For more than a decade, a weedy, trash-strewn vacant lot abutted the house I rented near the center of Mount Rainier, Md. When I heard a few years ago that the lot had been bought by a developer, I imagined some slick businesspeople would show up a few times, throw together a cheaply constructed building, make a quick profit and move on.
Instead, a young guy with hipster glasses, skinny jeans and slightly disheveled hair drove up in a 1984 Mercedes diesel station wagon, wrestled an old push mower out of the trunk and spent two hours whacking down the weeds. This is a real estate developer? I thought. He looked more like an indie rocker, or maybe a Web designer.
The mystery mower turned out to be John Miller, a young, ambitious developer who — with his business partner, Jessica Pitts, and their company, Flywheel Development — wants to be the Tesla of home building: visionary, disruptive, world-changing. For their debut project, he and Pitts planned to build four ultra-green townhouses in this tiny city at the edge of Prince George’s County and price them higher than any homes had ever sold for in Mount Rainier. The 1,800-square-foot homes would be built under stringent European energy guidelines seldom attempted in the United States that cut energy use to about one-fifth that of a standard house and would generate as much energy as they expended thanks to rooftop solar panels. They would pack twice the insulation of a standard code-built home and feature a combined green roof and solar panel system that had never been installed in an American dwelling. This development would not only launch Flywheel, they hoped, it would help turn sustainable building from a boutique industry into a mass movement.
But there are reasons that uber-green houses such as these rarely get built in the United States, much less in a suburb struggling to balance the need for revitalization against the fear of gentrification. Neither building codes nor buyers demand that homes be energy efficient. And given the lack of incentives to go green, most builders prefer to do what they know, rather than master new — and more demanding — building techniques and materials. To realize their vision, Pitts and Miller had to import components from Europe, train their crew in unconventional construction techniques and improvise a host of solutions to unexpected problems. “The kind of stuff we’re doing is crazy,” Miller says. “It’s like invading Normandy, it’s so complicated.”
Like the spinning wheels they named their company after, Pitts and Miller are perpetually in motion. “They’re pretty intense people,” says Peter Henry, the project’s Virginia-based architect. Miller, 34, grew up in Georgia and North Carolina, and studied history at Duke University and urban and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He combines an expansive vision of green construction’s world-changing potential — regularly reminding me that 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions come from buildings — with the confidence and charm of a natural salesman.
Pitts, 33, is the more reserved yin to Miller’s hyperactive yang. She favors a no-nonsense wardrobe and straight blond hair, and provides the operation’s technical firepower. Originally from Texas, she studied psychology and real estate at Cornell University. In the mid-2000s she used her rudimentary German to study a building method called “passive house,” which was so cutting-edge that English-language materials didn’t exist. She obsesses over details that can make or break an energy-efficient building.
She and Miller met in 2011 at a real estate conference and reconnected in 2013 while both were working at the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes policies that favor energy efficiency and green construction. Observing that the industry needed developers willing to push the limits of how environmentally friendly buildings could be — and wanting to build their own houses, not just support others — they launched their company the next year. “I realized that policy has to follow the industry; it doesn’t lead the industry,” Pitts says.
The pair’s passion and idealism impressed industry veterans. “They could be working for big development companies making hundreds of thousands of dollars, instead of doing this,” says Robert Sahadi, a D.C.-based developer and IMT adviser who contributed funding to the project. “They’re putting not just their money but their life and their youth into this to make it happen.”
After striking out on bids for sites in the District, Flywheel found two adjacent abandoned lots with a combined area slightly larger than a baseball diamond in the heart of Mount Rainier, a semi-gritty, semi-crunchy inner-ring suburb, population 8,500. It was the ideal site: infill, not sprawl — where people should be living if cities are to truly become sustainable, Miller says. It was also small and cheap enough that a company with no track record could get financing. And it was in an aspiring city desperate for new development but whose residents and officials are pretty particular about what kind. Green and funky are popular here; Mount Rainier boasts the D.C. area’s oldest food co-op, among other idiosyncrasies.
