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Habitat house is not only low-cost - it's a triumph of principles

Three-month-old Chelsey sits in her carrier and works her pacifier with great passion as she studies windows and walls around her. She finds them interesting. But there's a lot she doesn't know yet about her new home.

Her mother, Theresa Boyce, knows more: This is a state-of-the-art home that is environmentally friendly and promises to be kind to the family's tight budget when it's time to pay utility bills. She's been told it's a first for Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity - and it will likely change the way the nonprofit organization provides housing for low-income people.Mostly, Boyce knows it's a dream come true for her family. For more than 15 years, she's lived in apartments. Most recently, she and four children, who range up to age 16, have crammed themselves into a one-bedroom apartment where people had to sleep on floors in very tight quarters.

About two years ago, Wayne Bingham of the American Institute of Architects Utah proposed the group collaborate with Habitat to design an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly house. About the same time, Boyce qualified for a Habitat home and started putting in sweat equity on other projects. She was racking up the work hours she'd need when it was her turn to get a home.

Habitat homes are built by volunteers, including families who will eventually own them. They are usually built from the ground up, although homes are occasionally moved and refurbished. The people who qualify to buy them pay a no-interest mortgage and that money is funneled back to build other homes.

The home that Boyce and her children will occupy at 799 S. Goshen St. marks the first time the AIA Utah has been involved. But it won't be the last, said director Elizabeth Mitchell during an open house Friday.

The passive-solar house's 1,100 square feet include three bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, dining and living room. The latter three face south to suck in winter sunshine. Overhangs block out that same sun during summer. Windows are double-glazed and have a special coating to reduce summer heat.

A tiny boiler, the size of a bread box, heats both culinary water and the water that runs under the floor through 1,200 feet of pipe to provide radiant floor heating. The concrete floor will be stained and sealed, but otherwise left bare except a few area rugs. Other enhancements include blown-in cellulose insulation and weather stripping and sealants provided by the Utah Office of Energy Services weatherization program.

In all, nearly 100 businesses and individuals are listed on an honor board in front of the house for contributing designs, materials, talents and construction time. The project began last April and will culminate when the Boyces move in next week.

Bingham and Mitchell are particularly proud of some of the materials used. The siding, called hardie board, is a mixture of wood chips and concrete that look like wood but don't shine or draw in heat as aluminum siding does. The baseboards and moldings look normal, but feel rubbery, created from gypsum and castor oil. Appliances are energy-efficient and use little water. Total monthly utilities should run about $40, according to Bingham.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature is the use of windows and lights. Windows above the main roof line in the clerestory provide light and cross ventilation, as do other windows and transoms.

"This is a house that is, in my opinion, a triumph of principles. It's a modest house," said Bingham. "But it belies a profound respect for the Earth and its movement around the sun."