Cincinnati Rocks! (But why?)

Hi people!

In this blog post we are going to explain why Cincinnati is one of the best cities -if not the best- to locate PassivHaus and ensure its success.

I have been living in Cincinnati for the past 5 years and I have seen the city revamp at a very accelerated pace. Its urban core (Downtown and Over-The-Rhine), long-known for blight and solitude after the end of the business work day, has become the spotlight for infrastructure development in the city. The community has seen better results than anticipated. The recently unveiled Community and Economic Development Report for 2016 states that over 1,800 jobs have been created and saved through the revitalization process of these two neighborhoods, (and it’s just in the beginning of the 2nd phase!) (1)

Now, why is this good for PassivHaus? The City of Cincinnati and its quasi-governmental nonprofit development corporation, Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation or 3CDC, are responsible for the development of the vision and execution of the first master plan elaborated in 2002. In short, they are responsible for strengthening the core assets of Cincinnati’s downtown area. This process involves the coalition of multiple developers, such as the Model Group and Urban Sites, who must align assets and increase the livelihood of the neighborhoods along with the support of small businesses, venture accelerators, and, more importantly, the support from Cincinnatians.

The majority of the buildings that 3CDC renovates are historic structures that have been severely blighted and abandoned for many years. Given the age of these buildings, among other reasons that will be further explained , 3CDC and other developers are very conscious of the need for energy efficiency in these newly renovated buildings.

There’s a big push for renovating and building new structures to meet some energy efficiency standard; in fact, there are 1,394 certified LEED projects in Cincinnati. This would cover almost 20MM (yes, millions!) square feet of certified LEED space. Another standard that only concerns energy efficiency is EnergyStar (instead of various aspects of environmental consciousness). In Cincinnati only, there is 26MM square feet labeled under the EnergyStar for homes program (2).

We must adjust our energy consumption behaviors without imposing any limitations on our current or future lifestyle

Now, the challenge to tackle is: how could we improve the livelihood of neighborhoods in urban areas by building environmentally and energy conscious buildings? Well, although you may think it’d be easier to simply generate as much as you consume, that should not (and must not) be the answer to the obstacle. Instead of Go-Big-or-Go-Home, innovation and righteousness originates from efficiency and optimization. We must adjust our energy consumption behaviors without imposing any limitations on our current or future lifestyle. The only way to do that is by increasing the efficiency of your home/office, which means reducing the consumption of electricity and natural gas; in turn, this saves you money, increases your quality of in-home living, and significantly decrease the detriment to the environment. Then, you talk about the origin of your power and get picky with it. No mine-and-burn methods with organic materials such as oil, natural gas, etc; only from solar, wind, hydro, and renewable sources.

Going back to the community building responsibility developers have, our affinity for community and urban development is not a coincidence to this urban rebirth in Cincinnati. In fact, besides our ambition of decreasing the mine-and-burn process as a source of energy, we are inspired by the coalition of positive work and its results for the community in downtown/OTR Cincinnati.

The urban planning challenge posed by people increasingly deciding to live in urban areas lies on the availability, prioritization, and utilization of land. We can represent this with the population density of a city. To PassivHaus, this is a serious concern because the larger this ratio is (NYC has the highest at 27,000 people/sqft), the more alive, useful, diversified, durable, appealing, righteously urban-development friendly, and energy efficient the construction of buildings has to be.

In Cincinnati, this means that we need to keep working on developing such properties. PassivHaus is investing in this philosophy and will build mixed residential/commercial buildings in high density urban areas that contribute to a better lifestyle (walkable communities, strong business resilience, access to sustainable transportation, etc.).

On a separate note, a more “tangible/quantifiable” component of this development is the property tax abatement offered by the City of Cincinnati to new construction and remodeling of buildings in the entire city for up to 15 years. This local initiative was enacted in 2015 with the purposes of accelerating the advent of a greener source of energy for the city, as well as serving as a catalyzer of the development of the core of the city to retain more residents and increase lifestyle. This is a crucial component to the establishment of PassivHaus in the first 2 years. A certified passive house building received the full 15 years of property tax, so basically the residents of a new construction house/condo will only pay taxes of the improved value of the land/property (in most cases). So for a passive house owner, not paying any utility bills is not the only incentive, but also federal solar incentives along with reducing their annual property tax significantly. (3)

About solarization, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance (a nonprofit funded by governments and corporate partners to reduce the barriers to investing in energy efficiency) developed Solarize Cincinnati, a city-wide initiative to make buying solar panels easier and more affordable. This “bulk” buying reduces the costs for homeowners to buy and install a solar system in their homes. With this initiative, a medium sized solar array, with a 6.0kW output, costs $15,000 ($2.5/W) versus the national average of $20,160 ($3.36/W). $15,000-$4,500 in federal credit, makes it $10,500. For a 2,00sqft house, this represents an increase in construction costs of $5.25 by sqft, an investment that will be recovered in 5 years or less. Pretty sweet deal, right? (4)

The next question about the generation of energy from sunlight is: does Cincy get enough sunlight to generate energy? Well, although people still question Cincinnati's amount of sunlight, Cincy in average has more sunny days than Germany (the world leader in solar energy). Phew! Don’t have to worry about that yet.

