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New Jersey Town Looks to Build Energy-Efficient Housing

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New Jersey Town Looks to Build Energy-Efficient Housing

Environment

New Jersey Town Looks to Build Energy-Efficient Housing

New Jersey Town Looks to Build Energy-Efficient Housing

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Low-income residents of Patterson, N.J., may one day move into homes with energy bills that are practically nothing. The houses will be super-efficient, and include solar panels that will allow the residents to sell power back to their local utility companies during the summer months. Planners say the houses don't cost much more to build than traditional homes.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

When sick workers go home, some may at least arrive in houses that are healthy for the environment. You're hearing workers building a model home in Patterson, New Jersey. The house displays all the latest in eco-friendly, or green, technology; insulation, solar panels, energy efficient plumbing. It's expected to cost almost nothing to heat and cool each year. These systems have been widely available for upscale homes, but Patterson is planning on going green for 3,000 units of low-income housing.

Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON: When this model home in Patterson is finished, the residents will be able to stand outside on a sunny day and watch their electric meter run backwards.

By selling power to the electric company, they can offset their energy costs on the dark days of winter, creating what is called a near-zero energy home.

JACK ARMSTRONG: Who better to live in homes that don't have a very expensive energy bill than people who don't have a lot of money?

SOLOMON: Jack Armstrong is the coordinator of this project for BASF, which makes the materials used to create the shell of the building. In a crafty bit of marketing and philanthropy, BASF is donating materials and labor to prove that a high-tech, low-energy house can work in a poor city like Patterson. These houses cost about 3 to 6 percent more to build, yet save much more in energy and maintenance over the lifetime of the mortgage.

The house turns the story of the three little pigs on its head. It's built with featherweight white Styrofoam blocks, yet Armstrong says once concrete is poured in the center, it's so sturdy it's hurricane-proof.

ARMSTRONG: Most people think, you know, building out of foam for a home seems kind of a strange idea.

SOLOMON: Armstrong gives tours to builders, housing developers, mortgage companies, and local leaders, to explain how the house works. The foam blocks and pre-fab walls with rigid foam insulation create a nearly airtight exterior, while ultra-thin solar panels on the roof generate energy.

ARMSTRONG: So, what we're trying to show nowadays is, certainly the consumer loves the cheap energy bill, but the problem is, the builders don't pay the electric bill. So they don't want to really change what they're doing.

SOLOMON: Affordable, green housing developments are a growing trend and expected to become the way most homes are built in the future.

The Patterson house has the seal of approval of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit coalition that promotes environmentally friendly projects. Scott Chrisner, of the New Jersey Chapter, says the Styrofoam building materials have been tested to ensure they don't foul the environment when being produced, are healthy to live in, and wouldn't emit any toxic fumes if the house were to catch on fire.

SCOTT CHRISNER: I'd rather use this product than cut down the amount of trees that we have to cut down to frame it normally. It, you know, it takes 60 to 80 years to grow another tree.

SOLOMON: Any kind of material can be used to finish the interior or exterior, so the Styrofoam is hidden. And centuries from now, Chrisner says, when a foam house falls down or needs to be demolished, it would still meet stringent green standards. Most of the materials are 100 percent recyclable.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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