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It's time to bring 'green' home to the rest of us

By Sharon Tubbs, City Times Editor
Published July 27, 2007


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A St. Petersburg Times story last week said Gov. Charlie Crist is using a hydrogen fuel cell in the Governor's Mansion now because it's better for the environment - and, I'm sure, his newfound "green" image.

The fuel cell turns natural gas into electricity and will help reduce the mansion's energy emissions by 20 percent.

And it could save about $2,900 a year on the electric bill. Yay!

But the thing costs $70,000. Nay ...

Not to take away from the governor's efforts, but the scenario fits right into a growing perception that people who tout green living are those who can do so comfortably, with only the slightest changes in their lifestyles.

They can buy gadgets that cost more than some college educations and stay cool in the summertime. They can splurge on that organic produce and leave the Del Monte peaches on the shelf. They can spend a few thousand more for a fuel-efficient Toyota Prius.

But for everyday people with modest incomes, being "green" often seems to mean doing without. Without a car (ride your bike down Dale Mabry) or without air conditioning (they used fans in the old days).

Which is why Cathy Byrd's project in East Tampa is interesting. The contractor and small developer is building five houses on vacant lots in the Southeast Seminole Heights and Ybor Heights neighborhoods that she hopes will be "green certified" by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

The homes are part of the city's infill program, an effort that started about two years ago to increase affordable housing in the area, while putting city-owned vacant lots back on the tax rolls, said Sharon West, the city's manager of housing and community development.

Byrd was one of three for-profits and three nonprofits to participate in developing more than two dozen lots.

Byrd initially planned to build the typical house with concrete block walls and wood-framed roofs.

She had to meet the city's criteria, which meant three-bedroom homes were about 1,300 square feet in various models and could cost no more than $180,000.

"I sat down with my drawings, and I couldn't make my numbers work," Byrd said. She was going to have to take a loss.

Then she thought about green building, a concept she'd been studying awhile.

She found a building system using panels with dense rigid insulation that looks like Styrofoam and that she says withstands wind gusts of 170 miles an hour. The panels are 4 to 6 inches thick and coated in sheets of steel and vinyl.

"I ran the numbers, and I could build those for less than I could build the traditional homes."

A TECO Energy audit, she says, estimated a homeowner in her energy-efficient houses could save about $70 a month in the summertime.

"What group couldn't use these savings more than any group I can think of?" she said of the low- and moderate-income families that the city's program serves.

The houses will include fluorescent lighting, energy-efficient appliances and stained, polished concrete floors similar to the look popular in high-end lofts.

In another effort to earn green points, the water heater and laundry area will be in the garage, rather than inside the air-conditioned homes. That means less energy will be wasted cooling the houses after the clothes dry, for instance.

Byrd has prospective buyers and hopes to have contracts signed and the houses under construction by the end of the year.

The idea fits into Tampa's plans for more green building, said Thom Snelling, deputy director of growth management and development services. "The houses that she is building have the added benefit and attractiveness to the city because it is green housing," he said.

I'll wait to see if Byrd's insulated panel houses turn out to be as efficient and cozy as she says they will.

In the meantime, Byrd says, the concept hints that being comfortably green doesn't have to be expensive.

"You could spend a bunch of money," she said. "But you don't have to."

[Last modified July 27, 2007, 08:35:10]


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