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Chicago's 'Green Bungalows' - 2002-08-07

Many Americans who are looking for a new home, buy an older dwelling and make improvements to it. One thing they usually learn is that old homes are not as energy-efficient or well insulated as newer homes. In Chicago, well-known for hot summers and bitterly-cold winters, four houses in one neighborhood have been rehabilitated using the latest in energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly technology.

The bungalows in the 6400 block of South Fairfield Avenue all look pretty much the same: squat, one-and-a-half story brick homes built close together. But house number 6421 is a bit different. It is heated and cooled with the help of water pipes running 137 meters into the Earth. "We are taking water through 450 feet (137 meters) of piping in the ground and sending it back to the furnace," says Annette Conti, a construction specialist with Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago. "In the summertime, the ground is acting like a heat sink. It takes the heat out of the water and sends cool water back into the house. A fan blows over that and creates the air conditioning. You will see it is comfortable and almost free."

The use of geothermal energy for heating and cooling is just one feature found in four so-called "green bungalows" on this block. Until last year, these four homes were vacant. Mary Fran Riley of Neighborhood Housing Services says her organization bought the homes in part to help keep the neighborhood from declining. "When you have a vacant building on a block, it is where the crime is; it is where there is danger," she says. "When you have four vacant buildings on a block, now you've got people saying, "When am I going to move? I am not fixing up my house. Look at what is going on. The neighborhood is going down."

Bungalows are among the best-known housing styles in Chicago. They comprise about a third of the city's single-family homes. Even the current mayor, Richard M. Daley, lived in one until just a few years ago.

Annette Marks of Neighborhood Housing Services says Chicago is encouraging residents to purchase and fix up old bungalows to preserve the homes and maintain healthy neighborhoods. Neighborhood Housing Services worked with the city and the local power company to make the homes it bought models of what can be done with bungalows, which many home buyers today think of as too small.

"Historic Chicago Bungalow Association kicked off their efforts about a year ago, to really preserve the bungalow as an important style of housing stock in the city of Chicago," she says. "They had been looking around for a place where they could do some models and show people how you could adapt the bungalow to fit the space needs of today's families."

Workers continue installing cabinets in the new kitchen as Annette Conti talks about the energy-saving features of the homes: solar panels on the roof produce about a third of the electricity for one of the homes, all have something called "retro-foam" to help insulate the walls. "It looks like shaving cream when it goes into the side wall," says Ms. Conti. "It sets right away and provides a little bit of protection from the winds as they blow through a brick house."

Between the bungalows, a narrow drain runs from the front yard to the back. Ms. Conti says these "trench drains" help water the homes' outdoor plants, while easing the burden on the neighborhood's storm sewers. "The idea with the trench drain is that it collects the water during the rain and then underground, we have a pipe that goes to this flowerbed and in the backyard there is a pipe going to another flowerbed," she says. "It sends the water there first. Any extra goes to the sewer, but it is important to capture the rain before it immediately floods the sewer line itself."

The attics are insulated with a material made from old newspapers and telephone books. One of the homes has wall insulation made of ground surplus denim. All have highly-efficient furnaces and water heaters.

One of the houses is heated in part by a series of hot-water pipes routed just under the ceramic flooring. Recycled material is used wherever possible: a couple of the homes have basement flooring made of a material that includes ground tires.

Wallboards were made by a company that collects scrap wallboard from construction sites, grinds it up and makes new panels. Walls are covered with something called, "low-VOC" paint, which exposes the painters to fewer potentially harmful fumes.

The city and Neighborhood Housing Services opened the homes to visitors on a couple of recent Saturdays. Annette Conti hopes they got ideas for rehabbing their own homes. "I think you do it because you love the Earth, you have an appreciation for your planet," she says. "Today, people make conscious choices when they buy products. So, if you have a choice between buying a low VOC [volatile organic compounds] paint or not, and it is just a few dollars more, it seems like the right thing to do."

Rehabbing the bungalows in an environmentally-friendly way cost about 15 to 20 percent more than a standard remodeling job. But, Ms. Conti says a lot of those extra costs can be recovered in less than ten years through lower energy bills.