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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

New England Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) Pro Tour Burlington, VT

A Vermod Zero- Energy Modular (ZEM) small, traveling model home. It is all-electric with a super-insulated air-tight envelope, battery storage, and environmentally preferable and healthy finishes. Photo: Barb and Greg Whitchurch.

Barbara Whitchurch

NESEA Pro Tour – it sounds like a golf tournament, but it’s actually an ongoing series of tours of residential and commercial buildings whose designers have employed up-to-date materials and construction methods to cut back on the pollution caused by standard building practices. It’s also an opportunity to hear from the architects, builders and occasionally even homeowners, about the process of planning and constructing these buildings. And, of course, the lessons learned along the way. The aim is to cut back on the pollution, energy waste and lost comfort opportunities caused by the outdated building practices still being used by so many behind-the-times builders.  All of this while drastically reducing operation and maintenance costs.

The NESEA Pro Tour in Burlington, VT on September 20, 2019 was our fourth, and, like the others, it did not disappoint us. From the careful planning, yummy food, hassle-free transportation to and from the sites (in spite of local climate strike demonstrations in Burlington that day), to the fascinating presentations, all was expertly orchestrated, informative and fun.

Attendees at this event toured two very different projects. Representatives from Efficiency Vermont led the first portion of the event, which showcased a Zero- Energy Modular (ZEM) small (not tiny!) home, measuring 560 square feet. This particular ZEM is a traveling model home that demonstrates some of the latest high performance and healthy home strategies. The home is all-electric with a super-insulated air-tight envelope, battery storage, and environmentally preferable/healthy finishes. The unit moves every few weeks to a new location, acting as a teaching tool and demonstrating a new approach to affordable housing that considers life-cycle costs, rather than just initial out-of-pocket cost.

This initiative was developed by Peter Schneider, a Senior Consultant at Efficiency Vermont, during the aftermath and recovery efforts following Tropical Storm Irene, in which a disproportionate number of mobile homes were damaged. The intent was to replace substandard mobile homes with affordable, resilient, healthful and durable modular homes for low-income homeowners.

As Schneider explained, the mobile homes are constructed in the Vermod factory in Wilder, VT, using a technique called “crib bunking.” Five homes are constructed at once, each taking about five weeks to complete, all in a climate-controlled indoor environment. The homes are built from the inside out, allowing time to insulate them properly. Framing is done with x 14’ SIPPs filled with dense packed cellulose. Because of their light weight, smaller cranes and trucks can be used to deliver the units, which are then tied into existing water, electric and sewer. (They are replacing existing homes on already-developed lots and bases.)

The home’s specifications include a super-insulated envelope (the entire shell of the building from the basement floor to the roof), a cold climate heat-pump that also cools in the summer, and a 4.5kW photovoltaic solar array with battery backup. The blower door test yielded less than 1.0 ACH50.

According to Peter, two-thirds of Vermont’s mobile homes need to be replaced. But the replacements don’t have to look like “trailers.” The modular construction can be lofted or ‘cathedral-ized,’ customized to look like a more typical New England home (bit.do/hfh-charlotte-ph), and most are quite a bit larger, too.

A three-unit multi-family house which has been expanded and retrofitted to
the Passive House standard. Photo: Barb and Greg Whitchurch.

The second site we visited was a three-unit multi-family house in Burlington’s Old North End which has been expanded and retrofitted to the Passive House standard. The presenter, Arthur Chukhman of Duncan Wisniewski Architects, is the owner, architect and general contractor.

This home features a three-story addition to a pre-1877 duplex. The addition includes new space for the existing units and a third unit, which is the first Certified Passive House in Burlington and is modeled to be net zero. The addition features foam-free construction, showcasing carbon-storing materials such as 6 1/4” thick fiberboard continuous insulation (Gutex), dense pack cellulose in the stud cavities and roof, and foam-glass (Glavel) below the slab. Other features include triple-pane tilt-turn windows and full house balanced ventilation with a heat recovery unit from Zehnder.

This portion of the tour was led by Arthur Chukhman and the builders, Jacob Racusin and Ace McArleton of New Frameworks. The goals of this project included: Passive House certification for the new construction; renovation of the existing duplex without raising the rent per unit; make the new unit net zero; and minimizing the amount of embodied carbon in the new construction. (Embodied carbon calculations were performed to inform materials choices. An upcoming article will focus on embodied carbon, and what it means for sustainable construction.)

All of the buildings toured have demonstrated how modern building technology rewards the owners with a lower cost, a healthier and more comfortable living space, and a lower maintenance building. That these buildings cost no more or only marginally more to erect while saving significant money every month throughout their lifetimes is always a surprise to the new folks on a tour.

One intended takeaway from these tours is that anyone building or remodeling a home can afford these benefits if they choose the right builder. The engineering principles are by now well-known to responsible, certified builders. Efficiency VT provides free consulting and financial incentives to build responsibly. Be sure that your contractors have Certified Passive House, LEED, or EEN certifications at the very least.  Yes, there are still many old-fashioned builders who decry the new science and engineering discoveries – always the case with new techniques and technologies. But cheaper, healthier, more comfortable, more reliable homes have finally hit the mainstream.  EfficiencyVermont.com (bit.do/evt-een) or Vermont Passive House (VTPH.org) can help you find a qualified builder, architect or designer to remodel or construct your home to the latest comfort, value, and efficiency standards for a price you can afford.

Barbara Whitchurch is a freelance writer and a member of Passive House Vermont. She is the co-owner of a Passive House, a Nissan Leaf, a Kia Niro, and a large St. Bernard named Remi.

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