Passive House design, a growing trend in the building world, seeks to achieve high levels of energy efficiency through design choices such as super insulation, solar exposure planning and natural ventilation. The first passive house concept was developed at the University of Lund in Sweden in 1988. Now, there are estimated 40,000 – 50,000 passive homes around the world, with the first one being built in the United States in 2003.
Although the return on investment for a passive home has been well documented, the increased costs associated with its design and construction has raised the barriers to entry. This means that most passive house buildings have mainly been single family homes built in affluent areas.
The tide is changing however as several multifamily passive house buildings have been built or are in the planning stages around the United States. One example is the recently completed Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Commons project in Washington, D.C. which according to the developers is the first time that Passive House criteria has been used to retrofit a multifamily building in the United States. This 36 unit housing development is intended for low income and homeless families.
At the recent ribbon cutting for Weinberg Commons a new resident spoke, saying:
“Before I was at Weinberg, I was staying with family and friends, and bouncing from hotel to hotel. At the time, I was finishing a job training program, starting a new job, and trying to raise my son. The added stress of staying with a lot of people and not knowing where I was going to stay was overwhelming and depressing. When I found out I was approved for Weinberg, I was overcome with an incredible feeling. It felt as though I had been holding my breath for years, and I now I could finally breathe. Now that I have a safe and secure home at Weinberg Commons, I can focus all my strength and energy on taking care of my son and furthering my education so that I can find a job in which I can help and inspire others. I would like to thank the Transitional Housing Corporation and Inner City Family Services for all their support.”
After rent or a mortgage, utility costs can be some of the largest expenses faced by a family. Passive House design allows people to redirect the money saved on utilities to other things such as education, food and family enrichment. The Weinberg Commons project, sponsored in part by PIMA and its members companies, is the first of its kind in Washington, D.C. and was awarded the First Annual Maryland Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Real Estate Awards by the University of Maryland’s Colvin Real Estate Institute.
A similar project recently completed in Philadelphia, the Belfield Avenue Townhomes, is another example of Passive House design being incorporated into a multi family, low and moderate income housing complex. According to an article published by Dwell, “like most Passive Houses, Belfield Avenue incorporates supercharged wall insulation (in this case, nearly eight inches of densely packed cellulose and Polyiso, a type of rigid foam board), triple-pane windows, and an energy-recovery ventilator, which draws fresh air into the house while expelling kitchen and bathroom exhaust.”
According to the U.S. based Passive House Institute, of the 121 passive homes in the United States that they have certified, 100 are private, single family residences. It’s encouraging to see this innovative design technique being used more and more in multifamily construction, especially in projects aimed at low income residents. When people can save money on energy costs, they have more to spend on other things that can greatly improve the quality of their lives. PIMA is proud to be a part of projects like the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Commons building in Washington, D.C. and will continue to support research for further applications of passive house and net zero energy design.
For more information on the Weinberg Commons project, please check out this press release from the Transitional Housing Corporation, this article from Passive to Positive, and this article from The Washington Post. A video discussing the project is also available on the THC website.