In 2014, I was living in an apartment a few miles south of Stanford University in northern California. I wanted to improve my quality of life by purchasing a home in the same community, but housing prices in the area were accelerating upwards and I couldn’t find anything affordable. I decided it was time to consider a move to a less expensive locale. When an opportunity arose to purchase an undeveloped property in southern Rhode Island, I jumped on it. This looked like a great place to build an interesting new house.
I wanted my new home to be comfortable, quiet, and energy-efficient. After discussions with Stephen DeMetrick, a local builder, I decided to design and build a house that achieves, and hopefully exceeds, a very stringent set of requirements called the Passive House building standard. I assembled a team of highly-qualified professionals who understood what we wanted to do and were up to speed on the latest advances in science-based design and construction methods.
A Passive House typically uses 80-90% less energy than a conventional American home — hard to believe, but true. The air inside the home is clean and safe, with very little temperature variation (no hot or cold spots). Occupants aren’t bothered by pollen, excessive humidity, or outside noise.
How does a Passive House achieve this?
Passive solar heating. The primary source of heat during the cooler months is sunlight that enters through large, south-facing windows. Wide eaves and other shading techniques are used to minimize solar gain during the warmer months.
Superinsulation. A passive house uses insulation with very high R-values around the main envelope, including the foundation.
Minimal thermal bridging. Passive house designers try very hard to eliminate thermal bridging inside the main envelope. Thermal bridging occurs when a conductive material extends from within the main envelope to the outside air.
No leaks! The main envelope is virtually airtight, preventing infiltration of outside air and loss of conditioned air.
High-performance windows and doors. European-designed windows and doors provide exceptional thermal and acoustical insulation. Features include triple glazing, multiple gaskets, warm-edge spacers, and a multi-point locking system to ensure a tight seal.
Whole-house ventilation. An independent ventilation system exchanges the air inside the main envelope every few hours, and includes subsystems for air filtration, energy recovery, and dehumidification.
Energy storage. During power outages, a battery-based energy storage system from Sonnen USA supplies power to essential loads such as ventilation, HVAC, and refrigeration. As manufacturing costs come down, I expect residential energy storage to grow in popularity.
I also decided to install a rooftop PV solar system. Twenty-two panels generate up to 6000 watts during daylight hours. Some of this energy is used to power the house; the surplus is sold to the local electric utility.
The Project Team
- Stephen DeMetrick, home builder
- Steven Baczek AIA, principal architect
- Nancy Leslie AIA, interior designer
- Daniel Roy, energy consultant
- Shawn Mayers, landscape designer
- Mike Browne, Passive House certification auditor
- Frisella-Balch & Associates, land surveyor
During the construction of the house, I took photos every few days.
- Clearing the building site
- April 2016
- May 2016
- June 2016
- July 2016
- August 2016
- September 2016
- October 2016
- November 2016
- December 2016
- January 2017
- February 2017
- March 2017
- April 2017
- May 2017
- June 2017
- July-December 2017
The Affordability Crisis
From 2002 to 2016, I rented a small apartment in Los Altos, an upscale Silicon Valley bedroom community. According to Trulia, the median sales price of properties in this community is well over $3,000,000 and the median rent for apartments is around $6,000/month. Yikes!
On the Need for Coherence
Steve Baczek and I spent a great deal of time thinking about how my house would fit into the surrounding environment and complement the natural beauty there. A recent Current Affairs essay explains why so much contemporary architecture is badly designed and violates our sense of aesthetics and coherence. Here’s an excerpt:
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is an impressive building. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear any actual relationship to its surroundings; it could have been placed anywhere. Aesthetic coherence is very important. A sense of place depends on every element in that place working together. The streets of the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston are beautiful because the many different elements are aesthetically unified. The Tour Montparnasse in Paris is horrifying because it doesn’t flow with the surrounding buildings and draws attention to itself.
Their conclusion: In terms of coherence, most contemporary architecture is ugly. Some of it is very ugly. The worst examples attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of special effort.