‘Passive’ houses take active new role in low-income neighborhoods

By Pola Lem | 06/08/2016 09:19 AM EDT

In New York’s Rockaway Park in Queens, wind off the Atlantic Ocean buffets a pale blue building in the midst of construction.

In New York’s Rockaway Park in Queens, wind off the Atlantic Ocean buffets a pale blue building in the midst of construction.

The structure stands in a district where 1 in 5 adults is unemployed and housing quality is middling, compared to New York City averages. Once it’s completed in 2017, the building will become the United States’ tallest mid-rise certified "passive house," which adheres to stringent efficiency standards. Its thick foam walls will help keep it snug even as the seasons change and the gusts become icy and biting.

Experts say the Rockaway Park building is unique because, despite the emphasis in recent years to reduce energy use in the building sector, multifamily housing lags behind other types of large urban buildings when it comes to efficiency.


"There has historically been an underinvestment in affordable homes," said Yerina Mugica, managing director of the Center for Market Innovation at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the last few years, the U.S.-based passive house movement has begun to cut into that market.

Since it was founded in 2003 by German-born architect Katrin Klingenberg, the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS) has certified more than a million square feet of passive housing. The group has 400 or so projects — more than 1,200 units — in the pipeline, Klingenberg said. And as the scale of those projects increases, the incentive to build energy-efficient houses grows.

"We’re starting to see cost come down pretty dramatically, especially in multifamily housing," she said.

Easing a burden on low-income families

The movement to build passive houses comes at a time when low-income families bear the brunt of the energy burden. While the average American family spent 3.5 percent of household income on energy costs, low-income families spent an average of 7.2 percent on energy, a joint study from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All found.

That’s because energy makes up a larger chunk of income for families with low earnings, but also because those families have less efficient homes and less control over their energy consumption, said Ariel Drehobl, lead author of the report and a research analyst at ACEEE.

"If you’re in a situation where you’re renting an apartment and you don’t know what the cost of energy is before you’ve spent the heating season there, that can be when it hits you that you can’t afford the bills," said Rachel Cluett, a senior research analyst at ACEEE.

High heating bills can translate to health costs, as families spend less money in other areas, like buying nutritious foods, said Drehobl.

That energy consumption also burdens landlords and managers and contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions. Residential and commercial buildings consume roughly 60 percent of the world’s electricity, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

Meanwhile, energy savings can put a dent in monthly expenditures, making it possible to rent at affordable rates in costly places like the Washington, D.C., metro area, said Phil Hecht, CEO of the Transitional Housing Corp. (THC), a provider of affordable housing with resident services to enable formerly homeless and at-risk families.

Not as complicated as it sounds

THC recently completed Weinberg Commons, three retrofitted buildings that became Southeast D.C.’s first passive houses, completed last fall. For the company, meeting energy standards made the project feasible.

"Those rents needed to be at $950 or close to it in order for us to be comfortable with what we’re doing. The market rate in that area is $1,250 or 1,280 a month, give or take," Hecht said. "We’re already experiencing at least 50 percent savings, and ultimately, when everything’s up and running, I hope we’re going to see much higher percentages."

Those savings make a big difference in the long run, but convincing investors to get on board can be a tough sell, said NRDC’s Mugica.

"There’s a need for more data to show the very real paybacks that these properties can deliver," she said.

Developer Steve Bluestone, though, said building passive isn’t as difficult as some landowners make it out to be. His company, Bluestone Organization, recently embraced passive house standards with the construction of its building in Rockaway Park.

"Passive house sounds like it’s a whole bunch of complicated stuff, but it’s not," he said.

When efficiency comes first

On a windy morning this April, Bluestone inspected the construction site, stopping at a few broken pieces of foam, some debris left over from the house’s insulative shell. Instead of cinder block, it consists of 6- to 8-inch poured concrete walls sandwiched between several inches of expanded polystyrene foam.

Just yards away, across the raised subway tracks, big mounds of sand are at the edges of the beach, where it meets the road — remnants from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, Bluestone said. Four years later, the neighborhood’s two-story houses, patched over with plywood, still bore marks of the storm’s devastation.

Raised 6 feet above the pavement — and 2 feet above the Federal Emergency Management Agency requirement, a precaution against future storm waves — the structure in Rockaway Park stands seven to eight stories tall, at 101 units.

Bluestone pointed to the cavity around the window, a "tough spot." In the coming week, the window frames would undergo testing to make sure they provide an airtight seal.

Unlike a regular house, a passive house lets out a "whoosh" of air when a door to the outside is opened. The indoor air temperature is closely regulated, making the seal an important part of the structure’s integrity.

But windows are merely one element of a passive house. The building combines heavily insulated walls with other efficiency systems, like the 110 small energy recovery ventilators ("the lungs of the house") that capture heat from outgoing air.

Finding contractors with the know-how to build to passive house standards can be a challenge, Bluestone conceded, adding that his group is teaching them.

Building to high efficiency standards is a win-win, Bluestone said. Still, in practice, efficiency often gets sidelined because it means a departure from traditional building practices.

In the high-end real estate market, investors looking for a quick return on their money don’t focus on long-term energy savings, said Linda Metropulos, director of housing and neighborhood development at ACTION-Housing Inc., which owns several passive house structures.

"It’s much harder to make the case with high-end developers because it’s not seen as a market advantage just yet. So far, the banks are not really in support of this yet. But if people own their home, then no question, of course, money doesn’t matter," she said.