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North Texas takes the lead on energy-efficient environmental design

By Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX –

Catherine Cuellar, 90.1 reporter: With rising energy costs and record-breaking summer heat, paying utility bills can feel like putting money down the drain.
[sound: toilet flush]
Cuellar: But Denton's new housing subdivision Nevada Court has roofs that collect rainwater for irrigation, and energy saving appliances indoors that keep monthly utility bills at about $50 a month. Builder and construction manager Dan Fette demonstrates a dual-flush toilet in the bathroom, a big water-wasting room in other houses.

Dan Fette, Nevada Court: The little button here is for liquid waste and it flushes 0.8 gallons per flush and 1.6 gallons per flush for solid waste. Besides that, we chose toilets that work on the first flush. There's an awful lot out there don't so what do you do? You flush it again. Not very water conserving.

Cuellar: The bathroom also features a system that preheats water in the pipes so that residents feel hot water as soon as they turn on the tap. The shower also has a consumer-tested low-flow showerhead.

Fette: People don't like the low-flow shower heads because they don't make you feel wet. So this thing puts out sort of a pulsating spray of droplets large enough to make your body feel wet, but not so large it's using a whole lot of water to do it.

Cuellar: The bedroom carpeting is made from 100% recycled plastic bottles. And the air-conditioning unit, made in Irving, doesn't try to cool air in the attic, usually the hottest part of a house, but in air-conditioned space.

Fette: Our prevailing ceiling height is nine feet, but through the central core of the house we've dropped the ceiling to about 7'10", and in that space we are running all of our supply and all of our return ductwork. So all of that put together is helping us keep the size of the air conditioner unit relatively small.

Cuellar: The 14 new Nevada Court homes, developed by the Denton Affordable Housing Corporation, range from 1200 to 1600 square feet and sell for around $130,000, $50,000 less than the neighborhood median. For both mortgage payments and utility bills, less is more according to Denton Affordable Housing's Jane Provo.

Jane Provo, Executive Director, Denton Affordable Housing Corporation.: We have carefully configured them so you're not losing a lot of square footage in hallway space or unusable space; that the home you've got is very livable, very affordable to operate, and you're getting the biggest bang for your buck.

Cuellar: Affordable doesn't mean cheap. The new J. Lindsay Embrey Engineering Building at SMU meets the U.S. Green Building Council's gold standard for energy and environmental design. Its collegiate Georgian architecture fits with the rest of the campus, and it sits next to an identical building built four years ago. It cost 3% more per square foot to build, but that construction investment makes it 30% more energy efficient than its twin, which will save $300,000 a year in utilities. Geoffrey Orsak is SMU's Dean of Engineering.

Geoffrey Orsak, SMU Dean of Engineering: I hope this building becomes a showplace for people to come and tour and that we can demystify the whole concept of going green. That it's not a kind of crazy concept only done by tree huggers but it's done by smart engineers who think this is the right way to go in the future.

Cuellar: Office chairs are made of 98% recycled material and are also recyclable. Cubicle partitions are made from corn. Blond cabinet finishes that appear wooden are actually boards made from wheat. The building maximizes natural light, even in the stairwells and interior rooms.

Orsak: We created this column of light in the building where we pump natural light all the way down in. and there are actually exterior windows on the inside of the building to bring natural light to the inside of the building on the third floor. So most of the light we're experiencing right now is free of charge.

Cuellar: The science behind structures like this one isn't new, but it is just coming into fashion. Waxahachie builder Jim Sargent was nationally recognized last year by the National Association of Home Builders and U.S. Department of Energy for his zero-energy homes, which cost less than a dollar a day to heat and cool. But he started constructing them more than 30 years ago. He says Texas' recent adoption of international guidelines has made green building practices standard and mainstream.

Jim Sargent: The drive to get the international code adopted in the state started in Dallas actually and the Dallas Homebuilders Association passed a resolution to support it. With that in place, Houston Home Builders were approached, and they weren't going to let Dallas get ahead, so they passed a resolution to support it. Taking those two resolutions to Austin, for the first time in our history we got one code adopted statewide. I get to go to a lot of national meetings and people were saying if Texas can do it, we can do it.

Cuellar: Over the course of his career, Sargent has seen the obstacles to green building shift. When he started building high-performing homes in the mid 1970s, there weren't many buyers who were interested, so he stopped. But as a parent, he decided to resume energy-efficient building after a few years because he believed it was the responsible thing to do. That required him to challenge conventional wisdom and figure out on his own how to do things that weren't status quo.

Sargent: The technology may have been out there but the information wasn't readily available. Case in point - back in the '70s we developed the technology behind wind. There were some incentives and that technology because of the tax incentives went forward. The tax incentives died and the demand for that technology in the United States died and it was transferred to the Netherlands. We're now buying that technology back from the Netherlands.

Cuellar: Now that green building information and technology is more prevalent, he can build high-performing homes anywhere. He has built everything from a modest $55,000, 1250 square foot house in Waxahachie to a two-story, 3,800 square foot luxury home in Frisco. Both cost less than a dollar a day to heat and cool. Now the biggest obstacle to new construction is skilled labor.

Sargent: Now you're going to be building it with 150 guys showing up that weren't the same 150 guys that showed up the last house, and someone has to have enough passion to see that every job is done well.

Cuellar: Sargent's clients cut their utility costs by living off-the-grid. They have technology like rooftop solar panels that generate power on-site. When panels produce more power than is needed for a house, energy is fed to the utility companies and the electric meter runs backward. When Sargent started looking for solar panels, all those manufactured in the United States were being exported for use in Germany. The award-winning home he built in Frisco has $75,000 worth of solar panels.

Sargent: Take $75,000 and put it in the bank. How much interest are you going to make? How long could you pay your utility bills just on the interest? At full price, the technology is not there yet. There are two decisions you're going to make building a high performing home. Some of the decisions are pocketbook-driven. How soon do I get a return on what I'm doing? But some of the decisions you make are actually heart driven. So maybe if I spend a little bit more on my home and not use as much power, maybe that's my contribution.

Cuellar: At this point in his career, Sargent is mentoring others to continue the work he started in Waxahachie in the mid-'70s. Among those he's worked with is Dan Fette, who is construction supervisor for the Denton Affordable Housing Corporation's Nevada Court development. SMU's Embrey engineering building opens this Friday. For KERA 90.1, I'm Catherine Cuellar.

More on the web:
Denton Affordable Housing - Nevada Court
SMU's J. Lindsay Embrey Engineering Building
Zero Energy Homes Dallas