Brad and Jordan Hevenor are building their next home, and they’re as excited as anyone in the middle of that process. After returning to Rhode Island in 2006, where Brad grew up, the couple settled into a typical South County cottage in Wakefield.
“We started looking for homes when I first moved here, and Brad’s dad was like, ‘All right, so you’re going to get a Cape, a colonial, or a ranch.’ And I was like, ‘None,’” says Jordan, a native of Washington state (where they’re “very wide-open when it comes to design” according to Brad).
While raising their two children, the pair of property appraisers soon began to rue local winters. “It’s a familiar experience to most people who live here — all of the work and effort and money that goes into just trying to stay warm,” Brad says. “Every time the oil truck comes, you’re handing them a check for $600 to $700.” So when the Hevenors decided on new construction on an empty lot in town, they put efficiency, comfort and durability at the top of their priorities list.
“We’re not building a huge home,” Jordan says. “I think it fits with the neighborhood, but it doesn’t have to be identical to the neighborhood.”
“Three-bed, two-bath,” Brad says. “Measured from the outside it’s 1,800 square feet — but, of course, we have walls that are going to be a foot thick, so the interior living area is going to be a bit less than that ... nothing super fancy.”
Wait, did he say foot-thick walls?
Notably, the Hevenors are seeking passive building certification for their new humble abode. That means a stringent focus on insulation and air-tight construction, radically reducing the home’s energy consumption – up to 90 percent less toward heating and cooling than a standard code building of similar size. With an accompanying solar photovoltaic installation planned for the roof, the house also will meet U.S. Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home standards.
A thicker envelope
“I didn’t even really know what it was,” recalls Jordan, when she first heard about the passive house standard, set stateside by the Passive House Institute United States, or PHIUS. The couple toured an early example built in upstate New York. “I didn’t believe in it, at first,” Brad says. “There’s no way you can have a house that basically doesn’t require a furnace. It sounds unbelievable,” especially in colder climes.
With a handful of pass/fail benchmarks, the building standard is straightforward and quantified by air-tightness, annual energy consumed for heating and cooling, and energy consumed for other means (hot water, electronic devices). Passive building conventions, such as paying attention to the sun’s orientation and maximizing the amount of direct solar gain in the wintertime, are requisite to reducing energy demands. But getting there doesn’t require anything super fancy — just commitment, knowledge and close attention to detail. “It’s the same materials these guys are using every day, just a little more conscious effort and planning,” says Steven Bazcek, the Reading, Massachusetts-based architect.
After breaking ground in January, the house will be wrapped up by summer and the first PHIUS-certified building in Rhode Island, and one of only about 120 nationwide. (The Passivhaus has been well received in Europe, where tens of thousands meet strict standards, mostly in Germany and Austria.) The Hevenor homestead offers an open living space with tall ceilings on the first floor, and accompanying master bedroom. Two rooms upstairs are slated for 8-year-old Ayla and Lulu, age 4.
The building features tall, broad, triple-paned windows with southern exposure that projects onto the finished concrete floor (beneath which lies six inches of foam with an insulating R-value of 30). Sheathed, double-stud exterior walls provide redundant air barriers and room for 12 inches of thermal insulation (fiberglass for the most part, totaling R-55). With blown-in cellulose insulation in the roof, the total insulation is calculated to R-100 – the airtightness of the building is equivalent to about a half-dollar’s worth of air leakage over its entire 5,500-square-foot exterior surface. Passive house or otherwise, “I don’t design them generally for the energy efficiency,” Bazcek says. “I design them for health, comfort and durability — and you get energy efficiency as a byproduct of making those choices. So when people say, ‘It’s a super energy-efficient house but gas prices are down.’ … You’re missing the point.”
With its super-insulated shell and direct solar gain, the home’s mechanical systems are correspondingly downsized. A single ductless mini-split provides even temperature control in the winter and summer for the electrical load of about a hairdryer. The system, an air source heat pump, “is basically like a refrigerator,” Bazcek explains in a patient, professorial tone. “So a refrigerator makes cold inside, but there’s a byproduct of heat that comes out. So think of a refrigerator on the wall: In the wintertime, we use the heating cycle.” In the summer, the direction is reversed, “and you get the byproduct of what’s in the refrigerator.” A balanced ventilation system with an energy recovery system rounds out the mechanical HVAC and controls for air quality.
Stephen DeMetrick, the Wakefield custom-home builder heading construction, likens the focus to the mechanical engineer’s acumen for figuring wall loads. “Here, we’re engineering the heating and cooling loads; we’re engineering the air sealing,” DeMetrick says. “We’re engineering all of these factors that lead to comfort and durability.”
But is it “green”?
Except for those hulking special-ordered, triple-pane windows, the remainder of materials are largely sourced and available locally: Asphalt shingles, fiber cement siding, and New England-sourced pine plank flooring.
While there’s certainly a premium of some sort to building to passive standards, the Hevenors expect their home to be in line with the prices of comparable modest custom homes on the market. For their architect, even getting 70 to 80 percent of the way to passive house standards is a worthwhile cause. “The thing is, the cost-per-square-foot as baseline is a code-built house,” Bazcek says. “That’s like measuring your car purchase to the Hyundai. The white Hyundai, stripped down ... I would put in the boldest letters at the top of the article: ‘Don’t call this green.’ Just don’t. This is a well-built house.”