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First Green, Passive House in New York State Constructed in Claverack

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On a sunny day in June, about 40 people gathered under a canvas canopy on the lawn of a newly built, barn-like spec house in Claverack, Columbia County. The architect, Dennis Wedlick, and the builder, Bill Stratton, were celebrating the completion of the house along with their teams. A few journalists were there, too, because this was no ordinary spec house. Rather, it’s a passive house — one of the most energy efficient houses in the world, the eleventh to be certified in the U.S., and the first in New York State. Nick Ford, Stratton’s site supervisor, said a few words about how building it was “a mind-changing experience,” for the construction crew. “This is the future,” he added.

A passive house is a virtually airtight dwelling that consumes about one-tenth of the energy required to heat and cool a conventional house. To be certified, it must meet the exacting standards established by the Passivhaus-Institut in Germany. This one actually exceeds those standards — and its efficiency is due almost entirely to its design and construction. It does not rely on green technologies like solar, wind, or geothermal power.

office and loftSoaring ceilings framed in bow-arch beams (“the shape of a Dutch barn,” notes Wedlick) make the compact home seem more expansive, as does the huge wall of triple-paned windows. Organic materials used for the interior include Douglas fir cabinetry, southern yellow pine for the beams and paneling, a stainy concrete floor and glass tiles. The small, rectangular unit in the center of the wall in the loft is the mini-split unit that supplies cooling and heating

loft office

Dennis Wedlick, who launched the project, has been “green” since his college days at the tail end of the Carter administration. Back then, engineers at MIT and similar institutions were exploring not only alternative energy sources, but the idea of buildings that consume considerably less energy in the first place. In this country, that research “went dormant in the late ’70s,” says Wedlick. “Then we all kind of went in the closet, because clients didn’t want to hear about energy conservation.” But after he established his own firm in Manhattan in 1992, Wedlick, a longtime member of the Green Building Council, remained dedicated to the concept.

He also kept an eye on work being done at the Passivhaus-Institut in Germany. (There are already some 25,000 passive buildings in Europe.) Three years ago, Wedlick decided to design a prototype passive house that would be aesthetically appealing and quick to construct. He called it the Hudson Passive Project, and enlisted the support of the New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), who kicked in some grant money to pay for engineering. Bill Stratton, whose construction company is based in Old Chatham, had worked on earlier projects with Wedlick, and took on the construction challenge.

Designing the three-bedroom, two-bath house took about two years, as Wedlick tweaked the specifications. “We went round and round to get the highest quality materials, both for aesthetic and architectural purposes,” Wedlick says. “We kept changing window patterns. We kept testing the design’s performance using software developed by the Passivhaus Institut that tells you how much energy you’ll use per year. You feed in the data, the dimensions of the rooms, the windows, the connections. It calculates your climate, the number of sunny days, cold days. It even calculates how people live, and spits out an answer. You’re building the house in cyberspace.”

After it was constructed in cyberspace to Wedlick’s satisfaction, the real construction began on seven Columbia County acres. Building ran along traditional lines as far as the timber framing and stonework went. Then “it was trial by fire,” says Stratton, referring to installing the especially thick structural insulation panels, and the meticulous finishing and detail work. “We had a guy come who’d installed this type of SIP panels, and spent an hour hearing his dos and don’ts. And the guys on the crew did a lot of research themselves.”

“To represent what the building is all about — living passively with nature — I wanted to have a huge glass wall, so I started with a buttressed arch like in a cathedral,” says architect Wedlick of the barn-like home

The finished house is essentially one box inside another, with about 12 inches of foam insulation in between. It has a minimum number of joints, and nothing that can conduct heat — a nail, for example — can touch both the inside and outside skin. “Think of a thermos,” Wedlick explains. “It passively keeps liquids cool or warm for a very long time. The more successful the passive system, the longer the interior can maintain its temperature, without added heat or cooling, regardless of what it’s doing outside.”

