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).
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.