Thoughtful Balance’s Recent Passive House Project: Did We or Did We Not?

We have completed our McKeesport Downtown Housing project, 84 units of single room occupancy (SRO) housing for people at risk for homelessness.  It is a remarkable project in several ways; it is the first attempt at a complex multi-family retrofit as a Passive House in the country, it is a historic building insulated from the inside, and it is the first Passive House SRO in the country.  We have submitted our final papers to PHIUS and await the big moment…DID WE OR DID WE NOT achieve a PHIUS rating?  We are on PINS AND NEEDLES…but those pins and needles are just what have caused us to start to wonder about the fuss over rating systems in general.  Of course we understand the need for rating systems; unfortunately, we live in a culture where people will make false claims just in order to sell services.  Greenwashing is commonplace.  Rating systems are a useful guide to help professionals take measured steps through the design and construction process toward sustainability.  LEED is a wonderful introduction to the myriad of issues in making sustainable buildings.  Passive House helps refine and monitor many of the issues related to a building’s energy use…  We understand all that.  However, we wonder if the construction industry hasn’t gotten a little too focused on getting a plaque for the building.

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Photo: Denmarsh Photography

We understand that recognition for efforts made on a project can be wonderful.  We want that recognition, too!  Before our project was started, utility bills for the former YMCA were $60,000 a year.  Those utility costs were a deal-breaker for our client.  Collecting $300 per month per unit or less was not going to cover the expenses.  In addition, we were planning to add air conditioning, install a make-up air system, and improve lighting levels; projected utility costs at that point were approaching $90,000.  Our projections show us saving over 75% of the heating and cooling energy on our building.  What we do know is that we have achieved a level of air-tightness that exceeds the Department of Defense Standards for High Performance Buildings (the most rigorous standard except for Passive House – they are way beyond the DOE)  and we are tighter than 99.5% of the NEW buildings built in this country last year.  Now as we wait anxiously for the news – did we make it or not? – one part of us is on pins and needles and one part doesn’t really care.  We dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s to the best of our ability and, if we fall short…that is how the cookie crumbles.  But we still saved the energy!

(This post was adapted from Laura’s most recent newsletter, Positive Energy.  Learn more about Laura and her work at www.thoughtfulbalance.com)

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