A simple electric unit called a mini-split heat pump provides hot or cool air, and is required for only a few minutes a day. Otherwise, heat comes from the sun and the people living in the house. “We were doing some finish work there in January,” Stratton recalls, “and we had some nights that were four and five degrees. We weren’t running the heat. We’d get there in the morning and it was 56, 60 degrees inside — it retained heat from the low sun in winter, and the heat we generated. If you were running around in your skivvies you’d want it a little warmer than that, but then you just turn on the heat for a few minutes.” A state-of-the-art heat recovery ventilation system keeps air circulating, bringing in fresh air and expelling stale air without losing heat. (In clement weather, you can simply open the windows.)

 

bedroomA bedroom (above) and dressing room/den (right) in the loft have roof windows, both for light and as a way out in case of an emergency. The architects added cheerful colors to the walls for fun

When the house was finished, Wedlick arranged to have it inspected for certification. “The NYSERDA people came with their piece of machinery — it’s like a giant fan that measures how much air is escaping — and they were like, ‘Oh damn, it’s broken,’ ” Wedlick says with delight. “They kicked it a few times. It wasn’t broken. The house is actually four times tighter than required.” In fact, it set a new record for air tightness.

“Photovoltaics, wind, and geothermal technologies are touted as the answer, but green energy alone is not the solution,” Wedlick says. “With thermal dynamics, you’re not relying on technology that can break down. If you adopt passive techniques, you’re investing in the science, which is forever, as opposed to the toys, which have moving parts that break. A solar panel is only as efficient as the pristine-ness of its surface. When it gets dirty, it loses efficiency.”

dressing room

You don’t have to sacrifice looks, either. “I’m just as proud of its aesthetics,” Wedlick notes. “I designed it so that people would feel good inside.” At 1,650 square feet, the house is compact but feels roomy. From outside, it resembles one of the Valley’s old stone barns — a Wedlick hallmark is design that suits the landscape. Inside, bow-arch beams frame a soaring ceiling that peaks at 22 feet; a dramatic south-facing wall of thermal windows adds a sense of spaciousness as well as takes advantage of the sun’s heat. The main living space, with its open kitchen, incorporates organic materials: a satiny poured-concrete floor, lots of wood, glass tiles, marble countertops, stainless steel appliances.

For efficiency, the kitchen and two bathrooms are back to back, with a master bedroom and a large, stroll-in closet in the rear. Not an inch of potential storage space goes to waste; there’s even a nifty shallow drawer above the fridge. A study and two bedrooms occupy the second floor loft. It’s such an appealing layout that, rather than sell the house, Bill Stratton and his wife are considering moving in.

bathroomBoth bathrooms use a mix of marble and recycled glass tiles. Low-flow faucets and fittings are by Waterworks. Designing the kitchen and bathrooms back-to-back so that they could share a single hot water tank was another key component of energy efficiency

It costs about the same to construct a passive house as it does any custom-built house — and there’s the problem. “Most families don’t have the resources to pay for an architect and engineering,” Wedlick remarks. But, he says, if you buy a conventional home, “you might spend $4,000 a year in energy consumption. This house costs $400 a year. If you can invest in the long term, the passive house is such a big return,” both financially and in conserving our dwindling resources.

Wedlick’s goal is to get developers interested. “We want to take what we learned and demonstrate how the technology can be applied to new designs with hardly any cost increase,” he says. “You’re rarely given an opportunity to talk about the art of building, so I’m bragging about what buildings can be.”

Architect:  

Award-winning architect Dennis Wedlick, who worked for many years with Philip Johnson, is known for his high-quality, Earth-friendly designs. He is the author of several books, including Designing the Good Home, and Good House Parts. His master plan for Claverack Homesteads, sited not far from the passive house in Columbia County, reflects his commitment to creating homes that blend modern ideas about sustainability with classic good looks that suit the setting. Wedlick has a house in Kinderhook.

Dennis Wedlick Architect LLC
85 Worth St., New York, NY

Hudson River Studio
17 N. Fourth St., Ste. 1N, Hudson, NY
www.denniswedlick.com

Builder:

Bill Stratton Building Company
630 Highland Rd., Old Chatham, NY

 

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