The Kiln Apartments in Portland, Ore.

Photo by Pete Eckert

The Future of Housing Is Now. What Sustainable Homes Look Like

Passive housing proves that living comfortably on this planet doesn't have to destroy it.

Every time your air conditioner or furnace rumbles on, greenhouses gases spew into the air. All those volts —about 10,900 kilowatt-hours per person — used to charge laptops and phones, light rooms, and keep the refrigerator running don’t come without an environmental cost. American electricity generation contributed 2.04 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014, clouding the earth’s atmosphere with emissions and worsening climate change.

A hot new trend in architecture may offer one of our best hopes for significantly diminishing that pollution. “Passive house” construction — usually built without central heating or cooling systems — can reduce energy usage to net-zero or even net-positive, meaning a building generates more energy than it consumes. Applicable to both commercial and residential properties, passive construction centers on five key design elements: heavily insulated walls (sometimes up to 15 inches thick), an extremely tight envelope, triple-paned windows and doors that are outfitted with high-performance locks, high-tech ventilation and moisture-recovery systems filter the air and solar panels on rooftops.

“There are no drafts in the winter. And in the summer, it stays cool without strong air conditioning blowing on you,” Jane Sanders, a Brooklyn architect, tells the New York Post about her home. “This morning, there was jackhammering two doors down from me, but I could barely hear it. It’s so quiet that I feel like I live in the country.”

Some homeowners will take objection with the boxy design; others will balk at the price tag. But as more passive homes are built, architects are experimenting with chic design and developing cheaper construction methods. NationSwell looked into five of the most interesting passive houses in America today.

Cheap land helped determine the location of the Smith House. Photo courtesy of PHIUS

The Smith House, Urbana, Ill.

American designers first pioneered passive construction — then known as “superinsulation” in the early 1970s — after the oil embargo caused wild swings in energy prices. When conservation fell out of fashion during the Reagan years, the idea caught on among Germans in 1988, but it took until 2002, for the idea to return across the Atlantic. Katrin Klingenberg, a young German architect, and her now-deceased husband Nic Smith broke ground on the first American passive house prototype in Urbana, in part, because they could test the house against the harsh Midwestern climate. “I believe that climate crisis is real and that buildings need to do their part of reducing carbon emissions. The good news is that buildings have a lot of potential to do just that,” Klingenberg tells the Chicago Tribune. “We have to work a bit harder to get those reductions and invest a bit more upfront. But the reward is huge with long-lasting payback.”

Window detail, Kiln Apartments. Photo by Pete Eckert

Kiln Apartments, Portland, Ore.

Portland is undeniably at the center of the American passive house movement, with more than 100 certified buildings in its metro area, according to some counts. The Kiln Apartments, in North Portland, are one of the largest mixed-use buildings — 19 apartments above ground-floor retail — to meet passive house standards.

The Oregon city already has one of the strictest building codes in the nation, but these units save up to 75 percent more energy than equivalent ones. With many south-facing windows, the buildings is heated largely by the sun during the winter. Thick metal sunshades that look like modernist awnings block the sunlight during hotter months, when the summer sun rises higher in the sky. The four-story building does have an elevator, but because everything is about energy efficiency, residents are encouraged to take the stairs.

Dedication ceremony for the Empowerment House, a 2-unit townhouse. Courtesy of Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity Townhomes, Washington, D.C.

Demonstrating that passive house principles can be readily implemented, volunteers in the nation’s capital are building six townhouses for poor homeowners. Located in Ivy City, a portion of the structure was originally designed for the U.S. Solar Decathlon, a competition for college students to build the most energy-efficient home. Students from The New School and Stevens Institute of Technology put the one-bedroom together on the National Mall for under $230,000. After being moved northeast in 2012, a second story was added and Habitat for Humanity built a copy next door. Now, as the neighborhood gentrifies, the families in the six brick rowhouses have affordable rent and a a minimal utility bill. “I just remember thinking, we did it: a non-profit, affordable house developer can do this, even using volunteers with no construction experience,” Orlando Velez, manager of housing services at Habitat for Humanity’s D.C. chapter, tells ThinkProgress. “I started thinking, what’s everyone else waiting for?”

The north building of the Uptown Lofts. Photo by Jason Snyder

Uptown Lofts, Pittsburgh, Penn.

This 47-unit housing affordable project, provides greener living spaces to those who can’t afford a market-rate home. Split into two buildings across the street from each other, 18- to 23-year-olds who aged out of the foster care system live in the northern building’s 24 one-bedroom apartments; to the south, 23 affordable units go to people who make less than 60 percent of Pittsburgh’s median income. The $12 million project was also notable for being the first time any state subsidized a passive house with tax benefits.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony this February, the project was praised for realizing its ambitious goals with limited dollars. “How proud we are to help bring these buildings to reality,” said Stan Salwocki, manager at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “This project shows how cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, energy-efficient affordable housing can be done.”

The central utility plant at Cornell Tech is currently under construction. photo by Roosevelt Island Campus Project

Cornell Tech, Roosevelt Island, N.Y.

Still in the works, the world’s tallest and largest passive house began construction this June. Rising 26 stories above Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens, the apartment tower will house about 530 grad students, professors and staff for Cornell University’s new 12-acre applied sciences campus. Since nearly three quarters of the carbon emissions in New York City’s come from heating and cooling its skyscrapers, school administrators hope this project will set a new standard for energy efficiency and gain the attention of engineers and designers across the Queensboro Bridge in midtown.

The construction “is a clear signal that in today’s era of climate change, it’s not enough to simply build tallest. To lead the market, your tall building will need to be a passive house,” Ken Levenson, president of NY Passive House, an advocacy group, tells The New York Times. The $115 million project is expected to open in 2017 and will save 882 tons of carbon dioxide annually — the equivalent of planting 5,300 trees, according to the university.

 

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]