Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Built-In Green Energy How a Pa. Affordable Housing Agency Is Making Ultra-Efficient Buildings Mainstream

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Built-In Green Energy How a Pa. Affordable Housing Agency Is Making Ultra-Efficient Buildings Mainstream

Article excerpt

Architect Laura Nettleton is standing in a former classroom in a 120-year-old elementary school that she helped turn into one of the most energy-efficient apartment buildings in Pittsburgh.

She is talking, metaphorically, about coats.

Her coat - stylish and black with wide sleeves and an open collar - is the old way of building: thinly insulated with lots of gaps where air and heat can escape.

A visitor's down jacket is this renovated school: sealed at the wrists and zipped to the chin, it traps heat without requiring much energy.

"My coat is useless if it's too cold outside," she said.

But in this, the puffy coat of buildings - an example of the vanguard of efficient building design known as passive house - it is warm even right next to the tall, triple-paned windows on a chilly November night. The high-ceilinged, two-bedroom apartment for seniors in Morningside has thick insulation and an airtight barrier separating the inner and outer walls.

The 46-unit Morningside Crossing project and 23 other multifamily affordable housing projects in the state are being built to meet ultra-efficiency standards because of an unlikely green building advocate: the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

The staid state-affiliated agency decides which projects in Pennsylvania earn coveted federal low-income housing tax credits.

In 2014, a change that PHFA made to its competition criteria for the tax credits created a wave of interest in passive house building, and not just in Pennsylvania. It rippled across the country.

Within two years, Pennsylvania went from having just a handful of passive house residential units to having nearly 900 in the works - more than any other state at the time. Since then, 14 other states' housing finance agencies have followed the PHFA's model and added passive house to their tax-credit competition. About 16 more are considering it.

"It's PHFA's interest and incentive that made this happen," Ms. Nettleton said.

Craig Stevenson, whose Carnegie-based firm, Auros Group, monitors the performance of energy-efficient buildings - including Morningside Crossing - credited the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency with being "a real thought leader."

"They are revolutionary in the way they are looking at buildings," he said.

Spreading the idea quickly

Passive house design is based on an intuitive premise: If you insulate a building, meticulously protect against air leaks and take advantage of heat from the sun, you can maintain temperatures by using a small fraction of the energy it takes to heat and cool conventional buildings.

Highly efficient ventilation systems filter and circulate fresh air, often leaving the indoor air healthier to breathe than outdoor air, especially in places with poor air quality, like Pittsburgh.

Philadelphia-based architect Tim McDonald and his firm, Onion Flats, had designed an affordable, passive house project in Philadelphia in 2012 that came in on time and on budget. It was the first certified passive house project in Pennsylvania.

If he could do it, he thought, so could others.

At the time, passive house was a great idea with few adopters. In 2014, there were fewer than 300 certified passive house residential units in North America, according to the Pembina Institute, a Canadian clean energy think tank.

Mr. McDonald wanted to spread passive house design across the industry quickly - not just through one energy-conscious developer or project at a time. Buildings are responsible for more than a third of the country's energy-related carbon emissions, so reducing their energy demand is a crucial step in addressing climate change.

"How could we transition the industry to a carbon-neutral future at scale?" he said. The affordable housing sector offered a promising path.

Affordable housing tax credits are highly competitive - only a quarter of low-income housing tax credit applications to the PHFA get funding - which pushes developers to come up with innovative ways to keep costs down. …

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