Eco-friendly small-town America

Sarah Gardner Aug 23, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: You’ve heard of the EPA, right? Purveyor of environmental rules and regulations at the federal level. States have their own version of environmental watchdogs. And their own protection mandates. Next stop, the city council. Smaller cities across the country are beginning to demand cleaner energy and building codes. They’re getting it, too. And those “green” cities aren’t limited to what you might assume to be the more eco-minded pockets of the country — California or the Pacific Northwest. Marketplace Sustainability reporter Sarah Gardner visited one right in the heart of Bush country.

SARAH GARNDER: That’s the soundtrack for the city of Frisco, Texas. Since the 1990s, this exurb north of Dallas has exploded in new homes, shopping malls and people.

JOHN LETTELLEIR:“Back in 1990 we had a population of about 6,000 people and today we’re just over 88,000 and expect to be about 120,000 by the year 2010.”

John Lettelleir is planning director for this boomtown. There’s plenty more land for growth here and Lettelleir says people who move to Frisco want big houses. Average home size? 3,500- to 4,000 square- feet. Only trouble is, most folks in this hot and humid climate run air conditioning eight months a year.

JEFF WITT:“A friend of mine lives in a house that was built in the 60s. And they’re paying a $762 monthly bill for last month — electric bill.”

Jeff Witt is Frisco’s environmental administrator. In 2001, at Witt’s urging, Frisco became the first city in the country to mandate that all new homes meet Energy Star standards. If a house carries the federal government’s Energy Star label that generally means it’s 15-30 percent more efficient than standard codes, sometimes more.

WITT:“We had tremendous growth and, no pun intended, we wanted to insulate our citizens from the rising cost of energy. And we also wanted to provide the best homes that we can to our new citizens.”

In a high-end subdivision in Frisco, home inspectors are setting up special fans in a newly-built house to make sure it meets Energy Star standards.

MICHAEL SOUTH:“So we’re coming in at about 31.20 cubic-foot-per-minute of air flow.”

Inspector Michael South is testing the leakiness of this five-bedroom, four-bath McMansion. The more air that escapes the house and its duct system, he explains, the more it costs to cool it.

The builder, Texas-based Darling Homes, prides itself on its energy-efficient construction, including special heat-resistant windows and highly efficient air conditioning systems. It all costs more up front, as much as $3,000 more, according to marketing manager Blake Barkoskie. But she says homeowners make up that expense by saving on future energy bills. Barkoskie say a more energy-efficient home, like the one under inspection here, can also boost resale value down the road.

BLAKE BARKOOSKIE:“So if you can come to the market with more to offer on your home and say, ‘We’ve got this, it’s energy efficient. Your seven-year-old home is more efficient than a brand new home in some communities.’ Then, it’s a boon for the buyer and the seller.”

Energy Star homes can be found all over the country but they’re particularly popular in the Southwest, where new housing construction is booming. Last year 160,000 new homes met Energy Star’s standards.

SAM RASHKIN:“That represented about 10 percent of the nation’s housing starts.”

Sam Rashkin is national director for Energy Star’s homes program.

RASHKIN:“Some markets we have very little presence and other markets it can be as high as 40 to 60 percent of housing starts.”

But none of those cities, including Las Vegas and Houston, have mandated the program like Frisco. The city’s green building program has attracted national attention. Jeff Witt says sometimes people are surprised that this red-state city has gone so green. But for him, it goes beyond politics.

WITT:“I think it just shows vision as a community.”

Of course, a more energy efficient vision might involve fewer of those McMansions that are so popular here. More house, of course, means more energy use in the first place.

But this is Texas, after all, where bigger is often seen as better, including a three-car garage.

In Frisco, Texas, I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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