With 14 carefully placed panels sipping light from the sun, the meter on the side of Carol Bintz s new home in Monclova Township spins backward in the summer months, sending excess power created by her solar-panel system to the Edison grid, significantly reducing the home s energy costs.
Ms. Bintz s commitment to lessening her environmental impact, and trimming energy bills in the process, places her among legions of architects, builders, and home buyers looking to save two very different kinds of green.
If I was going to make a change, I was going to build a house and make it as energy-efficient as I could, Ms. Bintz said.
Even though urban planners say the cost of filling the SUV will cause more people to live in city centers, residents such as Ms. Bintz are finding ways to stay in the cozy suburbs they ve grown to love.
The longtime Toledo-area resident chose to fight demographic trends that planners say will shape America s future.
As the 82 million baby boomers born from 1946 to 1964 become empty-nesters looking to downsize their homes, and as the 78 million millennials born from 1977 to 1996 become young professionals looking for their first apartments, the two groups may well converge in one up-and-coming area: city centers.
But Ms. Bintz could not have easily installed a state-of-the-art geothermal system to complement her solar panels if she had selected a site in the city.
The system, which draws energy from the ground left behind by the sun and uses it to heat and cool her home, required sophisticated pipes to be planted beneath her lawn where ground temperatures hover around 55 degrees.
According to the American Solar Energy Society, the world s energy needs could be met entirely by capturing sunlight hitting the Earth.
Duane Horst, president of Overcashier & Horst, a Sylvania heating and cooling contractor that oversaw the geothermal installation, said interest in the system has mushroomed among home builders.
Nowadays, energy costs scare us all, and [homeowners] are spending extra money here first before they put in more expensive cabinets, he said. Ms. Bintz paid $9,500 for the geothermal system and $16,900 for the Sharp solar panels on her roof. Additional money for things like high-end wall and basement insulation brought her total energy upgrades to $28,000.
Bill Decker, Sr., whose Bedford Township-based Decker Homes is building her ranch, said the biggest deterrent to proliferating this whole-house system is the cost.
It s a long payback, but there s more to it than payback for most people, he said.
Mr. Decker expects Ms. Bintz to save roughly $800 per year on her electric and heating bills once she moves in this September a figure that will likely increase in coming years as energy prices continue to climb.
If it s a break-even, that s a break-even at today s electric rates, Ms. Bintz said. And those are rates that are not going to go down.
The average price Americans pay to heat their homes during the winter has increased by nearly 50 percent over the past five winters, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
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Homeowners in the northeast and the southeast tend to pay the highest rates, while Ohioans fall somewhere in the middle of the pack.
But northwest Ohioans pay some of the highest electric rates in the state and the region.
The 2-kilowatt solar panel system, hidden almost entirely on the backside of Ms. Bintz s home where it faces southward, turns a little more than 12 percent of the sunlight it collects into electricity, an efficiency Mr. Decker anticipates will increase as technology improves.
Northwest Ohio receives about 70 percent of the sunlight that Miami gets.
According to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, utility companies in Ohio allow people such as Ms. Bintz to send extra power to the electric distribution system and receive a credit on energy bills, a process called net metering. Theoretically, if Ms. Bintz collected enough power, she could eliminate her monthly energy bill or offset charges in cloudy months when the solar panels are less effective.
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Perhaps more important to Ms. Bintz, who first investigated solar panels as manager of the Toledo Museum of Art s investment in a 100-kilowatt system, is the reduction of her carbon footprint.
Her new home reduces greenhouse gases because it does not draw as much energy from coal-fired power plants.
Somebody has to start doing it, she said.
Mr. Decker said he studies energy-efficient building techniques two to four hours a day and tries to apply them to the homes he builds.
More [carbon] is put into the atmosphere by buildings than by automobiles, he said. We re focused on energy conservation. We think that s part of the equation of how we ll be living. If you went to Europe, you would see they have completely green cities.
The U.S. Department of Energy currently sponsors a program called Building America, aimed at producing homes on a community scale that use, on average, 30 to 90 percent less energy. The program also hopes to integrate on-site power systems that lead to zero-energy homes producing as much energy as they use by 2020.
Changing to green
Other architects and builders are beginning to develop the same mind-set as Mr. Decker.
Kevin Kennon, executive director of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City, said technology and building techniques are improving.
The single biggest problem with buildings today is [lack of] insulation. It s a huge energy drain, he said. We re starting to use new technology from glass, we re able to control sunlight and glare, we re taking advantage of building orientation.
Many architecture firms around the country require their designers to keep abreast of environmentally sustainable construction.
The U.S. Green Building Council developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System in 1998 to shape green building standards of measurement and recognize environmental leadership in the building industry.
You are really building a high performance building rather than just a building that is good for the environment, said Michael Bongiorno, an architect for Design Group in Columbus and a LEED accredited professional. I think even developers realize that there are savings to them.
