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As Green As It Gets

Zero-Energy Homes Could Be Boon For Hartford Section

Tom Condon

November 16, 2008

If I told you that in a decade, people would be competing to buy homes in the North End of Hartford, you might think I was daft. Middle-class people have been leaving the neighborhood for decades. Its growth industries have been poverty and crime, or such is its reputation.

But a remarkable change may be in the offing.

The key is that United Technologies Corp. has gotten involved in the neighborhood. The company is helping the neighborhood agency SAND Corp. build what are called "Net Zero Energy" homes homes that will produce about as much energy as they use. They are starting with a pilot project of three homes on Earle Street, a comfortably nondescript, two-block street off Main Street.

Construction should begin on these early next year. The plan, once the program gets cracking, is to build 100 zero-energy homes a year for 10 years. That's 1,000 homes, a mix of new or extensive rehab of existing homes, in the North End.

The proposed development "is the kind of thing that never happens in the inner city. But why not?" asked SAND's ebullient executive director Karen Lewis. "This is the future. Why should we be last?"

Handsome, affordable homes with no energy costs would be very appealing to a lot of people. If SAND (South Arsenal Neighborhood Development) and UTC can pull this off, it would change the neighborhood. And I wouldn't bet against them. Lewis' agency has built housing and is well established in the neighborhood, and UTC has a point to make.

As Lewis explains it, UTC Chairman George David was at SAND to look at a job training program a few years ago, and the two got talking about ways to improve the neighborhood. Energy-efficient housing came up.

As luck would have it, this is a particular passion of David's, one in which he's emerged as a national leader. Buildings are responsible for at least 40 percent of energy use in most countries, and the number is growing. UTC is one of 10 companies around the world taking part in the Energy Efficiency in Buildings Project of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. To significantly reduce the energy used in buildings would be good for the globe in many obvious ways.

I met David two decades ago when he was running the United Way campaign, and can tell you that when he is involved in a project, he brings top people into the room. He put the varsity on the field for this one, bringing in Charles Veley, the company's director of real estate development, research scientist Rohini Brahme, business development expert Jim Fritz and others.

They engaged the talented Hartford architect Bill Crosskey, who is turning the building at 410 Asylum St. into the state's first "green" apartment building.

Crosskey designed a distinctive two-story, two-family house, rectangular with a wide-angle A-frame roof, an ideal vehicle for solar panels. As it happens, Brahme and her colleagues at the United Technologies Research Center in East Hartford had been working on energy conservation in industrial buildings. They had just built a green Otis Elevator factory in China, and had developed a sophisticated modeling process to balance the various parts, materials and systems for optimal energy saving. Here was a chance to think globally and act locally.

They figured out how to use what appears to be every energy-saving technique known to man, including geothermal heating and cooling; superinsulated and tightly sealed walls and roof and deep eaves for shade; energy recovery ventilation; solar hot water collectors; and low-flow plumbing fixtures.

The integration of these features results in a reduction of 75 percent of the energy demand of an average house of this size in New England. The remaining power needs in the all-electric house should be met by the photovoltaic panels on the roof. Indeed, in off-peak hours, the owner can sell power back to the grid.

The implications of this for affordable housing, a crying need in the state, are obvious. If there are no energy costs, the home is more affordable.

The question is whether they are going to be affordable to build. The three two-family homes on Earle Street, a pilot project, will cost an estimated $2.1 million, or $700,000 each, which is being raised by grants from UTC and other private donors as well as some city and state funds. Under the terms of the financing, they must be sold for a maximum of $230,000, leaving a sizable gap. That's not going to work for 997 more homes.

Veley said larger projects will gain economies of scale and that as the green movement grows, the cost will drop significantly. UTC will help create an equity fund to lower the cost of construction financing.

UTC does not plan to go into this business, though some of its products will be used in the construction. This leaves an opening for SAND to develop a cadre of workers who can build green housing.

So the chance to build 1,000 new homes in the North End will depend on the availability of funding and the growth of green, energy-saving technology. As I recall, this is exactly what President-elect Obama said the country should be investing in.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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