Craig Maynard knew he wanted to build a house after retiring from a career in Silicon Valley. He even knew where to build it – in Peace Dale, close to the home of his brother, a University of Rhode Island professor of horticulture. When a bit of land went up for sale next to Saugatucket Pond in Peace Dale – just north of his brother’s – he made the winning bid and began the search for architects.
It wasn’t until he toured what’s known as a “passive house,” owned by Wakefield couple Brad and Jordan Hevenor, that he set his sights on building one for himself. The builder, Stephen DeMetrick of DeMetrick Housewrights, sold him on the simplicity of the notion that they were “just building a house that is a very high quality house,” said Maynard. So, he enlisted DeMetrick’s services, as well as those of architect Steven Baczek – the same team who worked on the Hevenors’ house.
“When people say, ‘I want to be energy efficient,’ I say, ‘Well, how energy efficient? Where should we stop?’” said Baczek. The passive house requirements, set by Passive House Institute US, simply gave the building team a goal to reach. Once completed, Maynard’s house will be the second in South Kingstown to receive passive house certification.
According to the PHIUS website, the basic principles of passive building include continuous insulation, heat and recovery ventilation, high performance windows and using optimal solar gain. Contrary to popular belief, passive building is not inherently “net zero” or “net positive,” but is a way to begin the process toward such goals.
“I’m not a ‘green builder,’” said DeMetrick, whose business card displays a subtle banner at the bottom, which states, “building a sustainable future.” What DeMetrick tries to communicate to his clients is that this manner of building should be the one and only standard, and that the hardest part of selling this is getting people to see its value, both immediate and eventual.
“Everyone lives in a house and our expectations are so low that we’ve come up with ways to compensate for its failure to do basic things,” such as retain heat and cool air. “[Passive building] is not product-driven. It’s just a mental shift,” said DeMetrick.
During a recent open house, Maynard gave a tour of the work-in-progress, beginning with what’s known in passive house terminology as the “main envelope,” or the main area of living space.
At approximately 2,400 square feet, the inside of the house contains three bedrooms and three and a half bathrooms. In the average house, a space this large would mean inconsistent temperatures, depending on the location of leaks. But, according to DeMetrick, Maynard’s house is engineered so that everywhere in the house will be within three degrees of the ambient room temperature – a feature that provides prime comfort no matter the season.
Even standing near a window on a cloudy day in February will feel comfortable, as windows are triple-glazed and filled with an inert gas to reduce heat transmission. They are also framed with a soft wood imported from South America, called red grandis, which is especially good for insulation.
“In a normal house, there’s uncontrolled ventilation and the plus of that is that you get a good source of fresh air constantly,” said Maynard. But since there are virtually no leaks in passive house construction, ventilation must be accomplished systematically through ducts.
The primary natural heat source would be direct sunlight, but when that isn’t available, cold air sourced from outside will be heated with heat exchangers. For hot summer days, a heat pump will push ventilated air through the house. With all of the methods that have been employed within the house, “about 80 percent of the energy that would disappear out the exhaust will get recycled,” Maynard said.
An experimental feature of Maynard’s house is what he calls a “cheap geothermal system” to regulate interior humidity. The system uses a narrow pipe underground, called a ground loop, filled with antifreeze to bring cool air to the surface in the warmer months – and, in turn, extracts the moisture from the air – and warm air in the colder months.
While solar energy has nothing to do with passive house standards, Maynard has planned for 21 solar panels to be installed by Newport Solar once the house is completed. In addition, a sonnenBatterie will be installed as an alternative to a generator, and will be able to store energy and possibly at times pump unused energy back into the grid.
The house should be completed just after the new year and, eventually, Maynard hopes to be off the grid completely. “I don’t think the grid is bad, but everything on the grid is generated with fossil fuels. And I think we need to get away from that,” he said. “The point of the house is to drop my energy footprint significantly. In this country, we’ve slowly been moving in the right direction, beginning in the 1970s when energy was getting to be very scarce.”
But, he said, the building industry – aside from a select few – has not made big strides to push building houses efficiently very far. So, “we are attacking this [problem] from a demand side. With a passive house, we are pushing the accelerator way down. We’ve got to move faster,” he said.