City's Zero Energy Homes Prove Too Pricey for Montopolis

Energy efficient building project proves fiscally impractical for current neighborhood location

The Zero Energy Home developments were supposed to be similar to this home built recently by Austin Housing Finance Corporation as modified by Austin Energy Green Building Program architect Rich MacMath to meet Zero Energy Home efficiency requirements.
The Zero Energy Home developments were supposed to be similar to this home built recently by Austin Housing Finance Corporation as modified by Austin Energy Green Building Program architect Rich MacMath to meet Zero Energy Home efficiency requirements. (Photo By John Anderson)

The sun is about to set on the award-winning NetZero Energy Subdivision concept devised last year by Austin Energy's Green Building Program, the City of Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, and the Austin Housing Finance Corporation. The development was to have been located just off Riverside Drive, on an undeveloped swath of land in the Montopolis neighborhood, one of Austin's most disadvantaged areas. The electrically self-sufficient, solar-powered project promised the very latest in affordable, green homebuilding to a sector of the community in dire need of quality housing. In February, when the Chronicle last reported on the subdivision, city planners and observers were optimistic that something truly dynamic was taking place and a groundbreaking was expected later that month. Since then, following a series of budgetary hiccups, the project has been officially halted, leaving many wondering why a balance between zero energy construction and affordability can't be met in the Southeast Austin neighborhood.

The design for the subdivision is revolutionary, especially in sprawl-obsessed Texas, and would've been the first of its kind in the nation. The homes, which would have used photovoltaic solar panels and a host of efficiency features, were slated to produce at least as much energy as they consumed over a year's time, and would be offered at a price designed to be affordable to buyers who earn less than 60% of the area median family income. But after two rounds of bids for the subdivision's first phase came in over budget, officials are now indicating that Montopolis may not be the place for zero energy homes.

In his presentation Tuesday to the city Resource Management Commission, AE's Roger Duncan said work on the subdivision has stopped. "We're not giving up on the idea of zero energy homes, but we're having to look at other sites." Duncan said unforeseen and costly topographic limitations, like serious drainage issues and difficulty matching the homes' directional orientation (required for generating solar energy) with the location of existing water lines, made the subdivision's affordability goals impossible. The extraneous expenses, he said, made it extremely difficult to balance the cost of the efficiency measures needed for a zero energy home with the level of affordability the community is looking for.

"We're going to have to do a redesign to cut construction and infrastructure costs," said Richard Morgan, AE Green Building Program project manager. A re-evaluated zero energy project on a more suitable, probably East or Southeast Austin site that serves the "upper range of the low income bracket" is more likely, Morgan said. "We couldn't build homes that served the needs of the Montopolis neighborhood with the plans we had."

Among those saddened by this news is Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition Executive Director Karen Hadden. "All along we thought this was a brilliant concept. Now we're being told it can't be done. I don't think we should give up that easily," Hadden said. "It's important to combine affordability with zero energy because it's low-income people that need the low energy bills the most." She added that now is a good time for citizens to call the City Council and Austin Energy to tell them what they think.

Montopolis Neighborhood Alliance President Brad Joyner said, "A lot of people, including me, were excited about this development." He's disappointed that planners didn't at least proceed with the first phase of five homes that was set to break ground in February. "If I were these guys, I'd build three or six homes and get started. If they could do that, I guarantee there would be more demand than they could meet." Even if they lose money, he said, the act of simply building the zero energy homes would set an example. "The next guy is going to come along, see that this can be done, and find a better way of doing it. That's the American way. People have tenacity."

Julie Beggs, Austin Housing Finance Corporation's spokesperson, said zero energy homes haven't been entirely ruled out in Montopolis, but that the development's affordability is the overriding consideration. That's largely because the subdivision's federal and local funding is contingent upon all of the homes being affordable to buyers under the 80% median family income earnings mark. Duncan assured the Resource Management Commission that eventually the project's homes built in Montopolis will be of the green building variety and will be extremely efficient, if not zero energy. The subdivision's plans will be solidified one way or the other by the end of May, Beggs said. Until then, neighbors and clean energy advocates alike hope that this iconic project somehow, somewhere comes to fruition.

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