To summarize, I think we have a pretty well balanced equation in this City. Economically speaking, we have the demand (propelled by economic and community redevelopment), and the supply (arguably undersupplied, but still lots of room for builders and certainly greener builders). Additionally, we even have catalyzers: federal incentives, local incentives, and solarizing projects.

 

Ronald

 

(1)http://choosecincy.com/Cincinnati/media/Cincinnati/Press%20Releases/Annual-Report-2016_FINAL_4-28-_Reduced.pdf
(2) http://www.gbig.org/places/5167
(3) http://www.cincinnati-oh.gov/community-development/housing-assistance/residential-property-tax-abatement/
(4) http://greatercea.org/solarizecincy/
(x) http://usgbc-cincinnati.org/leed/leed-statistics/

En route to net zero energy building

Welcome to the inaugural blog series of PassivHaus! Here we’ll roll out project plans, important information, and updates of fellow passive house building fans on how our community is doing.

This blog is intended to share our endeavours as a company and community, with a focus in that special attitude we should all have towards sustainability: the mentality of achieving a sustainable future without compromising anything away from it.

PassivHaus is a development company that builds high comfort homes that are designed to achieve net zero energy status (and sometimes net positive!). We accomplish such high energy efficiency by following the Passive House building standard and by using photovoltaic cells to generate power for our homes.

We started this organization with the objective of strategically tackling our dependency on fossil fuels. In other words, we asked ourselves: What segment in the US consumes the most energy? By answering this question, which by the way, that segment is residential (1), we knew that all of our efforts are going to be committed to 1) optimizing the energy consumption of buildings and 2) powering buildings from renewable energy sources.

The next question: If single family housing is the segment that consumes most energy, where is that energy coming from? Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the grid that fed homes in the US in 2016 sources its energy in the following fashion (2):

  1. Natural gas = 33.8%

  2. Coal = 30.4%

  3. Nuclear = 19.7%

  4. Total renewables = 14.9%

    1. Solar = 0.9%

  5. Others: 0.3%

Then, it was loud and clear. To make an impact and reduce the mine-and-burn energy format, we must build net zero energy homes. Our mission is set: to accelerate the adaptation of energy efficiency construction principles by building compelling and affordable net zero energy buildings.

Our mission is set: to accelerate the adaptation of energy efficiency construction principles by building compelling and affordable net zero energy buildings.

A net zero energy building is such one that generates at least all the energy it consumes (more generation than consumption would be net positive). In our research, the passive house principles are the best pathway to achieve zero energy status. Although there are other building standards, such as LEED and EnergyStar, these focus on other categories of sustainability (such as water preservation for LEED) or strive to just optimize energy efficiency in a marginal sense.

Passive House principles were designed under the assumption of “maximizing your gains and minimizing your losses” (3), striving to isolate the indoor environment from the cold/hot outdoor climate. To achieve this, designers and builders should focus on the following principles:

  1. Continuous insulation: thick insulation throughout all rooms of the house

  2. Airtight envelope: preventing the filtration of indoor conditioned air to the outside

  3. Solar heat gain: utilizing the heat provided by the sun to warm the house

  4. Heat recovery system: allowing new incoming air and filtered in-house air circulation

This four principles altogether assure that houses decrease their heating energy load by up to 90% and overall energy load by up 75%. These two new efficiencies are affected by multiple factors, such as building type and size, climate type, availability of high performance materials like doors and windows, and others. By far, climate is the most important factor, determining the on-site orientation of homes and even the necessity and size of an HVAC system.

When the Passive House principles were developed in Germany, the weather was a constant variable when measuring the energy performance of passive house buildings. When architects and builders started building passive houses in multiple cities in North America, they realized that certain hard requirements (such as air changes per hour and peak loads) would either under/over estimate the overall performance of the buildings (think about a passive house in Southern California and another in Toronto).

To successfully adopt the passive house principles to all weather types in North America, in 2015 the Passive House Institute of the US, PHIUS, developed a weather map that specifically describes weather types in all areas of the US and Canada. This tool, PHIUS+ 2015, helps designers and builders adjust and rate their projects with very specific performance targets that otherwise would have been rated under the one-size-fits-all performance target.

If Passive Houses are so great, why are all houses not passive? For now, the short answer is that this is such a recent development in homebuilding technology and it has been cost prohibitive to do in the past. To put it in perspective, just in 2013, there were just 90 certified passive house buildings in the US; by 2015 that number increased to 500, and by the end of 2016 the new total was 2,000 (4). That’s a 19 fold increase in just 4 years. How cool, right?

In this blog, over the next few months we’ll talk about the homebuilding and construction industries, some of the factors that have discouraged passive house construction, the role of federal, state, and local governments, our company culture of no-compromise sustainability, 21st century urbanism, and other cool things like smart homes and new building technologies.

To wrap up, we want to invite everyone to stay on the loop while we finish working on our website and social media pages. We are currently in the design stage of our first housing development to be located in Cincinnati, OH. Stay tuned!

 

Ronald Vieira

Founder, PassivHaus

 

(1) = US Energy Information Administration
(2) = US Energy Information Administration
(3) = US Passive House Institute
(4) = Bullard, E 2017, 'Passive house', Salem Press Encyclopedia Of Science, Research Starters, EBSCOhost, viewed 22 May 2017