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Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity plans most ambitious project to date

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On first glance, it would be hard to distinguish Hope Crossing from other suburban-styled communities being built across the metro. Located just north of Wilshire Boulevard off Kelley Avenue in North Oklahoma City, the neighborhood is similar to others designed by developers capitalizing on the growth of the city. But there is a big difference.

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The rows of houses lining the streets of Hope Crossing are being built by Habitat for Humanity and its army of volunteers. Those houses are also models for energy efficiency and environmental consciousness.

"We are the most energy efficient builder in the state," said Ann Felton, CEO and chairman of Central Oklahoma Habitat for Humanity. "This is the first time we've ever developed land, though. We were given 69 acres of land by Steve Hurst, and it was a gift from God, because we've known that we would need to develop property for all the buildings we have scheduled, but we didn't have the money."

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By the time the project is done, Felton said there will be 217 houses in the community. All but 30 of them will be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver-level certified. A big factor in that certification comes from geothermal units located in each house that were donated by Oklahoma City-based manufacturer ClimateMaster.

Construction superintendent John Fowler explained that geothermal works by drilling a 400-foot hole before the foundation is laid. A pipe is placed from the house, down to the bottom of the hole and back up, continuously running water. The constant temperature found deep underground helps regulate the temperature in the house year-round.

"There are other big benefits as far as environmental," Fowler said. "It uses a lot less electricity to operate, and there is a lot less refrigerant that is required in this unit as opposed to normal air conditioning units. The chances of that refrigerant being released into the atmosphere is also a lot lower."

Felton estimates the added costs of the energy efficiency upgrades at $15,000 per home, but that cost is more than offset by the fact that Habitat for Humanity's workforce is largely comprised of volunteers. She said prospective homeowners within the program must complete 300 hours of sweat equity before being eligible to buy a home.

Just because the workers aren't necessarily skilled coming in doesn't mean the homes they build are substandard.

"We've got this down to an art, so the houses come together really well," Fowler said. "The inspector that comes in to look at the houses also checks houses built for profit. He's said he's seen a lot more building problems with for-profit builders than these."

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The minimum income to buy a home through Habitat is $16,000, and there is also a maximum that is based on the size of the family. The houses are sold to the participants at well below market value, and Felton said participants must enter into a 10-year contract so they don't just turn around and sell the house for a profit. She said it isn't uncommon for mortgage payments to be cheaper than what the homeowners had been spending in rent.

"That frees them up to do other things, like piano lessons for the kids, go on vacation or just have a savings account for the first time in their lives," Felton said.

The energy efficiency of the house is boosted by the use of products like low-emissivity, argon-filled, double-pane vinyl windows; Icynene open-cell foam insulation; and compact fluorescent lighting, which prevents the loss of excess energy. That adds value to the house, but will also pay off in energy savings over the long term.

"We've done some studies on this," Felton said. "With the geothermal and all the other energy efficient aspects of the house, their energy bills are about half of what they would be otherwise."

Fowler has already seen those benefits pay off for some of the neighborhood's initial owners, specifically in the form of a BMW that sits in the driveway of a single mom's home. He said the car may look out of place in the community, but he saw what the homeowner had been driving when she first moved in while still working toward her college degree.

"The car she was driving at the time, she could barely get around in it. It was a terrible sight and she was hauling around her kids in it," he said. "She finally graduated and got a job. The energy savings and what she saved monthly on her house payment, it made it possible for her to drive her kids around in something a little bit nicer, and if she can find a good deal on a Beemer, I'm all for it." "Charles Martin

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