Reneé Jones, who has been homeless for six years, moved into her Weinberg Commons apartment in Southeast Washington ahead of Friday’s formal ribbon-cutting. “This is truly a blessing,” she says. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

At a glance, the beige mid-rise buildings at Southern Avenue and Benning Road in Southeast Washington are unremarkable.

But despite the spare landscaping, the new Weinberg Commons development, which will provide permanent housing to some of the District’s poorest residents, is at the cutting edge of environmental sustainability, its architects and developers said Friday.

Constructed using Passive House design, pioneered in Europe, the three buildings contain unusually deep windowsills and awnings that vary in size, depending on the angle of the building face. The outer walls contain 8 1/2 inches of densely packed fiberglass, which serve as insulation to keep the low-
income housing cool in summer and warm in winter.

And, according to its developers, the 36 apartments at Weinberg Commons will consume almost zero outside energy.

It’s the first time that developers have used Passive House criteria to retrofit a multifamily building in the United States, the developers from Transitional Housing Corp. (THC), a D.C. nonprofit group, said Friday.

It’s also the latest and newest refuge for some of the District’s poorest residents, and its sponsors hope that it could serve as a model for future low-income developments in a nation struggling to preserve housing for the poor amid rising prices.

Twenty-four of the two-bedroom apartments at Weinberg Commons will provide homes to low-income families at rents of less than $1,000 a month, and the other 12 will serve as permanent housing for homeless families.

Some are coming straight from the D.C. General emergency shelter, which Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has promised to close in favor of smaller, safer shelters.

There are more than 11,000 homeless people in the Washington metropolitan area, and nearly two-thirds are in the District.

About 600 D.C. families currently reside in homeless shelters and overflow hotel rooms, and District officials expect that number to more than double during the winter.

Polly Donaldson, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development and a former THC executive director, told the gathering Friday that she has been to a number of ribbon-cuttings this year, “but I have to tell you, this one is really special.”

For a city struggling to meet a quickly growing need, the three dozen new units may represent a little more than a drop in the bucket.

But THC, which launched the project with a combination of private and public funding during the administration of Bowser’s predecessor, Vincent C. Gray (D), could provide a model for a city — and others — that are grappling with the skyrocketing cost of living, officials said.

“Numbers-wise, it’s 12 units, and there are a lot more families in the D.C. homeless population than that. But it’s a start, and it’s a successful start,” said Kimball Griffith, who chairs the THC board. “The hope would be that it generates momentum and shows people what can be done.”

As city officials held the formal ribbon-cutting, engineers were busy installing solar panels on the roofs.

“If you put solar panels on a typical building, you might be able to offset 20 to 30 percent of the energy load of the building,” said Michael Hindle, the principal at Passive to Positive, an environmental consulting firm that worked on the project. But the heavy insulation and specific design of the Weinberg Commons buildings would radically increase the use of the solar panels, he said. “We’re offsetting [energy costs by] almost 100 percent.”

Residents began moving in this month.

One of them, Reneé Jones, moved in Tuesday after six years of being homeless. She said she was looking forward to surprising her 8-year-old son, who has been staying with his grandmother and was unaware of their new home.

Jones, 50, who struggled with drug addiction for 20 years and is now receiving culinary training through a city-run program, said she would host her first Thanksgiving dinner this year. “It’s unbelievable,” she said. “This is truly a blessing.”