Peabody said the most challenging part of the project was the heating and cooling system. Because the building envelope is so tight, fresh air is brought in mechanically; about half the air in the house is replaced every hour. To minimize the amount of energy required to heat or cool all this incoming air, the team used a low-tech, low-energy system that tempers the incoming air — it heats it up or cools it down, depending on the season — before it passes into the house. Once inside, only a minimal energy draw from the heating and cooling system is needed to bring the incoming air to the desired room temperature. Attesting to its performance, Foley said he has been in the house when the outside temperature was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the interior was a comfortable 74 degrees Fahrenheit.
The energy-saving aspect of the house appealed to the Klines; Ian Kline is an energy consultant who monitors energy usage in commercial and industrial buildings and, he said, “I wanted a residential application of what we pursue as a firm.” But both Klines said the bigger draw was the ambience of the house. Though it’s new construction and Craftsman-styled, it feels like the 1870 Boston-area Victorian they lived in before moving to the Washington area.
With the heavily insulated walls, the house is incredibly quiet inside, Lydia Kline said. During last fall’s Hurricane Sandy, “you had to look outside to know there was a storm,” she said.
The Klines said their utility bills average about $200 a month, despite the 4,400-square-foot size of their house. Such a low amount for such a big house impresses those who ask, though Ian Kline said he isn’t sure that people find it credible. “People hear these numbers and say they sound amazing, but I’m not sure everyone believes the numbers,” he said.
The features that reduced the Klines’ household energy for heating and cooling by 90 percent added about 6 to 8 percent to its construction cost, O’Neill said. For this house, which sold for $1.4 million, the added cost was about $55,000. At this price point, O’Neill noted, the added cost was not a deal breaker.
O’Neill anticipates that the added cost of the energy-saving features will go down as he builds more Passive Houses and their unusual construction requirements become routine (he’s building his second one now).
Is the Passive House destined to remain a niche product or does it have mainstream potential? Bob Hubbell, president of Brookfield Homes Washington area operation, said that today’s production home buyers still favor glitz and glamour over energy-saving features.
But he said, as building codes require new houses to become ever more energy-efficient, the Passive House might become a feasible option for the mass market.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, she can be contacted at email@example.com or www.katherinesalant.com.