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Sealing the Deal—and the Windows

Boise's plan to energize the Vista neighborhood through energy efficiency

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There's really only oneway to change a neighborhood: door-to-door.

"Welcome," said Steve Burgos, city of Boise environmental manager, extending a handshake at the doorway of 2108 Atlantic St. "This is it."

At first glance, the single-level, three-bedroom, one-bath house looks like scores of homes in the Vista neighborhood framed by Overland Road to the north, the New York Canal to the south, Federal Way to the east and Roosevelt Street to the west. However, this house, which is just south of Lemhi Street, will be a major topic of conversation in an area that has already generated a significant amount of buzz.

In April 2014, city leaders kicked off Energize Our Neighborhoods, an initiative to engineer change on several fronts: transportation, sustainability, health and community services, public safety, economic vitality, greater opportunity for kids and, perhaps, most important, housing. The first neighborhood to grab City Hall's attention was Vista, and key demographics drove much of the decision, including:

• Median household income in the neighborhood is approximately $35,551, compared to the citywide median household income of $49,313.

• While 44 percent of Boise school children are eligible for a free or reduced-price school lunch, that number increases to 68 percent at Hawthorne Elementary School and 85 percent at Whitney Elementary, the Vista neighborhood's two anchor gradeschools.

• The average assessed single family home value in the Vista area is $99,850 compared to a citywide average of $181,435.

• While 51 percent of homes citywide were built before 1979, that number rises to 61 percent in the Vista neighborhood.

The house at 2108 Atlantic St. lies smack dab in the middle of the stats.

"This home was built in 1961," said Beth Baird, city of Boise Air Quality Program coordinator, who is assisting in the Atlantic Street project. "But it has been at least three years since anyone lived here."

Baird and Burgos walked through the home, explaining how it and the land had been owned by the city for decade. A former resident had a mortgage with the city, but the property defaulted back to the city when the resident died.

The years will gradually fade away as the home is upgraded in a city-driven renovation that Burgos calls a "low cost/no cost" project to introduce energy efficiency and sustainability to the neighborhood.

"We're doing this to show the neighborhood how doable this can be," said Burgos.

In his City Hall office, Burgos mapped out the plan for the Atlantic Street home. Burgos has only worked in the public sector—and only for the city of Boise—for about a year. He was previously employed as an environmental services consultant for the nationwide environmental engineering firm of Brown and Caldwell.

"When you're in the private sector, the best analogy I can use is it's like being in a car, but you're in the passenger seat trying to give some directions to the driver. Maybe they listen to you, maybe they don't," said Burgos. "Now, I feel like I'm driving the car. I get to make really cool decisions. There are so many things happening in this building right now that will effect change at the local level."

A fair amount of those City Hall discussions are about the Vista neighborhood. For example, one of the city's other ambitious Vista initiatives is a partnership with the Boise School District to introduce pre-kindergarten learning at Hawthorne and Whitney elementary schools, which was launched Nov. 2.

"I've learned quite a bit about Vista since I've been here," said Burgos, "and the first thing I learned is how passionate the folks there are about their neighborhood. When I began sitting down with them, I was so impressed with how serious the neighbors are about effecting change."

A good amount of the change neighbors spoke about, according to Burgos, focused on sustainability, more energy-efficient households and lower utility bills.

"We want to demonstrate that there are very straightforward low-cost/no-cost things that we can do," he said. "But it's not all about bells and whistles. We can have all of the fancy upgrades but, meanwhile, we're acting out all these inefficient behaviors. I promise, if you focus on your behaviors first, it makes the upgrade much more cost effective."

Back at 2108 Atlantic St., Baird ticked off a laundry list of "major items" for the upgrade.

"There's no irrigation for the lawn, so we're definitely looking at some low-cost xeriscaping," she said. "But let's go inside."

Two key areas were immediately obvious: windows and insulation.

"Absolutely the windows," said Burgos, pointing to the first of multiple windows that will help seal in some efficiencies. Then he pulled up a trap door revealing an approximately three-foot crawl space under the house. "This floor was never sealed, so we're going to seal that up. The floors and ceiling have some of the old pink insulation. We're going to fill that space with foam insulation."

The tiny kitchen had already been gutted.

"Definitely some energy efficient appliances here," said Baird.

The home has been heated for decades by a combination electric/gas generator that is the size of a shack and sits right outside the home.

"This has got to go. We're going to go all-electric," said Burgos.

The backyard is extensive and presents plenty of opportunity.

"We're going to put in some raised beds for gardening and a composting area," said Baird. "This is going to be a pretty great little house."

Primarily, the city of Boise sees 2108 Atlantic St. as a working-class model for neighbors to walk through and see that energy efficiency is not a pipe dream that requires a bank loan before visiting Home Depot or Lowe's.

"Imagine people walking through the home, and we'll go from room to room showing them what we've done but then we'll give neighbors a series of options on windows, insulation, you name it," said Burgos. "Then, picture us showing them what happens the second that you turn on another set of lights or the dishwasher or an appliance. We're envisioning a demonstration that shows real-time impacts from the choices we make and the behaviors that we continue."

The city of Boise's commitment to the upgrades is approximately $50,000, with a fair amount of partners.

"We would love to see some graduate students, with an emphasis on environmental studies, possibly living in the home for a year to track much of how the change can benefit the neighborhood," said Burgos.

The change will happen sooner than later.

"We're hoping that much of our work is done by the time a lot of snow falls," said Burgos.

Just in time for the cold temperatures to put some of home's new efficiency to the test.

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