood of energy-efficient homes called Village Green in Sylmar.

Beazer had two goals in building the test house:

* To discover whether new products and building techniques could save home buyers money on their utility bills (a possible sales tool in the competitive new-home market.)

* To learn for themselves how simple or troublesome it would be to persuade the dozen or so independent subcontractors who build these tracts to do things differently.

The second goal is especially difficult in a building boom and with today's shortages of trained construction workers.

"The labor force has been trained to build houses in an assembly line process. It's more efficient that way," said Gary Gafford, Beazer's head of construction on the tract.

For instance, when a company asks framing carpenters to put 2-by-6 studs 24 inches apart--instead of placing the normal 2-by-4 studs 16 inches apart--"you open yourself up to making mistakes," Gafford said. "We don't want to make mistakes," he emphasized.

Builders must avoid callbacks for repairs in order to make profits and maintain good reputations.

Changes in building practices, even if they bring about energy savings for consumers, are risky for builders.

"It's a time to celebrate when you've got a home builder who's willing to try new things," said Mark Ginsberg, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Helping builders overcome their resistance to changes is the goal of two federal programs:

* Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing, which is run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on an annual budget of $10 million.

* Building America Program, run by the Energy Department. Since 1995, it has distributed $3 million annually among its four teams, which include builders and manufacturers such as Andersen Windows, Weyerhaeuser and Owens Corning.

The idea for the Beazer test home came about when Southern California Edison, wanting to avoid investing in more power generating plants, started looking for a big builder to be its partner in a project to test energy-saving features.

The idea was to test them in the real world instead of in a laboratory.

"We didn't want to introduce revolutionary changes," said Deborah Weintraub, an Edison architect. "We're trying to work within business confines."

Methods being tested are a far cry from ideas generated during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when experimental, often expensive and unproven products were introduced.

According to Gregg Ander, another Edison architect, selecting "state-of-the-shelf" products that are easy to obtain and install--as opposed to state-of-the-art products--is key for builders.

Even when builders are willing to make homes energy-efficient, however, it's home buyers who drive the market. And saving $50 a month in energy costs (barely enough for a nice dinner, without wine) is of debatable importance when the features increase the initial cost of the house $1,000 or more.

"Energy efficiency is definitely not at the top of their list," said Mike Crosbie, an architect with Steven Winter Associates, who helped Beazer and Edison decide which products and building techniques make most financial sense. "But it is a secondary concern."

As gas and electricity become more expensive, the desire to save money on utilities will increase. And in low-income housing, a $50-a-month saving in energy costs becomes more meaningful.

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