Doing Well By Doing Good: Passive House and Affordable Housing

Pennsylvania finds proof that Passive House standards can be built at affordable housing prices, after the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency incorporated Passive House benchmarks into its Low Income Housing Tax Credit application.

8 minute read

January 13, 2016, 2:00 PM PST

By David Salamon, Jaquelin Camp

"We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature."

– Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' "On Care for Our Common Home," Pope Francis

When the topic of sustainability is broached, images of the environment usually come to mind, but as Pope Francis points out, environmental sustainability is intimately linked with social sustainability, and a systemic approach to the twin issues is needed. While Laudato Si's greatest strength may be its ability to inspire Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the struggle for social and environmental justice, it is spare on details for just how to attack these problems, resorting to traditional measures, such as riding public transportation and recycling. Following Pope Francis's first Philadelphia visit, Pennsylvania is poised to revolutionize the housing industry by doing just what the Pope advises and taking "an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature."

Until 2014 in the United States, Passive House was a boutique energy standard that only high-end projects could afford. In the last several years, however, prices for ventilation systems with energy recovery (ERVs), air barriers, and triple pane windows have fallen, while the number of Passive House certified consultants, designers, and builders has grown. In 2015, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) incorporated Passive House energy benchmarks into its Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) application scoring. Of the 39 projects awarded tax credit funding, eight are Passive House designs. In total, 422 new affordable housing units will be built to Passive House standards in the next year in Pennsylvania. These multi-family buildings are projected to use 80 percent less energy than typical new construction. The resulting energy cost savings to the tenants could help break the cycles of poverty that cause people to need affordable housing in the first place. When built, these eight projects will be the largest concentration of Passive House affordable housing units in the country, and Housing Finance Agencies in other states are now looking to PHFA and considering the addition of Passive House benchmarks to their scoring criteria as well. 

Diagram of ventilation with energy recovery. (Image courtesy of Wallace, Roberts & Todd)

Since PHFA began awarding tax credits to stimulate the market for affordable housing in 1986, the agency has consistently increased energy efficiency benchmarks as part of their funding award criteria. In 2014, Tim McDonald, under the auspices of the Architectural Research Center, a think tank housed within the Temple University Architecture program, approached PHFA with the suggestion that all affordable housing be net-zero energy capable by 2030. Passive House was not the goal; the goal was to reduce energy consumption to the point that on-site generation became feasible to meet the remaining energy demand. PHFA adopted Passive House because it has proven over the past 20 years to deliver on its reduced energy consumption promises. McDonald's design/build firm, Onion Flats, had already built Belfield Townhomes, Pennsylvania's first Passive House project, serving formerly homeless families and as a proof of concept that Passive House projects can be built on affordable housing budgets. 

Each time PHFA adopts a more stringent energy standard, developers rightly express concerns about their ability to meet the new standard within prescribed construction cost limits. As in the case of previous new benchmarks like Energy Star and Enterprise Green Communities, PHFA introduced Passive House as optional scoring points, giving developers the option of exploring ways to meet the requirements within their construction budgets without mandating the requirement for all projects. Pennsylvania's developers rose to the challenge and by the time the time PHFA's 2015 funding application was due: 42 percent of the proposed projects chose to pursue Passive House. 

One of the developers that decided to build to Passive House standards is Pennrose Properties, LLC. Pennrose has developed affordable housing since 1981, and despite extensive experience with LEED and Energy Star criteria, committing to Passive House was not an easy decision for Pennrose to make. They did extensive due diligence, which included asking Wallace Roberts and Todd (WRT) to evaluate the feasibility of upgrading several of the projects slated for PHFA's 2015 application to Passive House standards. WRT began training staff in Passive House techniques in early 2014. The fortuitous timing allowed WRT to assemble a consultant team, which included Zero Energy Design, a small firm with extensive Passive House experience. WRT brought the expertise of this team to bear on the WRT-designed projects being submitted for tax credits, and also served as Passive House consultants on two other projects designed by Kitchen & Associates and for which Pennrose is also the developer.

