- Associated Press - Saturday, February 22, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - A new Habitat for Humanity house in north Minneapolis is the group’s first home built to use solar energy for heating, cooling and hot water.

University of Minnesota architecture students designed the house to be “Net Zero,” meaning it generates at least as much energy as it uses. It’s part of a larger project that aims to build 100 energy-efficient, eco-friendly homes within five years, Minnesota Public Radio reported (http://bit.ly/1cC5SXw ).

“We always build as efficiently as we can,” said Matt Haugen, a spokesman for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. “But this is above and beyond what we normally do.”

The house cost $213,000 to build. The more traditional Habitat house next door cost $160,000.

Part of the additional cost comes from insulation. The new house is insulated at least three times as much as a regular house, sealed extremely well to keep drafts out, and the windows are positioned strategically to bring in the most natural heat from the sun aside from the solar panels, said Dan Handeen, a University of Minnesota architecture who led students in designing the house.

The house is also equipped with an energy-recovery ventilator. Before it vents air out of the home it extracts the heat, which it adds to the fresh air circulating in, Handeen said.

“This is higher quality indoor air than most buildings, by far,” he said.

It’s also taller and its roof is steep, giving the solar panels better access to sunlight.

Sarah Olson said she cried when she heard her family had been matched to the three-bedroom house. Her old apartment was too small and infested with bed bugs, and now she finally has a stable, affordable home with space for her three children to play.

Habitat for Humanity matches homes to families who have an income 30 percent to 60 percent of the area median income - in this case, $27,000 to $53,000 for a family of five. The families have to volunteer time to help Habitat with construction and other work, and pay back the mortgage, although it’s interest-free.

As part of their application Olson said she and her husband wrote about how the house would help them live more independently, and rely less on conventional energy sources.

And despite the energy efficiency, Olson still reminds the kids to turn off the lights when they leave the room.

“I tell them, ‘It’s going to be yours - take care of it now,’” she said.

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org