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Three 'passive home' projects in Cleveland look to the future of homebuilding

Marc Lefkowitz  |  03/24/11 @ 1:01pm

It sounds hyperbolic, but three projects in Cleveland will offer a glimpse into the future of homebuilding. As the residential sector staggers punch drunk, the so-called 'passive house' doesn't exactly offer a lifeline to the masses. They seek living proof, though, that homes can be constructed so efficiently that they operate almost entirely from the energy of the sun.

Two are demonstrations and the third a controversial infill project razing a famous mansion in the neighborhood of Cleveland robber barons now being pushed to make way for this century's mandate for super energy efficient buildings. Two of these passive homes (the third is a finalist in an international competition) are out to prove that these highly energy efficient living space is choice that we are now capable of.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History set its flag down firmly with last week's groundbreaking of the SmartHome, a 2,500 sq ft. house being built on its grounds (it will be literally picked up and moved at the end of its 'run'). It promises to be so efficient that it can operate without a conventional furnace, just a small heat pump unit. Some of the unique features include 14-inch-thick insulated walls, triple-paned windows engineered in Germany, and an air-exchange ventilation system that captures and reuses heat before it escapes.

This project is more than a 'nice to have,' it will supply data from the field about how a passive home operates in our climate. And like the wind farm being planned for Lake Erie, the home's builders hope it's the lead in to building more passive homes employing local manufacturing. From the environmental side, why this matters can be found in the GreenCityBlueLake Institute's carbon footprint analysis of Northeast Ohio. Here's a passage:

"Residential is responsible for 59% of the CO2 emissions from the overall building sector. This translates into 17.5 million tons of CO2 emissions per year, or about 14 tons per housing unit in the 7-county region. In order to meet our climate goals, we need our residential buildings to emit 50% fewer CO2 emissions by 2030 and 90% fewer CO2 emissions by 2050."

A controversy rages over the James H. Foster mansion in the tony Cleveland Heights neighborhood of Ambler Heights. The new owners outraged traditionalists by stating here the greenest building actually isn't the one already built. Even if it was designed by famous Cleveland architects, Walker and Weeks, they argue, it makes more sense to raze the deteriorated 8,500 sq ft. domicile with no insulation, dozens of single-pane windows and a boiler that generates 1 million BTU/hour (the equivalent of a commercial boiler), and instead build a passive solar home. Even though they plan to recycle and donate woodwork, fixtures and valuable cast-iron radiators, and build a home that operates on 10,000 BTU/hour (the equivalent of two hair dryers), the project has raised concerns. But are those concerns based on facts or nostalgia for the way the well-off lived in the past, a neighbor writes in the Heights Observer. "Do we really want to drive away homeowners who bring new energy and new ideas? Do we want solutions or do we just want to complain about our energy problem?"

On a brighter note, there's Ronald B. Sarstedt, A.I.A., Managing Director of Elements, an architects studio in Cleveland, whose plan for a single-family home in Ohio City is one of 125 entries globally competing for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge award. More encouraging yet, Sarstedt promises to build two of his own passive home designs-whether or not it wins the $100,000 cash prize-one that he hopes to sell, the other he plans to occupy.

Sarstedt's concept, titled simply, "Sustainable House No. 1; Cleveland, Ohio," is posted on the Buckminster Fuller Challenge website and includes a detailed description as well as drawings. He describes his design as a housing model that is "locally inspired, but universally applicable." It incorporates environmentally conscientious features such as the passive use of the sun, wind, water, and earth for conservation of non-renewable resources and the utilization of renewable resources for the heating, cooling, ventilation, storm water management, and lighting necessary for human physical comfort

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