Pitts and Miller developed a plan to match: They would build stylish, midsize townhouses that would be certified by the Passive House Institute, based in Darmstadt, Germany. “The passive-house requirements are definitely the most aggressive of any program in the country, and in the world,” in terms of energy efficiency, says Asa Foss, director of residential technical solutions for the D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council. Unlike the council’s popular LEED certification, which incorporates factors such as materials and proximity to transit, the passive-house standard focuses on energy use, requiring a nearly airtight building seal designed to lower energy bills by 80 percent or more compared with a standard house. Because it is so new and so stringent, only about 50 U.S. buildings carry the certification, says Ken Levenson, a founding board member of the Brooklyn-based North American Passive House Network.
To meet the strict guidelines, Pitts and Miller made the unconventional decision to have their houses custom-built by Beracah Homes, a Delaware-based construction firm that frames houses in a factory and delivers them to order, complete with drywall, doors, windows and insulation, on flatbed trailers. (The nearly 20-foot-wide boxes ended up requiring a police escort for the trip from Greenwood, Del., to Mount Rainier.) They would then reduce utility bills by adding solar panels, sheets of exterior insulation and specialized equipment such as energy-recovery ventilators, which exchange heat between air coming into the house and that going out, reducing the energy needed to warm incoming air in winter or cool it in summer.
But difficulties arrived before the project even broke ground, as it got snagged in Prince George’s County’s notoriously hidebound permitting bureaucracy. For more than a year, Pitts and Miller negotiated and adjusted their plans to meet standards they found to be tailored more to large-scale developments than to a small urban infill project. To adhere to storm-water management rules while squeezing four homes onto the lot, for example, they installed not just the green roof but a permeable driveway, yet still had to pay storm-water mitigation fees. Meanwhile, their website and banner on the lot hadn’t yet generated interest from potential buyers.
Then, attracted by information at an Earth Day event in April 2015, Clifton Langdon, an assistant professor at Washington’s Gallaudet University, and Kirsi Grigg, an interpreter for deaf-blind people who also works at Gallaudet, came to tour the building site. Both about 30, they were looking to move up from their D.C. rowhouse in the Trinidad neighborhood and possibly start a family. Attracted by a house that would align with their environmental values, the couple signed a contract in 2016 for one of the end units, with a base price of $470,000 that rose to just over $500,000 with custom features that the couple requested.
Grigg and Langdon say their new house will make it much easier to live sustainably — for instance, they will no longer have to tape plastic over leaky windows each winter. “Now we don’t have to constantly wonder what we have to do to make our house environmentally friendly,” Langdon says. “It’s already done.”
Pitts and Miller broke ground in June 2016 with only two contracts in hand (the second later fell through). New complications quickly piled up: They had to pump a rainstorm’s worth of water out of the foundation hole; the foam insulation sheets were unexpectedly thick; the roofing job was so expensive they forced themselves to climb a 30-foot ladder in harnesses (both are afraid of heights) to drive nails with their crew and plant thousands of drought-hardy sedums. As the project dragged on, they started spending nights and weekends on-site and agreed not to drink on weekday evenings to maintain focus and productivity. “People think we’re crazy,” says Miller. “Pete [McAvoy, their general contractor] thinks we’re crazy. And the people who work for Pete think he’s crazy.”
“All of these passive-house details are complicated,” Pitts says. “People say, ‘Nobody ever does that. That’s stupid. I’ve never seen anybody do that.’ You’re like, ‘Yes, that is true, but we’re not building a standard house.’ ”
In mid-February, two of the unsold houses were far enough along that Pitts and Miller decided to show them. They listed an end unit for $561,000 and an interior unit for $544,000. While modest by D.C. standards, such asking prices exceeded any in Mount Rainier’s history and were about $100,000 higher than the listing prices for comparable existing homes in the city, estimates Rockville-based Realtor Tucker Davis. (Those prices have since been superseded, including by a single-family ultra-green house less than two blocks away.)
Other than the solar panels, the Flywheel homes did little to overtly advertise their greenness to potential buyers. They have hardwood floors and a minimalist aesthetic that would be at home in any interior design magazine. On closer look, a buyer might notice that the triple-paned windows, imported from Ireland, remain warm to the touch even when it’s below freezing outside. Porch lights that mimic old-fashioned Edison bulbs are really LEDs, the energy-efficient technology that is rapidly taking over the lighting industry. The small heat pumps are tucked away between the first and second floors (though the energy-recovery ventilator occupies a sizable chunk of the basement, similar to the footprint of a traditional furnace). The doors seal so tightly that the interior feels more like a submarine than a house. (In a test, the house leaked so little air that the energy auditor thought his equipment was malfunctioning.)
