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Residential construction financed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority must now meet certain federal energy-saving standards. The rules apply to any project that didn't already have drawings by January 2008, but don't affect renovations.

"There's no question that [this] makes sense to do," says Matt Smuts, the URA's sustainable-design coordinator.

The URA is asking developers to meet the standards of the Energy Star program, a joint federal effort by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to establish standards of energy efficiency in products and buildings.

Energy Star lists effective insulation, high-performance windows, tight construction, efficient heating and cooling equipment, and qualified products (such as lighting fixtures) as the primary features of an Energy Star home.

Smuts says that Energy Star homes are generally 15 to 30 percent more efficient than other new homes, and 30 percent to 40 percent more efficient than existing houses.

While adhering to the federal guidelines may increase the cost of construction slightly, Smuts says that it need not, and that Energy Star designs can actually save money by eliminating over-sized, unnecessary heating and cooling units.

The URA provides "a number of construction loan and grant 'gap' financing programs ... [for] small and large-scale new construction," according to its Web site.

The new rules could cause a spike in the number of efficient homes in the area.

Right now there are 226 Energy Star-qualified homes in Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs, according to the EPA's Jon Passe. Of those, 180 were built in 2007.

Smuts says that the URA provided funding to the construction of 50 stand-alone houses and between 300 and 600 multi-family units, apartments or attached condos in 2007.

The Pittsburgh Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit offshoot of the URA, has already developed a pilot program in Hazelwood, with two duplexes and two single-family units under construction.

In home certification, there are two paths for achieving Energy Star status. There's the prescriptive path, which Smuts likens to a menu or checklist, in which developers review and meet builder options as they go. And then there's the performance path, in which construction can deviate from the prescribed course, so long as the end result is still energy-efficient.

"The way to get that is energy modeling," Smuts says. In energy modeling, an inspector plugs a house's specifications into some software to determine whether the design will meet the minimum standards for Energy Star.

"It gives you a little more flexibility in terms of how you get there," Smuts said at a Feb. 8 meeting of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group's Vacant Property Working Group.

No matter which path a developer chooses, however, all Energy Star projects must be inspected during and after construction by a certified third-party Home Energy Rating System (HERS) inspector -- which Smuts estimates could range in cost from $600 to $800.

Inspections measure the air tightness and leakage of the building, as well as the tightness of its ducts.

Curt Magnuson, of Palladio DaVinci Ltd., one of the few HERS-certified inspectors in Pittsburgh, says the EPA's standards for site inspections became more stringent in 2006. Still, in the four years that Palladio DaVinci has been performing inspections, he's had only one house that didn't pass -- and in that case, it was the client's choice not to proceed with certification.

Smuts says that while he's heard people estimate that commercial properties cost 2 percent more when designed to Energy Star standards, he hasn't seen a comparative number for residential homes.

Henry Hanson, of Hanson Design Group Ltd., the architect for the Hazelwood units, says that the added costs come from better insulation and mechanical systems, but amount to a maximum price increase of only 5 percent, and that "there's generally very rapid payback" in utility savings.

"Ideally there shouldn't be any added costs," Smuts says. "There could be cost savings."

"It's just a matter of doing things differently," Hanson adds. "When you're dealing with affordable housing like Hazelwood, [the cost difference] is really pretty marginal."

Smuts says that the next step for the URA would be to implement a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Homes rating system, which is developed by the U.S. Green Building Council and encompasses more aspects of green design, such as the building's overall environmental impact on its specific site.

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