Solar: Volunteers are renovating a 19th century rowhouse with passive solar energy and new insulation that will reduce its old winter heating bill from $500 to $100.


July 21, 1996|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Southwest Visions Inc., a nonprofit agency that has been working 12 years to bring housing to low-income residents in Southwest Baltimore, has a new ally in its fight for affordable homes: the sun.

Solar heat and other energy-saving devices are being installed in a city rowhouse that the agency is renovating to sell to a low-income family later this summer. The aim is to lower energy costs and make it easier to own the home, says Thomas A. Brinker, program director at Southwest Visions.

"This is a model for how we'd like to do housing in the future," he says while standing in the gutted 19th century house at 1321 W. Pratt St.

In the past, Southwest Visions focused primarily on providing affordable rental units. But working with Gaithersburg home designer John W. Spears, the agency is changing its focus to encourage homeownership by making houses affordable to buy and maintain.

When the owner donated the 1321 W. Pratt St. property to Southwest Visions in July, it was a true handyman's special. The windows were cracked, insulation was lacking. The inefficient oil furnace racked up heating bills of $500 a winter. "This house started out as an extremely inefficient house," Spears says.

But with the help of volunteers, corporate donors and a $25,000 loan from the Marianist Sharing Fund, the house is being transformed.

A rear garage has been torn down to make room for a sun room addition, the entrance has been moved from the front to the side, and a third bedroom added.

When the work is done, there will be a galley-style kitchen, a dining area, a skylight, a master bedroom with a walk-in closet and a balcony overlooking the sun room.

The passive solar heating system will augment a new gas furnace. During the winter, sunlight will pour into the south-facing rear windows, heating bricks on the floor of the sun room and on the walls of the living room.

During the summer, the sun's rays will be blocked by a vine-covered trellis above the windows that will help keep the house cool.

Other energy-saving features include insulation made of ground newspaper and treated with a fire retardant, tinted windows, energy-efficient light bulbs and water-saving faucets and toilets.

"This home, over its lifetime, will save an incredible amount of energy," Brinker says.

Heating bills are expected to drop from $500 a winter to less than $100. That may not seem like a significant amount of money to some homeowners, but it can make a big difference to a poor family, says Nancy Van Horn, a member of the Southwest Visions' board of directors.

"You can get them in [a home] despite their having a low income, but then they can't keep up with the utilities," she says.

But the house at 1321 W. Pratt St. will be more than energy efficient. It also will be resource efficient, notes Spears, president of Sustainable Design Group, which has been devising ways to make homes more efficient for more than 20 years.

The tile, carpet, glass and radiators in the house have been recycled. The wooden floor previously covered a gymnasium at a local private school. And most of the work on the project is being donated by about 75 volunteers from area churches.

As a result, Southwest Visions will be able to sell the house for $42,000 -- significantly less than the $55,000 similar houses bring in the neighborhood.

Originally, Southwest Visions had considered installing a more active solar heating system that would have used solar panels to heat the home, but the cost would have been prohibitive. Even the passive system being installed will add about $10,000 to the cost of the renovation, Brinker says.

"We don't expect people to go out and retrofit their homes with solar," he says.

In fact, officials with BGE say that solar is usually too costly for most homeowners, although they encourage residents to use many of the other energy-saving techniques that will be employed at 1321 W. Pratt St.

Caulking and weather stripping around doors and windows can save nearly 20 percent on winter heating bills, and replacing an oil furnace with a more efficient gas one can save up to 30 percent on heating costs, says Tim Jahnigen, director of field sales at BGE.

Even something as simple as insulating a water heater can knock $2 a month off a utility bill, he says.

Spears agrees that not every home renovation ought to include a solar heating system, but he says that the sun's potential energy ought to be considered in an overall design.

"Solar is not something separate that you decide to add or not," he says. "All houses are built in the sun. You need to maximize the benefits."

The solar heating system that will be in the Southwest Visions house serves more than one function, Spears points out. Besides helping to heat the home, the south-facing windows, open foyer and exposed brick add to the home's beauty. "It would have been a dark, depressing place to live," he says.

"This is an integrated design. This is a high-quality design with minimal energy costs."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.