Homebuilding is picking up in Southern Arizona, but these new homes are not the same old models you might have bought before the recession.

As a whole, they're more energy efficient. Compact fluorescent lights come in the lamp sockets. There are likely solar and water-harvesting options, dual-flush toilets and Energy Star appliances.

There is likely less construction waste going to the landfill. And, for the most committed, there is spray foam insulation to seal in the home's air and dramatically drop heating and cooling bills.

At the market's margins, there's been a transformation, but even among builders marketing to first-time homebuyers there's been a shift.

Local entrepreneurs and major homebuilders agree: Increasing energy efficiency makes sense not just to garner "green" cachet. It also makes economic sense.

Deborah Chah and Krista Miller are among Tucson's smaller-scale builders on the front edge of the trend.

They are building what they call "smart lofts" on infill lots on the north side.

The buildings, with two units per structure, are built with masonry blocks filled with insulating foam.

They are shaded by native trees and cactuses that were already on site, with builders squeezing in the foot-wide spaces between block and prickly pear, gently bending mesquite branches while they mortared in the block.

The balconies that shade each unit's courtyard use a material made in part from recycled plastic bags. And the appliances are energy-efficient, with power and water heating provided by the sun.

For both women, the commitment to careful and green construction was something of a family affair.

The solar panels on the smart lofts come from the Solar Store, owned by Miller's sister, Katharine Kent. Their father is perhaps Tucson's most prominent green builder, John Wesley Miller, who developed a subdivision based on similar principals in the downtown neighborhood of Armory Park.

Chah grew up in a family in the excavating business. As an adult, she and her husband developed affordable-housing subdivisions through Country Club Homes.

But more recently, Miller and Chah teamed up because they wanted to do something different from what was built out of the inertia of the earlier economic boom. "We wanted to do something more mindful," Chah said.

The pair see their new venture and its emphasis on green as good business, even if the slowly rising home prices make it more feasible for them to operate the properties as rentals rather than selling them yet.

"In the short run, it will put builders at a competitive disadvantage" not to incorporate efficient technologies, Miller said. "I think it's the right thing to do, and I think more and more people are demanding it."

The first smart lofts the pair has built, at North Mountain Avenue and East Glenn Street, are leasing for $1,600 to $1,800. Two of the four units are leased, and there are two more clusters in the pipeline.

But it's not just boutique builders in on the trend. Major homebuilders used the pause forced by the housing crash to rethink their standard offerings.

Of the most prolific homebuilders in the country, Scottsdale-based Meritage Homes Corp., took on the shift with perhaps the most fervor.

Three years ago, the company hired C.R. Herro, a Ph.D. environmental engineer with a background in designing pollution-control devices.

He launched an aggressive campaign to evaluate green technologies, and the company made more-efficient homes their hallmark.

"Building a better product for people is good business as long as the benefit increases more than the cost," Herro said. "Meritage embraced it early as a way to succeed in a tough market."

The company is now upgrading its efficiency standards every six to nine months, Herro said.

But the plan hinges on a big dose of consumer education. So at dozens of its sales offices, Meritage set up "learning centers," deconstructed homes where shoppers can see how their prospective home would be built.

Herro acknowledges that "this technical building stuff is not why people buy a home." Most shoppers are primarily considering value, aesthetics and investment, he said.

As a result, the company spends a lot of time demonstrating to consumers just how their energy and water use could be cut in half.

It also sells the homes at a familiar price. Unlike the majority of homes that incorporated many of these technologies a decade ago, these homes are not selling for luxury prices.

With the advantage of scale in purchasing, Meritage sells homes in the Tucson area for $125,000 to $320,000.

Other major Tucson homebuilders now building only Energy Star-certified homes - an Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy standard - are KB Home, Maracay Homes and Castle and Cooke.

Tucson building powerhouses D.R. Horton Inc., PulteGroup Inc. and Lennar Corp. build a portion of their homes to the standard.

If trends persist, Tucson is likely to see more new energy-efficient homes.

Pima County data indicate that homebuilding is rising, driven in part by a shortage in resale properties, real estate analyst John Strobeck wrote in a recent report.

In June, builders pulled 162 permits for single-family homes, putting the figures in the first six months of the year 26 percent ahead of the same period last year.

There were 147 new home closings in June, the highest number for any month this year or last and a 37-percent increase over June last year.

Green builders

Major builders in Tucson who are building all their homes to Energy Star certification standards

Builder Recently certified* Total certified**

KB Home 75 6,473

Maracay Homes 71 73

Meritage Homes 108 391

Castle and Cooke 56 56

*Homes certified in Tucson from April 2011 through March 2012 **Total certified in Tucson

Source: Energy Star website

"In the short run, it will put builders at a competitive disadvantage.

I think it's the right thing to do, and I think more and more people are demanding it."

Krista Miller, builder

Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at cbrosseau@azstarnet.com or 573-4197.