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New homes could save water, building panel says

Some homebuilders are improving the water efficiency of homes during the drought.

Two developers — KB Home (NYSE: KBH) and Shea Homes — said at the annual PCBC homebuilders trade show this week that homes can be designed for efficiency, and continued building could be a good thing during a drought, despite calls from the public to slow construction.

New homes can demand 49,000 fewer gallons of water per year compared to homes built before 1980, said Jacob Atalla, vice president of sustainability initiatives at KB Home.

He suggested that calls for an end to home construction could actually keep water use up.

"New homes are part of the solution for what we're facing right now," Atalla said. "New homes are finding new water, in some sense."

Joining Atalla in a PCBC panel discussion Wednesday at the San Diego Convention Center was Don Hofer, Shea Homes' vice president of community and land development.

Hofer said Shea began looking at its portfolio of developments last year to find where it could institute change, and came up with several ideas about what would work with individual projects.

Not every project would be a candidate for complete sod removal, Hofer said. But those that weren't might benefit from subsurface irrigation or turf modifications that would plant native grasses.

Atalla said KB Home's journey in building more water-efficient homes dates back a decade.

In 2005, KB joined the Southern Nevada Water Authority in establishing Water Smart Homes, a voluntary program focused on efficiency both inside the home and in outdoor irrigation.

The program resulted in homes that saved 75,000 gallons of water a year compared to pre-1980 homes in the Las Vegas Valley, the Southern Nevada Water Authority said.

The Environmental Protection Agency has come out with its own voluntary program called WaterSense, which leverages relationships with utility, manufacturing and retail partners across the nation to promote products meeting certain water-saving standards.

That voluntary program, Atalla said, will result in average annual household water savings of 50,000 gallons, compared to an older home.

Since beginning its partnership with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, KB has built 10,000 Water Smart homes, Atalla said.

Combined with other KB homes that have been built with WaterSense indoor products, the cumulative water savings of the homes amounts to 3 million gallons of water a day, he said.

"That's finding new water," he said, adding that the changes are not only easy to implement in new homes, but easy to market to homebuyers. "You can tell them about the gallons saved, but we need to start telling them about the dollars saved, as well."

More opportunities to save water can be found outdoors. KB went from designing homes with green lawns to designing landscaping with rocks, and native vegetation and shrubs with drip irrigation.

Atalla said the homebuying consumer is getting used to such changes.

At KB Home's Sea Cliff development in Rancho Penasquitos, homes have limited turf, even synthetic turf, shrubs completely watered by drip irrigation and emerging technologies for recycling water.

The most notable feature, perhaps, of Sea Cliff is the whole-house water-recycling system, built by the Australian company Nexus eWater.

The system is installed on the side of every home at Sea Cliff, and takes used water from showers, sinks, washing machines and bathtubs and filters out solids and impurities to reuse as "gray water" suitable for landscaping.

"The Sea Cliff community, its landscaping is going to consumer 28,000 gallons [of water], but it's really zero," Atalla said, "because all that water will come from the gray water inside the home. … We will have zero freshwater for landscaping."

Building homes with such new technologies and designs aimed at reducing water use results in some increased costs for the homes — Nexus' product costs $10,000, for example — but Atalla said he hopes that as the state decides how to spend money from the recently passed $7.5 billion Proposition 1 water bond, some consideration will go toward providing incentives to homeowners for such upgrades.

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