Mr. Bongiorno said taking advantage of the sun has become a crucial piece of building design.
Shades can block summer sun to cool a building and percolate it through to heat a building in the winter. The sun also provides an excellent source of free lighting.
There is a lot of exploration into material technology, Mr. Bongiorno said. Making smart material like roof shingles that are actually photo-voltaic shingles.
From tiny Normal, Ill. first in the U.S. to require LEED certified designs for private sector development to mammoth New York City home to the 7 World Trade Center building, considered the country s first green office tower by earning a LEED gold stamp cities across the country are committing to construction that is environmentally friendly and cost effective.
Buildings become certified by accumulating points for design elements such as reduction in water use, recycling of materials, construction within two miles of a bus line, and even installation of bike racks and showers.
Ted Ligibel, a professor of historic preservation at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich., said historic preservation is merging with the environmental movement in the building industry.
The former Toledo resident deemed energy considerations chief among builders future concerns.
We could have an energy audit to determine how much energy you are going to lose that s already embodied in that current infrastructure versus what it will cost in energy to rebuild something, he said. Old buildings hold so much embodied energy.
Urban life lends itself nicely to much of the building criteria, and as Americans rediscover the city center, builders will likely not only be catering to commercial interests, but also to prospective residents.
Urban planners say America is overbuilt with large, single-family homes that may become unwanted and underpriced.
For developers, urban residential complexes can be much more cost effective.
Though the country has poured a majority of development dollars into low-density suburban development over the past 50 years, from a cost perspective, high-density urban development makes more sense.
Sewer lines, for example, are roughly the same in the suburbs as they are in downtowns, yet in the suburbs a sewer line may only service one family per acre while a line of the same length may service 40 families in an urban setting. It is a matter of taking a fixed cost and dividing it by larger use.
Mr. Bongiorno said often the problem in creating suburban communities out of farmlands centers on a lack of existing infrastructure.
It s an economy of scale, he said. In urban development there are not as many new investments or materials being created.
Costs shared among more tightly packed residents extends beyond just building materials.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation ranks the United States the world s richest country 12th in its world broadband connectivity ranking, a reflection of subscriber volume, average connection speed, and cost.
Higher speeds and subscriptions in countries such as Japan and South Korea, which rank at the top of the list, are often attributed to their highly urbanized makeup.
In the United States, it is more difficult to provide broadband access for a sprawled population.
Demand for downsizing
In the tussle between urban and suburban, demographics seem to favor the former.
According to a housing analysis by Zimmerman, Volk Associates, married couples with children the traditional American family represent only 22 percent of U.S. households.
More than 5 million households contain unmarried couples, a near 70 percent increase since 1990.
And probably the largest right hook to the bloated suburban housing market is the combined purchasing power of 160 million baby boomers and millennials who are more likely to be looking for smaller dwellings and amenities more readily offered in city centers.
Don Feller, president of Toledo-area Feller Finch Associates, a firm specializing in civil engineering and land surveying, said many of his developer clients have been following empty nesters.
There s a big demand for downsizing, he said.
People don t want to mow the lawn or shovel the walks. They are leaving their $400,000 homes.
Americans will likely first reduce their driving, then get a new car, then consider moving, said Mike Young, a senior urban designer for the Rick Company in San Diego and a former Toledo city planner. But when they do decide to move, downtowns will seem a more reasonable option.
In general terms, people will look to move closer to the amenities, he said. There s only one great university, one great art museum, one great zoo, one great theater.
Mr. Decker, who has been operating his home building company since 1981, said builders don t usually create the market, but instead choose to follow it.
If that s what the market wants, that s where we re going to build it, he said.
But not all home builders believe a nebulous American appetite will lead them away from the suburbs.
I don t see it happening, said Jon Jones, sales manager from Decker Building Co. of Temperance, Mich., a company owned by Mr. Decker s son, Bill Decker, Jr.
I think people want to live in the suburban area. They re going to battle to stay out here rather than [move] downtown.
Mr. Jones said his company has built as many as 72 homes in a calendar year, but mired in a struggling national economy and mortgage crisis, this year the tally has been only eight.
Jeff Wehrle, owner of Forrester Wehrle Builders, another prominent builder in the Toledo area, agrees with Mr. Jones and believes the dip in home building reflects an industry that is naturally cyclical.
It s going to swing back, he said.
Mr. Wehrle said there is nowhere downtown for kids to play, nowhere for teenagers to hang out.
And above all else, Mr. Wehrle contends the suburbs still have a major advantage over urban areas in terms of safety and school quality.
There s a small population that desires to be in a downtown urban area, he said, but as long as there are still good roads and good schools, families will still live in the suburbs.
Contact Matthew Eisen at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6077.