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Energy savings make Rifle housing project doubly affordable

By March 4, 2024No Comments

It was hugs and smiles all around at the dedication ceremony for the first two units of the Wapiti Commons affordable housing project in Rifle earlier this month. Habitat for Humanity leaders handed over house keys to the Lauffer and Quintana families while scores of Habitat workers, volunteers, donors and local dignitaries cheered.

Housing at Wapiti Commons will be affordable not only to buy but also to live in, thanks to an ongoing partnership between Garfield Clean Energy and Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork Valley to make the buildings as energy-efficient as possible.

We wrote about this potential “double bottom line” when the Wapiti project first broke ground, and it was exciting to see it finally being realized that day in Rifle. The energy and financial savings, the onsite solar and the resulting net-zero status have all played out more or less as envisioned – thanks to a lot of hard work and attention to detail.

Garfield Clean Energy’s involvement in Wapiti began early on, when Habitat RFV president Gail Schwartz invited us to help make the project net-zero – meaning that the buildings generate at least as much energy as they consume, with no net production of greenhouse gas emissions.

GCE provided the services of Heidi McCullough, buildings specialist for CLEER, the nonprofit that manages GCE’s programs. During the design phase, Heidi’s role was to recommend a package of technologies and materials that together would meet the net-zero standard, model the system to ensure that it did, and spec the major components.

Her recommendations started with building envelopes that were insulated, sealed and ventilated above building code, so as to minimize the amount of space heating and cooling energy required. Heating, cooling and hot water would be provided by heat pump systems, which run on electricity and operate much more efficiently than gas units. Kitchens would be equipped with electric induction cooktops and other efficient appliances. All the units would be “EV ready,” meaning their electric panels would be configured for easy installation of a home electric vehicle charger. And a rooftop solar system would be sized to supply as much electricity as the development was projected to consume on an annual basis.

You might say that was the easy part. During construction of the project’s first phase, Heidi’s job became much more hands-on as she ensured that the reality matched the modeling. As a certified home energy rater, she made frequent onsite visits to inspect the installation of ventilation equipment, conduct blower-door tests to find and seal up leaks, adjust heat pump controls, beef up insulation, replace some appliances, test for radon and more.

All that quality control was worth it. The finished first building has received an official Home Energy Rating System, or HERS, score of -7, which is slightly better than net zero. (HERS is a national standardized rating system where a positive number means the building uses energy, while a negative number means it’s a net energy producer.) Meanwhile, the building’s lucky residents can expect to pay nothing for energy other than the monthly utility connection fee, and HERS modeling projects that they’ll save $3,000 worth of energy annually compared to what a conventional condo of the same size would use.

Heidi had another good reason for being a stickler about the project’s energy-efficiency features: meeting them would qualify the project for Xcel Energy’s EnergyStar New Homes rebate. That rebate is worth a tidy $17,000 per unit, or a total of $340,000 if all the units qualify.

In the final analysis, Wapiti Commons is not only meeting expectations, it’s beating them. The original goal was to create an affordable housing development that was more affordable to live in (thanks to energy savings) without costing any extra to build. The energy-saving features in turn made the project even more affordable to build, and Habitat RFV will be able to carry those savings over to its next project in Glenwood Springs.

“This is a great demonstration of what we need more of,” says Heidi. “It’s affordable housing that meets a community need, it’s affordable living for the families that occupy these units, it’s buildings that impose less impact on the environment, and it’s an example of what we can and should be doing with all our buildings, not just the affordable ones.”

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