Several factors lead Pennrose to ultimately say yes to Passive House; the first, factor was that PHFA's process is highly competitive. Applicants need to score the maximum points possible; if the development proposal doesn't get funded, there is no project. Pennrose didn't want to leave points on the table by not pursuing Passive House. The second factor that made a profound difference was Pennrose's approach to affordable housing as both a business opportunity and a social good. As a business they are "doing well by doing good" and making a positive impact in the lives of people and the quality of places. "We take the social mission of our developments very seriously," said Timothy I. Henkel, senior vice president with Pennrose Properties. "The whole point of the communities we build is to be able to provide our residents with the opportunities to improve their lives. The economic benefits that Passive House delivers to our residents enhances the quality product that we provide."

Pennrose also operates as a property management company, holding their developments for at least 15 and often over 30 years. Lean operating budgets require that they build with quality, because there is little money to fix what isn't done right the first time. They regarded meeting Passive House criteria as an opportunity to increase their already high standards. Pre-design meetings with WRT were a crucial part of the due diligence process. Many typical Passive House details like double walls and I-joists were quickly ruled out as too costly. WRT worked diligently to refine the construction details to be affordable to build, effective at meeting Passive House standards, and executable by the builders in the field. 

On consecutive phases of an ongoing, multi-phase project co-developed by Pennrose and the Delaware County Housing Authority, WRT designed a series of standard residential buildings and Passive House versions of those same buildings that look nearly identical. They only differ in the assembly of the building envelope and in their mechanical systems. "The energy efficiency of our portfolio relies in equal parts on building design, construction implementation and operation," explains Henkel. "Passive House is a unique opportunity to dramatically influence the energy efficiency of our design and we are confident that we will create superior housing. The success of Passive House will be measured in the operation of the completed buildings and, by far, the biggest contributors to our operational efficiency are our residents. It is our hope that the design decisions we've made combined with an element of energy education will result in a significant decrease in energy consumption and associated utility costs to the properties and our residents."

Through these design processes WRT learned that in most cases, projects can be adapted to Passive House standards. If possible, however, a Passive House should be designed with that goal from the beginning. One of the single-family buildings needed to be redesigned as a twin because it costs less to achieve passive house benchmarks on larger multi-family projects than it does on smaller single-family buildings. The main reason for this is that larger multi-family buildings have a lower surface area to volume ratio than single-family detached buildings do. This means that it takes less insulation for a larger building to maintain its internal temperatures (hot or cold) than a smaller building. The result is a Passive House that is adaptable to the affordable housing market, which ultimately benefits the future tenant for whom affordability is not a choice. 

Image courtesy of Wallace, Roberts & Todd.

Social justice and environmental sustainability require each other, and a deficit in one area is often attributable to a deficit in the other. The PHFA model of development tackles the twin problems of ecological sustainability and social justice by providing an economic platform that short-circuits the typical disincentives for building energy efficient developments, doing so without governmental mandates or changes to building codes and other regulations. 

State Housing Finance Agencies have definitely noticed. Delaware's HFA is including Passive House scoring in their 2016 Qualified Allocation Plan, as are Idaho, South Dakota, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) also recently introduced a Passive House track for affordable housing, which was endorsed by President Obama and in New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio's report, "One City Built to Last." The report cites Passive House as key to reducing city-wide carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 and securing a low carbon future. 

PHFA's adoption of Passive House is the first step in making a significant impact on the lives of people in need and the environment at large in one unified approach. The next time Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, these initial eight Passive House affordable housing projects will be built and hopefully many more will have been completed in their wake, making tangible Pope Francis's vision of how to "Care for Our Common Home."

David Salamon is a Certified Passive House Designer at WRT, a national collaborative practice of city and regional planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and architects headquartered in Philadelphia. He also serves as an assistant professor at Temple University, and is the President of the Greater Philadelphia Passive House Association. 

Jaquelin Camp is a Certified Passive House Designer at WRT whose practice encompasses affordable and market-rate multi-family housing, including TOD and mixed-use projects, adaptive re-use and historic preservation. Jaque has also participated in the design of a number of Senior Living projects including Continuing Care Retirement Communities. She brings a dedication to sustainability to every project, and has worked on LEED NC, LEED for Homes and LEED ND designs and certifications. Jaque is a member of AIA, NCARB, the Delaware Valley Green Building Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She Chairs the Upper Merion Township Planning Commission and serves as adjunct faculty at Harcum College. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to sustainability, adaptive re-use, community design and affordable housing.

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