Construction Near for ‘Smart Neighborhood’ in Chicago Suburb

While digging has not yet started on the Habitat Green Freedom subdivision on Aurora’s far West Side, officials at Nicor Gas are already touting its eventual success.

Nicor, which provides natural gas to 2.3 million customers in 650 communities in northern Illinois, is partnering with Fox Valley Habitat for Humanity to build 17 homes of between 1,500 and 1,700 square feet in the new subdivision near the intersection of Jericho Road and Edgelawn Drive.

The “smart neighborhood” will be the first affordable, “net zero” subdivision in the country, according to Nicor officials, and the first smart neighborhood the gas company has tried in a cold, northern climate.


It’s also a rare partnership between utilities — gas and electric — to create the net zero element of the housing, meaning the subdivision will use only as much energy, overall, as it generates. It is a carbon neutral situation that can be achieved by combining natural gas and electric resources, officials have said.

It’s a first for Habitat for Humanity, too, which traditionally has built houses one at a time, not an entire subdivision at once.

“The whole point in partnering between a large company, and Homes for Habitat, is we can adapt it,” said Meena Beyers, Nicor vice president of Business and Community Development. “We have homebuilders already asking us about it.”

To help explain and promote the smart neighborhood, Nicor has put a display showing how the neighborhood will work in the front lobby of the city of Aurora’s Development Services building, 77 S. Broadway, in downtown Aurora.

While work has yet to begin on the subdivision — Nicor officials said they hope to start digging in April, and get the volunteers who help build Habitat houses working by July or August — Beyers said the display should stay up throughout the building of the subdivision, for at least two years.

In addition to explaining how the different energy-efficient elements will work in the individual houses, the display also stresses the importance of the work Aurora is doing to become a Smart City.

Beyers said it is that work that makes it possible for the smart neighborhood.

Aurora has created an Innovation District for the area, and has its own fiber system, run by the not-for-profit OnLight Aurora, another partner in the project. Aurora also has made a commitment to developing connectivity for all in the city, working to get grants to provide broadband as a utility.

That connectivity “enables the smart neighborhood,” Beyers said.

“The connectivity is important — building up infrastructure to support the elements in the homes,” she said.

Some of the elements that will be in the individual homes are solar panels on the roofs to provide electricity for the houses, and a battery storage system to collect surplus energy for use later.

The houses will include smart thermostats using Wi-Fi to manage the houses’ ventilation, heating and cooling. The smart electrical panel allows homeowners to monitor their energy use. The panel also will allow companies like Nicor to get data on how the different systems are working, Beyers said.

The Aurora project has already spurred a second one, not exactly the same but similar, of 13 houses in Carpentersville, to be built by Habitat for Humanity of Northern Fox Valley.

Together, the project will give Nicor 30 houses in which to test its energy-efficient elements.

“More and more, we understand that we need affordable energy that people can understand,” Beyers said.

Beyers understands that the 30 houses seem like a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to develop wide-spread energy efficiency that will make a difference. But she said it is a start, an understanding that every effort being made can make a difference.

“There isn’t a silver bullet” to eradicate climate change, she said. “Efficiency, that’s where you start.”

©2024 Beacon-News, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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