Florida plugs more houses into the sun

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Although it carries the name of Sunshine State, Florida has been rather lackluster in the solar arena. But now a new state law, a major solar commitment by a national home builder, and aggressive action by an Orlando-area builder are sending out strong signals that the state may finally be making a backstetch bid to become the nation's solar front-runner.

Trend-setting California has long been leagues ahead of Florida in using its solar resources for more than just tourist promotions. Late last year, however, a new energy code was adopted by Florida legislators that turned the heads of alternative-energy proponents all across the United States.

Moreover, Centex Corporation, ranked by Professional Builder magazine as the nation's No. 2 builder, has committed itself to build $275 million worth of south Florida homes that will feature solar-hot-water heating as standard equipment.

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Florida's solar proponents have felt that the only way the state's solar industry could experience necessary growth would be to hook solar into the building industry.

Not long ago the very idea of uniting such a liberal-sounding technology as solar with that conservative trade would likely have caused the state's op builders to double up laughing. These days, however, few builders are laughing.

The new-home market is soft, yet the solar homes are selling.

The state's model energy-efficiency code sets down requirements that make solar technology downright attractive. Thus, builders are attending state-sponsored seminars that cover solar; funnelling through the subdivisions that feature solar; and seriously considering retooling their home-building machines.

Surprisingly, New York and New Jersey are the second- and third-ranking states in terms of solar activity, according to Shirley Hayes of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association. She and other energy experts feel the state has not felt the fuel pinch to the degree of many of the other states and therefore has been sluggish in supporting solar.

"Officials in other states have been more outspoken on the energy situation and they have taken more action," she says. Miss Hayes reads a statement by a New York official which recently appeared in a Department of Energy newsletter: "The home-building industry is where the American automobile industry was a couple of years ago -- making energy hogs and unable to sell them. The home builders are just lucky that Japan doesn't [export] houses here."

Nonetheless, Miss Hayes and other solar proponents in the Sunshine State are encouraged by Florida's new energy code.

New buildings and certain renovation projects must now meet energy standards, and home buyers are able to compare the energy efficiency of homes. The rating is based on a scale of 100, which no new home may exceed. The lower the rating the more efficient the home.

Insulation ratings, window design, solar, and a variety of other energy-related items carry specific values which are plugged into the equation.

"Florida has adopted an energy-efficiency code that seems to be innovative in that it offers that kind of point system which gives you options and is also very easy to administer," explains Gerry Mara, a policy analyst for the Center, for Renewable Resources in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Mara adds that there has been a lot of interest in Florida's system, not only by other states, but by national groups interested in getting a national energy standard.

"But it doesn't look like there is going to be a national energy standard," he says. "The administration has come out against it."

Mara says his nonprofit group supported the Building Energy Performance Standard, but the home-building industry was against it.

"The Florida code is very good," asserts Grant P. Thompson, senior associate with the Conservation Foundation, a nonprofit research and education institution also based in the nation's capital. "And I think the most interesting part is how they have gotten the entire building industry there behind it," he adds.

Mr. Thompson is alluding to the fact that rather than just write an energy code, Florida legislators asked the state's home builders to help them draft it.

"What standards like those in Florida do is begin that process of educating the builders," he continues. "I think the public is a lot less conservative than the builders think. In our area the more innovative houses -- those that are better insulated, have double glazes, and take into account solar loading -- are the houses that sell.

"What the code down there is going to do is push people toward buying those kinds of houses and the builders will have courage to go beyond the code." Then he adds that the "heavy financial pressure on the builder generally makes it unattractive to experiment."

When the new code was still looming on the horizon, Centex broke ground on a 2,500-home energy-efficient subdivision in the Miami area. Each home features a solar water heater as a standard part of the energy package, according to Charlie Waggenheim, director of construction for Centex in Florida and the driving force behind the project.

"It is my understanding that the commitment Centex Homes in Florida Inc. has made [to solar] down here is probably the largest in the Southeast, probably east of the Mississippi," he says. In addition to the Miami project, the firm is putting in about 900 more of those homes in the Palm Beach area.

Mr. Waggenheim declares that the Centex home office "is definitely watching us to see how it works out. And if things work out well, there will probably be strong interst in doing something similar in California and Denver."

But the situation in Orlando may be the most telling. It is there that a local firm, GM Builders Inc., has dedicated itself to energy efficiency in buildings. Local and state news media have carried the story about the progressive independent builder who pioneered the affordable energy-efficient concept in central Florida.

"When other builders found out I was going to build a subdivision featuring solar and other energy-saving features and sell them for under $50,000 apiece, they said it couldn't be done. But we have done it and probably every builder in the area has come through these homes to see how we are doing it," asserts Leon Mausser, president of the company.

Each house at the firm's South Pine Run subdivision features an 82-gallon solar-hot-water system by Rheem, extra-heavy insulation, double-paned tinted windows, and a list of other energy-saving items.

On Florida's energy code scale of a maximum of 100, the houses average below 50, which Mr. Mausser believes is the best energy rating available for that price of new home in the state. GM Builders is experimenting with a natural cooling system in one of its homes and is preparing to break ground on the area's first multifamily solar complex.

Both Mausser and Thompson agree that the home-buying public is not conservative.

"Solar," says Mausser, "is a basic concept that is very effective. And we are getting a tremendous number of people coming through just because they happen to see the solar collectors. We are selling a lot of houses when you consider the availability of money."

Realizing that energy-efficient homes have substantial appeal in central Florida, William Hargreaves, an English developer, contracted GM Builders to build an entire 130-home subdivision for him. Mr. Hargreaves is billing the homes as "legends in their own time," based on the energy features.

According to Mausser, the solar system alone knocks 20 percent or more off the utility bill. And, he says, families living in three-bedroom homes paid as low as 96 cents a day for electricity during the state's cold snap last winter, which in many cases doubled electric bills for families living in traditional housing.

It's that kind of information that is drawing builders and buyers alike into these "homes for the future."

The early result seems to be what legislators and solar proponents had hoped for.

Clearly, the houses are stimulating the energy consciousness of builders and consumers alike and are expected to save inestimable amounts of oil and put new meaning in the nickname Sunshine State.

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