The Soon-to-Be Greenest Houses in Ithaca

The Soon-to-Be Greenest Houses in Ithaca

The Aurora Dwelling Circle, slated for completion in early 2013, will include five housing units sharing a common yard, gardens, compost, and garages. They’ll also incorporate elements of the German Passivhaus standards for super-tight building envelopes and share energy from a district biomass boiler, solar thermal technology, and a photovoltaic system. Fresh Dirt Ithaca spoke with Susan Cosentini, president of New Earth Living, the local developer behind the project.

Can you explain the Passivhaus design?

It’s called passive because the house’s envelope is sealed so tight there’s no accidental thermal loss or gain. It used to be that builders installed studs, and in between those they put insulation and called that good enough. But heat gets transferred through wood. So in the Passivhaus we apply contiguous insulation, like a blanket around the entire house, even underneath the slab. Windows are placed strategically for both illumination and solar gain, and heat recovery ventilators regulate air quality by bringing in fresh air and reclaiming heat from outgoing stale air.

This sounds costly.

It raises the cost of building, for sure, but good insulation ends up being cheaper than pieces of technology like solar panels or ground source heat pumps. Because think about it: Insulation and window placements are part of the normal building process, whereas the technologies like solar panels require electricity, maintenance, and maybe even replacement.

How can people in older homes improve energy efficiency and water use?

Well, it depends on their budget and aesthetics. The classic changes are the replacement of standard toilets with 1.6-gallon units; new windows or storm windows; and improving the home’s insulating building envelope in the easier locations—the basement and the attic. These improvements usually pay for themselves very quickly.

How will your project work?

The suburban model for living is that everybody has their own castle, and their own amenities isolated to that one castle, whereas this project will be collaborative. We’ll share responsibilities. It’ll take people communicating. And that’s not something we’re used to. When we live in our own little castles, we don’t have to have much contact. but guess what? We’re going to have to make some changes. And that’s not a problem; it’s an opportunity. Any conversation, even a difficult one, gives us an opportunity to build connections and trust-based relationships.

What can the community learn from your project?

For one thing, not enough people know about the Passivhaus method. Homeowners also can look at what we’ll be doing and initiate conversations about how to live synergistically. People might stop thinking about greening their individual homes and move toward a cooperative neighborhood model. For instance, in our dwelling circle we’re going to put in one biomass heat plant for six houses. One heat plant, six houses. Guess how much money is saved at the household level when it’s shared over six units? When we put in photovoltaic solar panels, they’ll be installed on the house with the best southern exposure and everyone will share the costs and benefits.

So do we need to rethink what a household is?

That’s exactly right. In the age of peak oil, it’s the power of our collaboration that’s still untapped.

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