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