Exterior View. Courtesy of EASTON+COMBS

TRANSFORMATIONS: In Pittsfield, zero energy homes for affordable housing

This project is significant because it challenges the belief that only the wealthiest among us can reap the benefits of energy efficient homes.

Pittsfield — Our firm serves the Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity (CBHFH) as architects for their most ambitious project to date: six new homes (three duplexes) on a 1-acre site at the intersection of Gordon and Deming Streets in Pittsfield. Even though CBHFH has already built homes that easily surpass performance requirements of the Building and Energy Codes, this new project is committed to reach even further. It aims to build Zero Energy Ready homes. They will be so energy efficient that a top-up with solar panels can bring the owners’ utility bills down to zero.

Site Plan for the Gordon-Deming project in Pittsfield.
Site Plan for the Gordon-Deming project in Pittsfield.

Energy efficiency and the Habitat mantra of decent, affordable housing are a match made in heaven. As stated by Carolyn Valli, CBHFH Executive Director, “Imagine that you are one of the 40 percent of renter-occupied households paying more than 30 percent of their income towards rent, or, worse yet, one of the 20 percent paying more than 50 percent of income towards rent…then you get a 35 percent increase in electric rates…Building energy efficient homes is a solution to this vulnerability…”

This project is significant because it challenges the belief that only the wealthiest among us can reap the benefits of energy efficient homes. Here, in this low-income housing project, where budgets are tighter than usual, the buildings can’t go up if the bottom line doesn’t add up. But they are going up, exploding the expense myth. As Tom Bencivengo, partner at developer Synapse Capital, says, “It’s just using data and information to apply a technique that yields a better result with the same stuff.” (Crain’s; 12/04/13; for complete article, click here.

“Typical Floor Plans” Courtesy: EASTON+COMBS
“Typical Floor Plans” Courtesy: EASTON+COMBS

Modest energy use is easier to attain with modest size, which meant we had to plan the homes in this project to achieve maximum spatial efficiency. The homes of the Tiny House movement, some as small as 300 square feet or less, may be extreme, but the tendency towards smaller houses is a real one. Each of the three bedroom Gordon-Deming homes is no bigger than 1,100 square feet (in accordance with Habitat International guidelines), with one bedroom on the first floor to enable elderly occupants to age in place. We developed a system that enables each of the three buildings to be different. By sharing a basic floor plan that brings with it a number of efficiencies, each house becomes a variation on a theme. Thus, we satisfied the preference on the part of the CBHFH to avoid a cookie-cutter appearance.

Interior view.  Courtesy: EASTON+COMBS
Interior view.  Courtesy: EASTON+COMBS


The houses all follow the principles of high-performance building, as illustrated in the image below:


Main elements of high-performance building. Courtesy: Easton-Combs
Main elements of high-performance building. Courtesy: Easton-Combs


  • A super-insulated airtight envelope prevents heat loss and gain, by keeping heat inside in winter and repelling it in summer. This significantly reduces energy use. Air-tightness removes the potential for moisture to enter the walls and cause condensation and mold. In addition, less noise enters from outside, drafts are eliminated and indoor air temperature remains steady.
  • Heating systems are smaller, cheaper and easier to maintain.
  • A simple heat recovery ventilation system (filtered fresh air brought in, heated in winter with the hot air being removed from inside, and cooled in summer with the cool air being removed from inside) ensures a plentiful supply of healthy air, while reducing energy use even further through heat recovery.
  • Triple glazing also reduces heat loss and gain, and eliminates the feeling of a draft caused by convection (i.e., warm interior air gets cooled when it comes into contact with a the cold window and, because cold air is heavier than warm air, drops.) As a result, the space in front of the windows will actually be usable — good news in modest sized homes!

In addition, the houses will be livable even in the event of power failures. If the heat goes out in winter, occupants won’t freeze or have to move out, and may, in fact, barely notice the cold.

CBHFH will also help the homeowners organize a communal site maintenance service. As Ms. Valli says, it is better for a parent to spend their time indoors, reading to their kids, than mowing the lawn. Better still if they are comfortable, healthy and not stressed about the next utility bill.

6 thoughts on “TRANSFORMATIONS: In Pittsfield, zero energy homes for affordable housing

  • At the rate things are going in PIttsfield, this is about the only type of housing in which anyone will be able to afford to live. The stark, bleak architecture with the ‘communal’ play areas; it all has the distinct look of a set of mini-warehouses. Can’t help but notice the single mom with the two kids.

  • I am overjoyed to read this. Applying our knowledge of efficient building is applied here to multiple family units intended for those with low incomes. They are the very people who do the work that supports the lives of those who can afford to build or buy their own LEED green houses. I am aware, as a designer, that computer rendered drawings can appear stiff and unappealing, so the look of these doesn’t bother me. Besides, a finished project is often modified as the construction takes place. The clustered, shared outdoor space lends itself to a sense of community so missing in many communities.
    I look forward to seeing this plan completed and hope for more interest and effort invested in projects like this.
    Erica Fay

  • As the Building Chair of our local Barre/Montpelier Habitat Chapter in Central Vermont, my hat is off to you. We are in the final stages of design and number crunching to see if it is cost effective to build a Passive Certified Net Zero house for our next family partner. So far all looks good and if all goes to plan we will break ground sometime in May. I agree with you that this is the direction Habitat should be going in. We also should be educating and collaborating with other Habitat Affiliates in our respected areas. Last fall CVHFH hosted the All Vermont Affiliate Bi-Annual meeting in Montpelier. I gave a presentation on the project mentioned above. Chris Miksic from Montpelier Construction is a certified Passive House builder answered all of the questions related to Passive House. Trust me when I say everyone is watching this project. It is new territory and I am pleased to see that we in Vermont are not the only progressive builders. Well done and I look forward to reading about your successes.
    Bruce E Landry
    Building Committee Chair
    Barre/Montpelier Chapter CVHFHI

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