Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Collaborators building passive home open doors for walk-through

02/12/2019 12:42PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

More than 50 guests who share an interest in passive homes went on a muddy-boot tour of a 4,000-square-foot home in Franklin Township on Feb. 9. The home is being constructed with all of the bells and whistles of sustainability, green living and airtight efficiency.

The tour featured multiple presentations given by experts in passive home construction who are collaborating to build the home, which is on 54 acres and features a view of the southern Chester County countryside.

The experts included Steve Hessler of Hugh Lofting Timber Framing & High Performance Building, who built the home's interior framing; Marlee Beres of Blueprint Robotics, who pre-assembled the interior of the home at a warehouse in Baltimore, shipped it to the construction site and assembled it within a seven-week build time; Ilka Cassidy of C2 Architecture, the home's architect; and representatives from Steico Wood Fibre, who provided the home with insulation made from natural wood fiber.

Designed in the style of a Finnish farmhouse, the three-story home features a guest room, computer room and recreation room on its lower level; a mudroom, kitchen, library, family and dining room, foyer, den, studios and screened porches on its ground level; and three bedrooms on its top floor.

The home applies the key principles of a passive home -- thermal insulation, airtightness, passive house insulated windows, and an intricate ventilation, heating and cooling systems.

During their presentations, Hessler, Cassidy and Beres discussed the specifics of their company's involvement in the project, stressing that that the home is being built with comfort, health, resilience and sustainability in mind.

Passive design aims to provide maximum energy efficiency and interior comfort by using careful energy modeling and balance of heat emissions to keep the building comfortable while maximizing energy efficiency. Passive houses generally achieve energy savings of 80 to 90 percent through super-insulation and airtight building envelopes, highly efficient HVAC systems, energy recovery ventilation, high-performance windows and moisture control.

Once completed, the home will be lived in by a retired couple, whose daughter lives nearby.

“I'm from Finland, so I grew up with highly insulated houses, because Finland is cold and has no natural energy sources,” said one of the owners. “Because of that, I never lived in a house in Finland that didn't have triple-insulated windows. While those homes are not quite as insulated as [the one we're having built], it's very high compared to a standard American home, where you can stand by the window and tell what the temperature is outside.”

While the Franklin Township home is reflective of what Hessler called “a carbon-smart building,” it has not yet become the new normal in U.S. home construction. As of 2015, there were about 150 passive house projects being done in the United States. While that number has risen since, this type of construction still lags behind the rest of the world, where, as of 2013, there were 30,000 passive homes in Europe, with the majority of them in Germany and Scandinavia.

Architect Helena van Vliet said that in this country, the concept of passive homes is being largely driven through private initiative, rather than by the federal government. In other countries, she said, passive home building is woven into the tax structure and public policy.

“In my work, I talk about health a great deal, instead of sustainability, because health is what everyone wants to talk about,” van Vliet said. “It's very personal, and something that everyone invests money in. When we approach [passive homes] from the standpoint of having a conversation about health, it takes the issue out the political realm of sustainability, and moves it into a medical and well-being environment, and that's a conversation that everyone is willing to have.

“Once you figure in health and well-being expense, it's actually a cost-effective way of keeping healthy.”

Hugh Lofting, the founder and owner of Hugh Lofting Timber Framing and High Performance Building, said that the concept of integrating sustainability and energy efficiency into the construction of a new house is still a foreign one to most U.S. consumers.

“When I started my business in timber framing, I spent most of my time telling people what timber framing was,” Lofting said. “It's the same in trying to explain what a passive house is. How do you explain to someone that you're building a super-insulated, airtight house that's going to help save the environment? Do you know what their first response is, 'How much is it going to cost?'”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].