The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing about how building science, renewable energy technology, creative community engagement and innovative partnerships are beginning to converge for the benefit of home owners and tenants in every income bracket. Well-built, ultra-energy efficient homes with on-site solar energy stay safe, comfortable and functional during severe weather and power outages. They are good for our health, our budgets and have less environmental impact than most houses being built today. The goals of affordability, resiliency and sustainability are truly complementary but difficult to achieve without key elements such as trained building professionals, accurate tools to measure energy use and improved appraisals and financing. Briefing speakers discussed affordable housing in Washington, DC, and elsewhere that has achieved the coveted “passive house” (PH) certification as well as a new approach to enable low-income residents to enjoy some of the benefits of on-site solar energy. The briefing will also discuss policies that could make this housing truly resilient, more affordable and a model for other communities.
Passive design refers to the reliance on sound building science, precise design and construction and high-performance materials instead of mechanical systems to create a structure that is extremely airtight and energy efficient. “Passive solar” strategies are used to naturally regulate heating and cooling. These airtight structures, however, also use an energy-recovery ventilator to ensure excellent indoor air quality and comfort with minimal energy use. In addition, “active” cooling and dehumidification is important in hot and humid climates. For this reason, the Passive House Institute U.S. is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to modify and adapt the German Passivhaus standard for the multi-climate U.S. market. The hallmarks of passive houses are enhanced insulation and air sealing, triple-pane windows, and performance-measurement and verification. These principles can be applied to single-family and multifamily housing, schools, office buildings, even skyscrapers. What sets the passive design methodology apart from all others is its proven ability to reduce heating and cooling energy use by up to 90 percent compared to conventional construction. With such a low "energy load” and cost savings, these buildings can then cost-effectively incorporate other “green” features and renewable energy technologies for their electricity needs and achieve near-zero energy use and carbon emissions.
Though many industry professionals are striving to make green building affordable, U.S. housing policies and underwriting standards are sorely outdated, making it difficult for buyers to qualify for above-code homes and in turn making it difficult for builders to build them cost competitively. Several bills that would make it easier to build and sell homes that are both affordable and sustainable are before Congress, including the Sensible Accounting to Value Energy Act (SAVE) and the Multifamily Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2014.
- The Honorable Jim Himes (CT) opened the briefing by saying the answer to the question, “Can housing be affordable, resilient, and sustainable?” is a resolute “It can be, it must be, it’d better be!”
- As the Congressional representative for Fairfield, CT, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and as a former executive for Enterprise Community Partners, which helps build and preserve affordable housing, Rep. Himes said he is particularly aware of the need to make housing affordable and resilient.
- He also noted that, in many cases, old structures can be made significantly more energy efficient with very basic retrofits, which makes them much more affordable for low-income communities.
- Making homes more energy efficient is one of the few “win-win-wins” out there, Rep. Himes said. It is not a highly partisan issue. “Efficiency is not Keystone”. He closed by saying he believes and hopes the two parties can work together to advance energy efficiency policies.
- Katrin Klingenberg, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS), explained that energy use by buildings accounts for 41 percent of total U.S. energy use.
- Houses that meet passive house specifications have been shown to use 85 percent less energy than conventional homes and 75 percent less than Energy Star homes. They even use 65 percent less energy than DOE Zero Energy Ready Homes, which is the Department of Energy’s label for high performance homes whose annual energy consumption can be offset by their own renewable energy systems.
- Passive design principles include airtight building envelopes; high performance windows and doors; optimal solar orientation; and energy-efficient appliances, lighting, plumbing, heating and cooling.
- Passive house certifications have increased exponentially over the past 10 years in the United States, from one in 2003 to a projected total of 129 in 2014.
- Passive principles apply everywhere and to all building types—residential, multifamily, and commercial.
- They result in durable construction, as well as increased comfort, health (from design strategies that ensure continuous air exchanges), and resiliency (to rising energy prices—“cost-of-living resiliency”—in addition to the effects of climate change).
- Climate-specific standards for North America (calibrated according to construction costs and energy prices) make passive standards economically feasible everywhere in the country and the most cost-effective way to reach net zero.
- Orlando Velez, Director of Housing Programs & Community Advocacy, Habitat for Humanity of Washington, D.C, explained that a house is “affordable,” according to HUD guidelines, if the rental or mortgage payments do not exceed 30 percent of a household’s income.
- In the D.C. market, where the median sales price of a house is $499,900, he said half of D.C. households are paying 30 percent or more of their income on rent, and 20 percent are paying 50 percent of more of their income on rent. This makes the need for affordable housing very pressing.
- Habitat for Humanity DC focuses on home purchases rather than rentals and uses a tiered-based financing mechanism to help fund their homes and make them affordable for low-income households.
- Buyers must sign a 15-year covenant that prevents them from selling their home at market rates (this is to avoid flipping).
- Average energy costs for a typical house in the Deanwood neighborhood of Washington D.C. are $2,300 per year. A passive house would bring that down to $480 per year (a savings of $1,910). A passive house with renewable energy, like the ones Habitat for Humanity is building in the neighborhood, brings it down to $0.
- Velez noted that one D.C. family, which had previously qualified for federal housing benefits, saved so much on its energy bills in its new passive house that it no longer needed public assistance.
- Nicole Steele, Executive Director, Grid Alternatives Mid-Atlantic, said her organization, with several locations across the country, has installed more than 4,800 solar electric systems for low-income residents since 2004,Representing more than 14 MW,this has saved households nationally more than $133.5 million.
- Grid Alternatives focuses on low-income households because energy costs often represent a substantial portion of their monthly budget (so the economic benefit of energy efficiency is proportionally greater). Her group also seeks to widen the adoption of solar power, which it sees as a viable energy solution for all communities.
- Grid Alternatives has trained more than 19,000 volunteers as solar installers and created more than 1,500 paid jobs. It provides hands-on experience, which is critical for thoseseeking work in the solar industry. That in turn contributes to sustainable economic development.
- The nonprofit relies on several sources of funding to make its solar power systems affordable for low-income families, including solar rebates, federal incentives, corporate contributions, grants from foundations and municipalities, in-kind donations, donations, and volunteers.