A Third Strand of Sustainable Housing

There’s quite a jumble of tools out there for people who want to make their houses into models of energy efficiency. As far as the best way to go about […]

There’s quite a jumble of tools out there for people who want to make their houses into models of energy efficiency. As far as the best way to go about achieving higher levels of sustainability at home, I’ve been aware for some time of at least two competing philosophies. First, you have the pro-conservation camp, that calls for wearing more sweaters in the winter time, but also sealing homes tightly with weatherstripping and heavy-duty insulation. Then there is the renewable energy camp, which is bullish on solar panels and wind towers as the answer to peak oil and dirty coal.

The second camp is banking on major investments in solar and wind in the next few years, while we have a pro-sustainability administration. The pro-conservation camp isn’t holding its breath. Such investments are not feasible today for most individual property owners, and many things can be done now that are way cheaper.

For example, CDCs may want to develop housing (or mixed-use projects) when the economy turns around that include solar as a core component. They may also want to retrofit large existing multifamily buildings to include this technology. But most CDCs, with their modest capacity to build, could perhaps have more impact by helping residents in their neighborhoods to find funding to retrofit their own homes with better windows and doors, or to replace aging boilers. The costs would be much less per property, and the payoff immediate.

I was reminded of a third philosophy on how to make homes more sustainable when I visited a house in progress on the boundary of Boston’s Jamaica Plain and Roslindale sections. The owners of this former corner store intend to make their new home a demonstration site for the Passive House movement, which began in Germany in the 1990s. The concept is that instead of going into debt for 20 years to install solar panels on your roof, you should design the house itself to soak up the sun’s energy. These folks believe that with the right windows, an air-tight building envelope, and concrete floors, they can nearly rid themselves of the need for burning any fossil fuels.

The Passive House model is based on plenty of antecedents. In the 1970s, during the last wave of environmentally conscious home construction, quite a few people designed their houses to take advantage of the sun, the heat of the Earth, and other solutions that didn’t cost the moon. But the technologies that can go into these houses have come a long way since then.

So here we have a model of sustainable home building that gives us the far-reaching impact of solar power today, which has far more impact than can be had with weatherstripping and tighter door frames. But there are plenty of limitations. Passive House technology works best in small homes, where each person enjoys no more than 500 square feet of living space. A lot of American homes today wouldn’t pass that test.

Still, it’s exciting to see a demonstration of a way to achieve sustainable living that makes so much sense. The folks building this house don’t just want to reduce their personal carbon footprint and stop there. They want to share their knowledge with the surrounding neighborhood and beyond. I look forward to watching their model home progress.

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