By Barbara Whitchurch
May 2, 2016 was a chilly, rainy, gloomy day. But as my husband Greg and I entered the lobby of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Milton, VT, the atmosphere inside was warm and celebratory. This joyful and important event (a groundbreaking ceremony for a groundbreaking project!) marked the launch of the first multi-family Passive House building to be constructed in Vermont – which was also one of the very first in the United States.
Elm Place will provide 30 affordable one-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors. Developed by Cathedral Square, Elm Place is expected to open in March 2017. Rent will include heat, air conditioning, water, laundry and electricity – all far cheaper than usual. Most notably, Elm Place will be Vermont’s first multi-family building built to the Passive House standard. This super energy-efficient building will use roughly 65% less energy than “code” buildings by using high-efficiency windows and doors, more insulation, superior airtightness, and eliminating “thermal bridging” by using state-of-the-art materials and techniques. DC Energy Innovations, Inc. will install a 15kW rooftop solar array. Elm Place will receive an incentive from the Vermont Small Scale Renewable Energy Incentive Program to help offset the cost of this PV system.
State and local officials highlighted the ways in which Elm Place will improve the quality of life for its residents. Kim Fitzgerald, Cathedral Square’s CEO, said, “The Passive House focus on sustainability and human comfort aligns well with our vision for affordable senior housing. It’s very exciting to reduce our carbon footprint while increasing comfort and quality of life.” And Liz Gamache, Director of Efficiency Vermont, added, “As Elm Place is indeed a project that will provide a viable, healthy and affordable place for seniors to live for years to come. We see the reduction of economic and environmental burdens — not just for the residents, but their families and also future generations.”
So how did Cathedral Square come to adopt the Passive House concept in its plans for Elm Place? For this answer, I approached Chris West, owner of Eco Houses of Vermont. Chris indicated he was involved from an early stage. “I was approached by Michael Wisniewski, the project’s lead architect, about being the Passive House Consultant on the job. It was a very exciting moment. Fortunately the owner, Cathedral Square, was very interested in building to the Passive House standard. They didn’t need much convincing, just some analysis to ensure the design would hit the standard and be affordable.” West explained how Efficiency Vermont and other funding organizations stepped up to ensure that this project would adhere to the Passive House standard. “My part was providing accurate and well-reasoned information by which to make the final decisions. Through it all, Michael Wisniewski and Sam Beall of Duncan Wisniewski Architects were great allies, and Cindy Reid, Miranda Lescaze, and Katie Forleo of Cathedral Square were behind us the whole time. They all understood that getting this multifamily project done right would set the tone for affordable, comfortable and healthy multifamily projects into the future.”
Passive House is an up-and-coming concept in the US. In Europe, however, it is a widely accepted standard of building. Austria now stipulates that all new buildings must adhere to the Passive House standard.
And why not? A Passive House is quiet; the air inside is fresh. It’s uniformly warm in winter and cool in summer. It requires a fraction of the electricity needed to power a “code” house, or even a LEEDS house. And, thanks to the increasing availability of sealing and insulating materials, high-performance windows, and knowledgeable lending institutions, a Passive House now costs about the same to finance and build as a conventional home. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a good reason NOT to build to the Passive House standard, be it your new home or office, or your town’s hall, school, library, or police department. The future is here.
For more information, visit phausvt.org.
Barbara Whitchurch is a member of the Outreach Committee at Passive House VT.
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