Whitley County project producing houses with little or no energy costs

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 28, 2012 

EMLYN — If things go as planned, Ashley Warren and Anthony Spicer won't pay an electric bill at their new home in Whitley County. They'll be getting a check from the power company instead.

The couple and their three daughters recently moved into a house designed to use 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a conventional home.

The house also has solar panels on the roof that generate power to sell back to the electric company.

Spicer said the electric bill at the house they rented before moving averaged $350 to $370 a month.

"It's going to mean everything" to get rid of that payment, Spicer said. "We're going to be able to buy things we couldn't normally buy because of this."

The couple's home is one of five in Whitley County designed and built using what are known as "passive house" standards.

The standards incorporate techniques and technology to cut energy use, including a building exterior that is virtually airtight, super-insulation throughout the structure, triple-glazed windows, highly efficient appliances and a ventilation system that recovers energy as it circulates air.

With the combination of high efficiency and solar power, the homes are considered near zero-energy structures, meaning they are designed to generate about as much power as they use.

The development is on the cutting edge of energy efficiency. It is thought to be the largest collection of houses in the state built to passive house standards.

Fewer than 40 structures nationwide — and none yet in Kentucky — have been certified as meeting the stringent standards, according to the Passive House Institute US.

"It's certainly a unique project," said Michael T. Hughes of CSC Design Studio in Lexington, who works as a consultant to the developer.

The plan is to seek certification for the five new homes in Whitley County, which are ringed by hills in the community of Emlyn, south of Williamsburg.

Jerry Rickett, president and CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. in London, pushed to develop the cluster of homes.

Kentucky Highlands works to improve the economy in 22 Appalachian counties in Kentucky.

Rickett has advocated housing programs as one way to do that.

In another project, Kentucky Highlands commissioned the design of an energy-efficient modular home that could be built at houseboat factories in southern Kentucky.

The goal is to boost those plants, which suffered during the recession, and component makers in Kentucky while providing energy-efficient housing.

Replacing homes that are not efficient to heat and cool is a way to create jobs, improve local tax rolls and cut the amount of money homeowners have to spend, Rickett said.

"We hope that we've changed the lives of several families" with the near zero-energy home project, he said.

Kentucky Highlands pursued building the homes in part to demonstrate the technology and learn how to apply it to more conventional houses, said Tom Manning-Beavin, director of housing for Kentucky Highlands.

"Our hope is to emerge from it with a lot of learning," Manning-Beavin said.

The houses have three bedrooms, two bathrooms and one larger space for the living room, kitchen and dining area. They measure 1,280 square feet.

At a construction cost of about $200,000, many people wouldn't be able to afford them.

However, Manning-Beavin said the building costs were lower on the later houses because of the lessons from the first one, and there are opportunities to cut costs further.

Kentucky Highlands and partners bundled federal grants and loans and other funding to build the houses and keep the purchase price affordable for low- to moderate-income buyers.

The corporation sold the houses for the assessed value, which was a maximum of $115,000, Manning-Beavin said.

Kentucky Highlands had more than 40 partners in the project, including federal and state agencies, colleges and non-profit groups.

The corporation chose Emlyn for the development because the area gets electricity from the Tennessee Valley Authority, allowing the new homeowners to take part in a TVA program to buy solar power from small producers.

Interest in passive-house construction is increasing in Kentucky and around the country, according to people familiar with the standards.

The Passive House Institute US has certified only 34 structures in the country as meeting the standards, but it has received about 50 more requests for certification this year, said Mike Knezovich, an official at the institute.

The interest is being driven by concern for the environment and rising electricity costs.

"We'll get to the point where this kind of design, this kind of construction, this type of energy efficiency, will make a lot of sense," Manning-Beavin said.

It costs more to build to passive house standards than to conventional codes.

However, the investment pays off through lower energy bills, said Ginger Watkins, sustainable building specialist with Kentucky Habitat for Humanity.

Watkins, who is overseeing construction of a Habitat house in Berea built to passive house standards, and Hughes, who works with the Kentucky Highlands project, are certified passive-house consultants.

Watkins said the electric bill last winter at a Habitat house in the Morehead area built with passive-house standards was $15 a month.

U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, who spoke at a dedication for the near zero-energy development in Whitley County last week, said the houses are a "harbinger of the future."

"I really believe here in Emlyn ... we're looking at an event that could shake the rest of the country, and shape it," Rogers said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1

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