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Northeast Ohio's first passive house walks in green pioneers footsteps

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/07/11 @ 4:39pm

Northeast Ohio's first passive house, the PNC SmartHome, opened today. Built to respond to the concerns in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's upcoming "Climate Change" exhibit, the 2,500 square foot, 3-bedroom, 2 ˝ bath home assembles some of the world's greenest technological advancements and packages it in a super-insulated shell.

More than the sum of its parts, the SmartHome represents decades of green building wisdom passed down through generations and honed in the craft of builders like Jim LaRue and architects Bill Doty and Chuck Miller, the latter intimately involved piecing together the SmartHome's systems, but also reaching back to the 1970s passive solar homes which offered simple design lessons like orientation to maximize the sun's energy.

It's an impressive milestone for the region, surpassing even the wildest dreams of the visionaries who started exploring 'green' homes here 30 years ago, says LaRue of Shaker Heights who is widely considered the 'godfather' of green building.

At today's ribbon cutting, UCI president Chris Ronayne and Cleveland Sustainability Chief Andrew Watterson alluded to the achievements in recent decades for green building. The SmartHome followed in their footsteps as green building progressed from concept and early demonstration projects like 1999's Adam J. Lewis Environmental Center in Oberlin to today where dozens of green buildings dot the Northeast Ohio landscape.

"My hope is what seems new with the SmartHome will be commonplace in five years," remarked LaRue, who, along with the late Carlton Rush (both pictured right) kicked off a new interest in green homes in 2001 in Slavic Village and went on to consult on numerous others including two Cleveland EcoVillage green homes.

Thirty years ago, Environmental Health Watch and the Housing Research Center sponsored a conference on healthy housing, he recalled, and it defined green building principles: Build with sustainable and non-toxic materials; reduce energy demand; and build a healthy environment. "The principles still hold today, but we're doing a much better job now. Since then, we've been working on 'build it tight and ventilate it right.'"

Back in 1989, David Beach (before EcoCity Cleveland and GreenCityBlueLake) wrote in the "Healthy House" catalog for area builders and health practitioners about how knowledge accumulates and forces markets to meet new demands, which was especially true as environmental ideas moved indoors in the 1970s.

"In many ways the modern home is a novel environment for human beings, a produce of the Chemical Age. Before World War II, for example, carpeting wasn't treated with over 30 different chemicals-solvents, adhesives, stain resistants, biocides to inhibit growth of microorganisms. We are just starting to understand how some of these products, which make our lives more convenient today, may damage our health tomorrow.

But consumers are increasingly using their economic clout to demand non-toxic alternatives. In response, real estate agents are requiring proof that homes on the market have been tested for radon and are free of urea-formaldehyde foam insulation.

LaRue, Beach, Environmental Health Watch's Stu Greenberg and others were the first wave, helping to define the emerging "building science" and the reach of green building. An indication of the progress: in the early 90s, it was common to expect a full 500 mile search to find materials to recycle into a green building (today, the market has developed to the point where the hardwood floors and the purple hardwood in the SmartHome were "deconstructed" and "upcycled" from a home in Cleveland Heights and the Lakewood High School bleachers).The SmartHome, like green buildings before it, is a showcase for new (to the region) technology, such as the combination of heat pumps and the Energy Recovery Ventilation systems (from Germany) which capture and reuse 'heat energy' within stale air as it is vented-both promoting energy efficiency and healthy indoor air. Collecting systems and design and making it cohere in a space inspires Doty & Miller Architects, early adopters of green building, who arguably are still building from their experience with the area's first green commercial retrofit, The Cleveland Environmental Center (CEC, pictured) in 2003. Doty and Miller went on to build some of Northeast Ohio's first new green buildings, like Heather Hill nursing home in Geauga County. The pair plied uncharted waters as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) become the dominant system used to rate green buildings, from the 90s to the architects recent green redesign of their offices in Berea.

"It grew so quickly in the early 90s, but it was practically dead here for the last five years," Doty said. "The SmartHome is happening in the middle of a new interest in green building." The home has already inspired a conversation with the City of South Euclid, he added, to "build an affordable as energy efficient as possible home on a 150 foot infill lot."

It is the culmination of decades of work where pioneers like Cleveland Green Building Coalition founding father Sadhu Johnston set the stage for a corps of green building practitioners filtering all the way up to big contracting firms like Panzica Construction which is managing Cleveland Museum of Art's expansion but also lead the SmartHome construction with Chris Kontur of CPK Construction.

"I'm reminded of when Chicago Mayor Richard Daley toured through the Cleveland Ecovillage," said Ronayne. "He had an epiphany when he saw the green roof on the (CEC). He took with him one of our brightest (Johnston, who served as his Chief of Environment)."

"I want to say to the museum and its trustees, way to go," Ronayne added. "Way to keep innovating. Keep it going into the future."

Natural History Museum Director Evalyn Gates individually thanked the 100 partners-from Cleveland Foundation to contractors and companies donating funds, goods and services during the opening ceremony. She talked about how this represents a new direction for the museum: Thinking about our future place on the planet. "This is a tangible example of how to build smartly and to dramatically reduce our energy needs," she said.

Gates also acknowledged the role of catalyst that GCBL Director David Beach played. As he did with the Cleveland EcoVillage townhomes in the mid-oughts, Beach was the "spark in the flame" for the SmartHome, she said, ushering it from concept to completion.

Another long-time local 'green' architect, Jim Ptacek, echoed Gates' thoughts. "The best thing about this is when the public sees it, they'll say, 'wow' and start demanding SmartHomes in every suburb. Builders will respond to the market."

Ed Shank, an engineer who installed the heat pump and ERV system along with Zehnder, said he and green building consultant, Mark Hoberecht, become certified Passive House consultants before the SmartHome design phase began in January (Hoberecht will measure the performance of the home after it is moved to its permanent location in order to certify it as a Passive House). Shank talked about lessons from the SmartHome for retrofitting existing homes to be super energy efficient. He cites Ed Marion in Toronto and Lance Schmidt in Akron as leaders in deep energy retrofits inspired by the hundreds of passive homes being built in Europe. "Schmidt's company FG Ayers is building very energy efficient homes in the Akron area, one that sold for $110,000." He said that Akron and Cleveland are both pursuing an abandoned property strategy that involves deconstruction and deep energy retrofit demonstrations.

Undoubtedly, the SmartHome showed how to flex a ton of creative muscle. It packed much innovation (and beautiful finish work) into an incredibly small window-a 2-month construction schedule. Imagine what could be done on the scale of a city with a 10-year sustainability initiative?

Watterson, who was the Cleveland Environmental Center project manager to Johnston before taking on an equivalent position as Chief of Sustainability, said the SmartHome represents creative thinking on the part of the city writ large. "It represents a new way of doing business in the city. Look at what the city did to think creatively."

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