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County warms to passive house idea

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HUDSON–Passive house building technology seems to be an idea whose time has come in Columbia County. Last year visitors flocked to Hudson architect Dennis Wedlick’s Claverack passive house, the first house of its kind in New York. This year he and his firm, DWA, and his construction partner in the project, Bill Stratton, are pursuing several new projects here.

“Only because it was a bad economy could Bill and I throw so many resources into it,” said the Mr. Wedlick. “It was a good project to keep our staffs engaged and build our skill sets.”

A structure built according to rigorous international passive standards uses 90% less energy than a traditional structure. Cleaner air and the absence of drafts and noise from heating and cooling appliances are added benefits of this Earth friendly, sustainable technology. The energy savings depend on a continuous, “airtight” enclosure, a compact shape that allows air circulation, the avoidance of thermal bridges–things like nails, electrical wires or a metal door frame that might conduct heat or cold into the interior of the structure)–and super insulation.

The decision to focus on passive buildings appears to have been a good business move. The firm got calls about the project from across the county and gained clients as a result of the project. “It speaks very well of our community,” said Marc Bailey, head of DWA’s Hudson office. “I can’t think of another community that has embraced this technology so quickly.”

This summer Habitat for Humanity announced that Mr. Wedlick had designed two passive homes that will be built this fall on Columbia Street. A residence in Stuyvesant is nearing completion. A food co-op in Philmont, a church for the Seventh Day Adventists in Valatie and an office building for TCI are in the planning stages.

The airtight aspect of passive structures does not mean low air quality, said Mr. Bailey. An Energy Recovery Ventilating (ERV) system retains heat while exchanging interior air for filtered fresh air. The result is clean, pleasant-smelling  air, free of pollen, dust and humidity.

“On the coldest day, the Claverack house didn’t need heat,” said Mr. Bailey. “The indoor air temperature is much more stable than in a traditional house.”

One year after Chris and Susan Gould first saw the passive house in Claverack, they are almost finished building a home for themselves and their two children in Stuyvesant. The Goulds say their home, which will almost heat and cool itself, “will keep our energy bills low for the rest of our lives.” The couple secured a high performance development challenge grant  New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to help with the computerized design that determines the optimal site for the house and the location and size of windows.

The house, which has Shaker inspired design details like an overhanging front porch and an earthen ramp to the front door, overlooks a meadow on Susan’s family’s farm where, as a teen, she drove a tractor to cut hay. The home will sit where a utility company proposed building a nuclear power facility in the 1970s, an event that inspired Susan’s passionate interest in energy efficiency.

As for the Habitat homes,  Brenda Adams, Executive Director of Columbia County Habitat for Humanity praised Mr. Wedlick’s generosity and his willingness to work with the non-profit organization. She the new houses will the first affordable passive houses in the state. The groundbreaking ceremony was held August 8, and Ms. Adams said Mr. Wedlick’s presentation at Habitat’s annual meeting last year convinced the group to attempt this ambitious project.

“He challenged our board to think of this as a possible housing project…. We didn’t want to impose a costly high tech project with a solar array. This seemed like the right way to go to achieve our goal of energy efficiency,” Ms. Adams said, who added that the local Habitat chapter believes “a passive house will be more sustainable for families.”

To keep the project affordable and to keep the technical demands within the skill set of a volunteer work force, DWA’s Marc Baily said the firm devised an alternative to  the relatively expensive 8′ x 16′ panels used in most passive house construction. Instead, a double framed wall one foot thick will house loose insulation, and two feet of loose insulation will be blown into a closed attic space.

The cellulose insulation, about 5 dumpsters full, will be donated by Green Fiber, a national company with a plant in Albany. Cellulose in the form of newspapers has already been collected by Habitat members and will be recycled by the company into insulation for the homes. The program has diverted about three million tons paper from local landfills. One ton of recycled paper can save 17 trees, and 4,000 kilowatts of energy and provides enough blown-in insulation to cover the attic of a 2,500 square foot home.

Other partners contributing to the Habitat for Humanity project include Zero Energy Design; The Levy Partnership;  BASF; Crawford & Associates; Intus; and the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation. The City of Hudson and the Hudson Development Corporation donated the two lots to Habitat.

Ms. Adams said other Habitat chapters across the state have expressed interest in passive house technology and the subject may be addressed at a statewide conference.

Among the projects the Wedlick firm has had in the works is one for TCI, the Ghent recycling company that burned to the ground last month. TCI hired the architect to create plans for a separate office building that meets passive standards. The company secured a building permit before plans were interrupted by the fire. TCI did not return phone calls asking for comment.

Photos by Chris Gould that provide a step-by-step chronicle of the building process are online at www.newhudsonvalley.com. For more about architect Dennis Wedlick, go to www.denniswedlick.com/home.html. Columbia County Habitat for Humanity is at www.columbiacountyhabitat.org. To volunteer email volunteer@columbiacountyhabitat.org

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