On the morning of the open house, unsightly mounds of dirt still stood in the front yards next to yawning canyons revealing sewer hookups. But people showed up — mostly young couples, some towing small children. A few seemed genuinely interested, if noncommittal. Others were turned off by the small bedrooms, a compromise Pitts and Miller made to squeeze three bedrooms into a space constrained by thick wall insulation. Mario Cisneros, an architect in Mount Rainier, gave a blunt assessment: “I think they’re overpriced.”
The offers that came in were disappointing, so Pitts and Miller lowered the price and hired a Realtor. More-serious buyers started showing up, and Miller turned on the charm, explaining green features that might baffle real estate agents. The strategy worked: By the first week of April, the remaining three units were under contract for prices between $520,000 and $530,000.
None of the buyers identified as hardcore greens, but simply as environmentally conscious people who appreciated a well-built house. “Every detail was well thought out,” says Kathryn Peterson, a 29-year-old business manager who, with husband Nathan Burtch, a 36-year-old geography lecturer at Towson University, recently moved into one of the units from a small rental in the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. “It felt like you were dealing with people who really cared about the building, not just the financial bottom line.”
With the houses under contract, Flywheel and those rooting for them breathed a sigh of relief. Local officials are pleased to have a viable development in a town that has seen its share of failed projects. “This is exactly what infill development should look like to be sustainable,” says Deni Taveras, the Prince George’s County Council member whose district includes Mount Rainier.
“It’s pretty near as green as they come,” says Cliff Majersik, the Institute for Market Transformation’s executive director. “What we need is millions of homes like the ones they’re building.” That’s not as far-fetched as it may seem. The green-building industry is expanding, and research by IMT and others suggests that buyers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable features. If lenders begin incorporating energy costs into mortgage calculations, as some are advocating, that could give the industry an additional incentive to go green.
Some observers, however, note possible downsides to Flywheel’s ultra-green approach. Mount Rainier Mayor Malinda Miles likes the houses (“if I could tear mine down, I’d build one just like it”). But the mayor worries that Flywheel’s success, along with similar projects in the pipeline, could accelerate a gentrification trend that is already stressing some city residents — a tension facing communities across the country. “What does it do to the housing stock around it in terms of affordability?” she asks. (A few weeks later, she would win reelection on a platform that included reining in gentrification.)
Another potential downside is that the extreme passive-house requirements may yield too little payoff for many builders in the D.C. region and in similar climates. “It makes more sense in the colder climates,” says Foss of the Green Building Council. “As the climate gets milder, the costs ... are the same, but the actual energy savings are less.”
While the houses sold for less than Pitts and Miller had originally hoped, Flywheel did make a profit, although the pair declined to divulge how much they will take home. “Overall what we did is probably not more or less profitable than standard construction,” Miller says. But, he adds, success is not measured just in dollars: The townhouses give their fledgling company valuable boosts in credibility and experience. They have a bid in on a $15 million, 31-unit passive-house townhouse project in Hyattsville whose units would generate enough power for an electric car as well as the house itself. “We have other projects lined up, we have goodwill, we have intellectual capital,” says Miller. “In our business that is powerful currency.”
They also point out that they’re competing with another passive-house builder for an apartment project in the District, a welcome sign for those who would like to see the sustainable-infill model take off. “We want the market to be challenged to build better buildings,” says Miller.
On the afternoon the final contracts were inked, Pitts and Miller were, for once, relaxed, blasting classic rock from the Mercedes’s stereo as they packed up equipment from the site that had been their home away from home for much of the past three years. “They look good, don’t they?” Miller asked me, probably five times, as we gazed at the buildings, each of which is painted a different color: light gray, brick red, steel blue and taupe.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, Kirsi Grigg drove up. Like parents dropping their kid off at college, Pitts and Miller watched with a mix of pride and wistfulness as her car, still sporting a Barack Obama bumper sticker, entered the garage and the door descended behind her.
Gabriel Popkin is a freelance writer based in Mount Rainier who covers science and the environment.
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