PHOENIX — It was built on a neighborhood street in northeast Phoenix, a sleek architectural diamond placed next to a cluster of boxy homes with the same red-tile roofs. This Environmental Showcase Home (ESH) speaks softly for a new kind of energy-conscious home in a desert booming with conventional construction.
But most builders and developers here, enjoying a staggering record of 90,000 conventional homes built in the last four years, have been turtle-slow to embrace the new concepts in the showcase house. So have most home buyers. The result, say some experts, is a rapidly spreading desert-housing empire headed for an environmental reckoning.
"The dilemma in an extremely competitive market," says Connie Wilhelm, president of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona, "is that it is too price sensitive to incorporate a lot of environmental features. Builders take baby steps, and the change won't happen overnight."
The ESH opened in February 1995, the idea of Arizona Public Service (APS), an electric utility concerned about future levels of energy consumption, water use, and waste in the valley.
The house was built as a kind of shopping center of ideas and newer building practices. By using mostly off-the-shelf materials and technology, along with housing concepts appropriate to the desert, APS wants to encourage a future filled with energy-conscious homes.
"This home proves that a home built to these standards is not just a dream," says Mark DeMichele, APS president. "[It] demonstrates that it is possible to build in personal values for conservation."
Over a 30-year period, for instance, a family living in the ESH would use some 2.3 million fewer gallons of water than a family in a conventional home.
Although some water experts say the valley has ample water now, others are concerned that the state's Central Arizona Project - a vast canal system carrying Colorado River water - will not provide enough water for homes and agriculture if the population doubles by 2020 to 4.2 million. Thousands of new homes will be built in an environment where water and energy use is increasingly critical.
But questioning what kind of homes are being built here has generally been a secondary issue. The top issue has been whether to restrain or encourage the sprawl of homes.
"Part of the problem in this kind of growth," says Matt Conley, an Arizona State University student and consultant at ESH, "is that no matter what builders and developers use to build houses in Phoenix, the houses will sell."
It may be a classic supply-and-demand situation here, but studies by APS in conjunction with the ESH discovered a disconnect between home buyers and the environment. Researchers found that most home buyers "do not normally associate environmental issues with the kinds of homes they purchase." Buyers want affordability.
'THE consumer is interested as long as it doesn't cost him money," says Ms. Wilhelm, citing a general example. "Yes, he will put out his recycling bin, but if you ask him: 'Do you want this [environmentally friendly] carpet for $4,000, or this one for $1,000?' I can tell you what he would say."
The ESH project, including land purchase, design, and multiple technologies, cost $2 million as a demonstration home. But, says Sally Haines, a spokeswoman at APS, "It would be in the $175,000 range on the market with all amenities." Cost comparison to a similar, conventional home, experts say, is not possible because cost and quality vary.
But Fred Holmes, a general contractor from Phoenix who built the ESH, thinks that many builders in the valley are more environmentally conscious than a few years ago.
"Even though the homes here tend to look too much alike," he says, "I think, overall, a better home is being built for the money today. The efficiency of the whole home is much better - the insulation, the products, the type of construction."
When the ESH was opened, David Pijawka, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Arizona State University, stated in a companion book to the ESH project that the present home climate here had "little public mandate for environmentally efficient homes," and that "buyers are unaware of the impact of their choices."
Today Mr. Pijawka sees a difference, at least in the view of some builders and developers because of ESH.
"Nearly every developer in the valley has gone through the showcase home," he says, "And there are several developers now that are building new subdivisions based on some of these principles."
For instance, the Del Webb Corporation signed an order for 37,000 yards of Enviro-Tech carpet to be used in a new subdivision. The carpet, made from recycled plastic soda bottles and milk jugs, is used in several of the ESH rooms.
"Del Webb saved about 1.4 million soda bottles from landfills," says Mr. Conley. The Enviro-Tech carpet costs no more than conventional carpet and reduces the need for oil, the standard raw material for carpeting.
Another valley builder, the T.W. Lewis Company, was the recipient of the first certification for building APS Good Cents Environmental Homes, an APS program, by using some of the elements in the ESH.
In a subdivision in North Phoenix, the company uses such items as low-flow plumbing fixtures; clerestory windows or high placed panes that allow more natural light; low volatile-organic-compound paints; and carpet adhesives free of toxic materials. Fly ash, a byproduct of burned coal, is incorporated into the concrete (thus keeping it from landfills).
Efficiency Elements of an Inventive House
With its echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright here and there, the Environmental Showcase Home in Phoenix was designed by architect Edward Jones to "reduce, reuse, and recycle." Even with its utilitarian and environmental purpose it is inventive, friendly, and homey.
The 2,640-square-foot home is situated on an east-west axis with reduced wall space exposed to the hottest rays of the sun, thus decreasing the level of air-conditioning needed. More and larger windows are on the north and south sides. With four bedrooms and three baths, it is designed to be 60 percent more energy efficient than conventional homes and use 60 percent less water.
Some other features of the home:
*A high-efficiency heat pump/water cooler for making hot water and cool air.
*Highly insulative, low "emissivity" windows to deflect heat outside and retain cool air inside.
*Concrete blocks filled with a polyurethane insulating foam that emits no CFCs.
*Organic fabrics and accessories.
*Interior paints and finishes that reduce indoor air pollution.
*"Graywater" recycling system (from sinks and bathtubs) and rainwater-harvesting system used to water the landscaping.
*Compressed, recycled newspaper insulation in the roof treated with fire retardant.
*A filtered vacuum system that collects dirt in a waste canister and expels clean air outside.
*Photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight into electricity to cut electric bills in half.
*Recycled steel studs in the interior walls.
*Solar hot-water heating.
*All cabinetry made from non-formaldehyde adhesives.