Thursday, April 7, 2011
Insulation isn’t sexy, and high-performance windows and doors probably won’t set anyone’s toes-a-tingling either. But opening up an energy statement and seeing at least an 80 percent drop in the bill?
That’s some swoon-worthy stuff right there.
Eighty percent – and as much as 90 percent – is the reduction promised when using a building method pioneered in Germany, and it’s the method a pair of husband-and-wife property owners plan to use in constructing their own home (“not quite a place to retire, but close to it,” says the husband, hotelier Mica Hill) in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Called Passivhaus (for “passive house”) in Germany, the term refers to a set of voluntary building standards that combine insulation and sealing, high-performance windows and doors, and mechanical ventilation. The house essentially heats and cools itself by passive solar gain, and indoor air quality is kept high through an energy recovery ventilator. In chillier climates, a smaller than usual, ancillary heating system might be used as well.
The Hill house, once completed about a year from now, will be the first certified Passivhaus in Monterey County, and only the second certified in California. The first project in the state is part of an affordable and energy-efficient rental project under construction in Pt. Reyes Station.
As of August 2010, there had been only a dozen Passivhaus homes built in the U.S., but dozens more were in planning stages.
The point of the Passivhaus process is to make the house air tight, to seal what builders call “the envelope” between the inside and outside, and minimize energy loss. Programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system prescribe a holistic approach to building; Passivhaus is exclusively about energy.
“You kind of have to be a dumbass to say [insulation] is exciting, but this is so obtainable and accessible that it is actually exciting,” says the Hills’ contractor, Carmel Building & Design President Rob Nicely. “This is no wild or foreign technology, it’s doing a better job of what we try to do in the first place. The important thing here is retaining the heat.”
And the energy reduction promised is that: a promise. Follow the directions, and the tightness of the seal can be measured.
“The goal is when you close the front door, the toilet should flush,” Hill jokes.
Dreaming of Real Estate
Hill and his wife, physician and academic Laureen Hill, grew up in Paso Robles and started spending significant time in the Monterey area more than 25 years ago because of his career as a hotelier, first with Huntington Hotels and now with the Preferred Hotel Group (properties include the Inn at Spanish Bay, the Lodge at Pebble Beach and the Post Ranch Inn).
“We were 25 years old and said, ‘Let’s save our money and buy a second house.’ We saw this dumpy little cottage, called the agent and the agent said, ‘$920,000.’” Hill says. “And we said, ‘That can’t be right, this place is a dump.’”
But they kept returning to Carmel, in love with the community overall and the fine-arts scene in particular. Hill bought sculptural works from Richard MacDonald to place in San Francisco’s Clift Hotel, and the couple also began privately collecting the work of other local artists.
When the recession hit in 2007, they started thinking in earnest about where they should settle – if they settle at all – when retirement age drew near.
“We took a cue from our parents and watched what they did. It was a question of, ‘Where can we go where we can walk to the store, and the doctor and church?’ and my wife said, ‘I think we can swing [Carmel],’” Hill says. They looked at about 30 places and settled on a circa-1929 cottage on 11th between Lincoln and Dolores streets.
The first night they slept there after buying it last June, Hill says they nearly froze because the place leaked like a sieve. It was a depressing moment, he says, because while they wanted to try to rehab the house, there was so much wrong with it that it made more sense to start over, tear the place down and build something both livable and meaningful.
“We didn’t want some monument to ourselves. We met with builders and architects, and told each we wanted to do things that were responsible and meaningful and energy efficient. We started throwing out those buzzwords, and Rob’s a good listener,” Hill says. “He kept following up. We felt like he was going to build our house, while other builders were going to build their house.”
Hill says his father was a general contractor, and hiring Nicely felt like hiring his dad.
Nicely admits those sustainable buzzwords bandied about by the Hills caught his attention. He uses the “Build It Green” program (call it LEED for residential building) as an overlay on many projects. But he became intrigued by Passivhaus because of its focus on energy alone.
“This is what will kill us first or ruin society, whether its global warming or peak oil… it’s energy,” Nicely says. “It has the single biggest impact. Everyone is aware of trying to make vehicles more efficient, and this is doing the same for the built environment.”
The key for designer Justin Pauly of Pauly Designs in Monterey was designing a house that could incorporate all of the efficiencies Passivhaus requires while reconciling the desires of the clients and the demands of the city. Within the mandatory 1,600-square-foot size, plus 200 square feet for a garage, Pauly designed a modern farmhouse that keeps a large grove of redwoods in place on the north end of the property, and adds more insulation in the ceiling to compensate for the lack of glazing on the north-facing windows.
“They wanted to have a surpassingly green house, and they left it to me to come up with the protocol,” Nicely says. In total, the Passivhaus requirements might add $20,000 to a $600,000 project, but that money comes back quickly in terms of savings on energy bills.
The Hill project reached an important milestone in early March. The City of Carmel Design Review Commission (the five-member group that judges whether a design will fit into the community) voted 4-0, with one abstention, to approve the design.
Next up is submitting the engineering drawings and construction plans. Sometime in the next few months, the original house will be torn down and construction on the new home will commence. Nicely expects to finish the project by March 2012.
“We’ve always watched things like our water and electric consumption, and then Rob educated us,” Hill says. “We’re not going to build green for the sake of green, we’re going to do things that are respectful to the earth.”
Nicely seems like the last person in the world whose focal point would become the green revolution. He says he’s just a guy who started building houses, wanted to get better at it and tumbled into what he now describes as a moral imperative.
“It started as ‘How can I learn more about building?’ and this is what it’s turned into,” Nicely says. “The people who ask me for it have decided their world view has to include the health of the whole system, starting with their own environment, then the community and the world.”