A Habitat for Humanity Passive House project in upstate New York shatters many myths about the rigorous building standard, which often is thought of as out of reach for most home buyers. The pair of townhouses in Hudson, N.Y., show that the energy-saving building technique can be successful—and replicable—even on a shoestring budget with volunteer labor. The Columbia County Passive townhouses are the first Habitat homes in New York state to achieve the stringent German standard, which is focused on extreme air sealing, minimal mechanical heating and cooling, and optimized solar gain. The two 1,200-square-foot units are so well sealed they boast an air tightness level of less than 0.6 air changes per hour and energy usage that is 90% less than homes built with conventional construction methods. New York City–based consultant Levy Partnership provided independent certification of the home, verifying that it meets Passive House requirements.
This high level of performance was achieved largely with volunteer labor, proof that Passive House construction is a viable option for affordable housing projects, says Dennis Wedlick of Hudson-based BarlisWedlick Architects, who worked on the project pro bono with partner Alan Barlis. The duo is well known for creating the state’s first certified Passive House in 2011. This job was different for several reasons, Wedlick says.
“We were concerned about how much training it was going to take for the volunteers so they could achieve what custom builders and their subs normally achieve on a project like this,” he says. “But there was no problem.”
The duplex’s simple design made sense even to volunteers with little or no building experience. “Passive House construction is very straightforward and doesn’t require an enormous amount of retooling,” Wedlick explains. “In the end, it didn’t take a lot of training because it’s pretty much about common sense: We want to keep the cold out, keep the drafts out.”
The three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath house is weatherized with cellulose insulation made out of newspapers collected by volunteers, which provides an R-value of 50 for the walls and insulated foundation and 60 for the roof. This means ultra-low energy bills for the owners, even during the recent harsh winter, says Brenda Adams, executive director of the Columbia County Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit has identified two threats to income-based homeownership: rising property taxes as neighborhoods improve and the rising cost of energy. “Taxes we can’t do much about, so we decided to focus on the energy costs,” she says. “The families we’ve placed in energy-efficient housing are not only more comfortable but have lower heating bills, which provides them with more funds to meet their basic needs.”
The house also safeguards against the negative effects of aging or illness. Its rooms are wheelchair accessible and a small first-floor den can be converted to a bedroom if necessary. “For familes on fixed incomes, when something tragic happens they’re the least able to manage and so to the extent that we can, we’ve already planned for things that might be helpful to them in the future,” Adams says.
Adams estimates that each townhouse cost $125,000 and took 4,000 volunteer hours to build. Funding was provided by individuals, community foundations, businesses, and the New York State Affordable Housing Corp. The land was donated by the city of Hudson.
The homeowners—both families with children—received orientation on how to optimize the many benefits of living in a Passive House. They were instructed on how to operate the programmable thermostat, given reminders to close window shades during the hottest part of the day, and told to leave the energy recovery ventilator on at all times. “This was a bit of a case study for us to learn to find out how user-friendly a Passive House is,” Wedlick says.
Habitat’s volunteer crews are already at work on a similar Passive duplex on the same block, based on BarisWedlick’s original plans. This one, set for completion in January, will feature a building envelope beefed up with SIPs for the outer walls, carefully designed by the architects to optimize the nonprofit’s volunteer labor. “It will help Habitat take advantage of lower-skilled framing labor and SIPs technology laid on top of that,” Barlis says.