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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

A Net-Zero Multi-Family Community

Ariel view of the net-zero multi-family community in Newburyport, MA. Credit: Hall and Moskow

Barb and Greg Whitchurch

We’ve lived two miles back into the woods on a dirt road in north central Vermont for several decades now. In our experience, some people move to this area, build a long driveway, and “cocoon” themselves with little interest in their community or their neighbors. In fact, “next door neighbors” here often never meet. (This is especially true now with the waves of wealthy “climate migrators” who are turning real estate sales here into bidding wars.)

Most Americans have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to avoid neighborly relationships. Just north of Boston, the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living (bit.do/hcfsl1) is designed to encourage community and neighborliness. It is a multifamily community built to proven, internationally recognized engineering standards, targeting affordability and comfort –rather than some architect’s or builder’s opinions of what makes sense to them.

The Hillside complex contains 48 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Units have front porches, EV charging stations, and individual garden plots. There is also a solar canopy where one can charge vehicles for free. Built to encourage long-term renting, the complex is targeted toward homeowners who are seeking to downsize. An eight-unit building and a ten-unit SRO (single room occupancy) with a shared kitchen, for deeply affordable housing, are also designed to Passive House (PH) standards. (Now don’t be scared away here. This was accomplished at market rate!)

Hillside’s 4.5-acre Newburyport, Massachusetts site had long been a toxic coal ash dump, and then a vehicle scrap yard. It took over two years to acquire the permits, and the cleanup was aided by a $400,000 loan from the state of Massachusetts.

Passive House and Net Zero. The first concept behind this project is energy efficiency. Passive House buildings are easy to bring to net zero using renewable energy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Passive House look here: bit.do/ph-90. Among other comfort and financial benefits, PH eliminates the need for traditional heating equipment.

Beware: some people use “net zero” to mean that one produces as much energy as one uses. It can allow for the use of oil and gas – so long as one produces the same amount of renewable energy. So, it is possible to “net zero” a code-built, fossil-fueled “McMansion” simply by putting several acres of solar panels next to it. But on top of the fossil fuel pollution is the cost of all that extra land, solar panels, shipping, manufacturing, labor and maintenance, which have their own environmental and societal costs.

To minimize those impacts, one should start with the most sustainable, energy-efficient structure practicable, and then bring it to net zero through the addition of a very small amount of renewables. This is what the Hillside Center has done, with Revision (RevisionEnergy.com/) providing the 400kW of solar PV.

Aerial view showing the rooftop solar arrays on the apartments and carport. (Courtesy photos: Hillside Center for Sustainable Living)

Briefly stated, Passive House is a great path to net zero because when you start with an energy-efficient building, you need fewer renewables to power it. Plus, you’re getting the cheapest, lowest-maintenance, and most comfortable and healthy living space.

Shared Space at Hillside. The second concept behind this project is that of neighborliness. Alongside a commitment to the environment, Hillside acknowledges and fosters the importance of building community, or fellowship with others. With open green space, the community building, and greenhouses, Hillside residents are provided the space to gather, play, eat, explore, and invite.

However, once inside their own apartments, the residents remark often about the quietness and serenity provided by PH construction as it isolates them from outside and neighboring apartments’ sound.

Sustainable Living Elements. The third and most important goal at Hillside is to address the three largest contributors of CO2 emissions: food, housing, and transportation. Collectively, these components create 79% of greenhouse gas emissions.

By providing net-positive energy homes, growing food on site in their year-round greenhouse, and using shared electric vehicles powered by their solar panels, Hillside has created a replicable model of successful sustainable living.

Although we’ve not the space here, we will mention that the Sanden heat pump water heater (bit.do/475-sanco2) was a godsend for this project (as it has been for many others); the Mitsubishi cold weather mini split (bit.do/mb-hp) provides the heating and cooling; Zhender provides the continuous fresh, filtered air (bit.do/za-erv); indoor air quality is monitored by Awair units (bit.do/awair), Eco Windows (bit.do/eco-windows) provided the Bildau & Bussmann PH triple-pane windows, and Siga membranes and tapes (SigaTapes.com/) provided the PH-level air barrier. A detailed presentation of this readily replicable project is available at bit.do/hcfslyt, starting at 43:45.

Food Production. With an edible landscape, urban gardens, and year-round greenhouse, Hillside recognizes the positive impact that small-scale agriculture can have on the environment. (Industrial agriculture and its associated processes are responsible for one third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.)

The North End Wall was built with hundreds of thousands of pounds of recycled material from the Whittier Bridge demolition.

Residents can produce food in their own individual garden patios, and/or participate in site-wide agriculture programs. Anything grown in communal spaces is foraged by residents and put in the Common House kitchen for residents to take what they need. Green roofs are part of the permaculture (fruit trees, berry bushes, etc.) Whole Systems Design (bit.do/wsd-vt), permaculture experts, planned the living landscape. The result is a resilient community with a small carbon footprint.

Transportation. According to the EPA, the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation. Hillside is strategically situated within minutes of the MBTA commuter rail, bus services, and the beautiful Clipper City Rail Trail, providing access to downtown Newburyport. Hillside also provides shared electric vehicles.

All of Hillside’s components — housing, electric transportation, farming, community amenities, and residential suites – are powered by 400kW of solar power generated on-site, which exceeds all the energy needs for the homes and electric vehicles.

Final notes. Having shown what can be done affordably and with a low carbon footprint, one might wonder what are the arguments for maintaining the status quo? Hillside has met the Passive House standard and LEED Platinum. Hall and Moskow (bit.do/hcfsl) are the architects, project developers, builders and long-term owners. They collaborated with Siegel Associates who provided the structural engineering design for this ground-breaking, net-zero project (www.siegelassociates.com). The press weighs in here: bit.do/hcfslp.

The Whitchurch’s net-zero Passive House in Middlesex, Vermont also powers their LEAF and NIRO EVs, lawn, garden and chainsaw tools. bit.do/phc-vtbiz2; bit.do/gkw-li

Many thanks to our sponsors:

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