27 June 2010

Pittsburgh Home to Harness Sunlight

Philly dot Com

PITTSBURGH - When Michael Merck's Pennsylvania remodeling crew is finished, sunlight that once streamed through dusty cracks in a vacant East Liberty home will strike a solar panel array capable of generating enough energy to support a family of five.

At least, that's the goal the owner of West Penn Energy Solutions set for himself in a novel bid to transform a deteriorating 100-year-old shell of a house into a Zero Energy Home , a "green" living space that produces as much energy as its occupants consume in a year.

"We want to show that we can take this great example of Pittsburgh housing stock and convert it into something as energy efficient or more energy efficient than what people are building new," said Merck, 32, of Regent Square.

Work began in March on the North St. Clair Street home and could be finished by year's end.

Merck hopes to sell the five-bedroom house for about $265,000. He'll list it for sale soon before it's finished in case a buyer wants his company to customize it.

Since minimal air will be able to enter or escape, Merck will use special wall paints and wood stains that emit little or no toxic gas. Rain barrels outside will catch water to irrigate the lawn and garden. Solar-thermal panels mounted atop awnings over two master bedroom windows will block some sunlight, yet catch enough to heat a water tank in the basement equipped with a 400-gallon reservoir. Sun-heated water will flow to showers, sinks and the wood-floored home's radiators.

Merck said the annual cost for electrical service and heating the home will be less than $300.

One drawback: No air conditioning, but a ventilation system will bring in cool, fresh air and exhaust stale air. A single window-mounted air conditioner could cool the entire house, if the owner installed one, he said.

"This really is Michael's dream and his initiative to do a net-zero energy house, and it's one of our core principles, so we're happy to be working with him on this Pennsylvania home remodeling project," said Nate Cunningham, director real estate for the nonprofit East Liberty Development Inc.

ELDI owns the house, but it has worked out a unique business deal with Merck and with two other developers: father-and-son-team Albert and Chas Suter and, separately, Thomas Bencho, who are renovating homes on North Euclid Avenue and Beatty Street, respectively.

The nonprofit purchased the vacant homes typically in economically depressed or crime-prone areas , and gave the small developers an option to renovate and sell them for a profit. Cunningham said ELDI is slowing creating a market for higher-priced homes with the goal of creating a mixed-income neighborhood of homeowners and renters.

"What we liked about them was they're not making us pay anything up front," Chas Suter said. "When we go to close with a buyer is when we pay them for the house and we pay a finder's fee."

The Suters are the first to nearly complete renovations to a house on North Euclid. Theirs is not a net zero-energy house. They preserved a stick-and-ball staircase, pine wood floors and created a master suite. The asking price is $239,900.

"It allows them to continue their mission of bringing homeownership back to East Liberty, and it allows Pennsylvania remodeling contractors with limited resources to renovate a property ... and sell it," said Coldwell Banker real estate agent Holly Sisk, who is working with the Suters.

Cunningham said a real estate market analysis shows there are few who own homes worth between $150,000 and $300,000 in East Liberty. ELDI is changing that.

Three of six homes on North Euclid that ELDI helped to build are sold or under contract. Each falls in or above that price range. People want to live near the improving Penn Avenue corridor, he said, which offers easy access to Whole Foods, Border's, Trader Joe's, a planned Target, and other retail and commercial gems.

ELDI has nine more homes it could offer to small developers.

"We are getting the pioneers now, but we are seeing a pick up in momentum from home buyers," Cunningham said.

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