WNPR

Ultra-Efficient Apartment Buildings In Portland And Boston Are Part Of "Big Wave"

Jul 18, 2017

The New England News Collaborative project explores our region's energy system at a time of change.

A new type of energy-efficient construction is drawing attention in the U.S. It’s called “passive housing” -- residences built to achieve ultra-low energy use. It’s so efficient that developers can eliminate central heating systems altogether.

Imported from Germany, it's been a boutique building style until recently, with eco-minded home owners making costly upfront investments to downsize their carbon footprints. But now, New England is joining a surge in large-scale passive housing development.

Bayside Anchor is a big, green, somewhat boxy-looking four-story building that overlooks a tidal cove in Portland, Maine.

Portland, Maine's Bayside Anchor apartments.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

Architect Jesse Thompson said the 45-unit project had to meet a lot of goals: construction had to be cost-effective enough to get financed by public and affordable housing groups; it needed common areas and office space for Head Start and a community policing station; it had to be ultra, ultra efficient.

And finally, it had to meet the needs of tenants like Peter Janes, who was one of the first to move in this winter.

"I know it had great insulation,” Janes said. “I had to shut off my heat in February. It was too hot."

The building does have great insulation -- extra-great. Thompson said the exterior walls are several inches thicker than basic code would require.

"It's recycled newsprint: it's ten inches thick, you know, really well done,” said Thompson. “And there are triple-glazed windows. So you can sit next to the window in the middle of winter in a tee-shirt and you won't be cold. And that allows us to really radically downsize the heating system."

As in, there isn't a central heating system at all. Instead, each apartment has a small baseboard electric heater - with an estimated electricity cost of just $125 a year.

It takes more than thick walls to achieve those energy savings. It also takes a near-perfect seal on the building's envelope and a high-tech ventilation system to purge moisture while keeping warm or cool air in, depending on the season. Thompson calls it the building's "lungs."

"So all the bad air, all the bad smells go out. But the heat stays in,” he said. The fancy technical name is a ‘heat recovery ventilator.’ But they feel like magic to us."

There are other environmentally friendly features: a roof-full of solar panels, and underneath the ground floor's polished concrete slab, instead of a basement crammed with heating systems, big retention tanks allow rain water to filter slowly into surrounding land, bypassing the city's overworked storm water system.

And all for a cost that's low for Portland's go-go development scene.

In Bayside Anchor's lobby in Portland, Maine, the concrete floor is the building's foundation. To save money, the developers polished the slab instead of installing flooring above it.
Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public

Thompson said prices for high-efficiency materials and systems are dropping fast. And he said public housing agencies are beginning to embrace the long-term savings gained, through lower energy and maintenance costs.

"Everyone is starting to see how the economics are working. They are giving extra points for meeting these energy goals. So we're going to see a big wave coming in the next five years,” Thompson said.

That wave has reached South Boston now.

There, on the site of a 19th-century waterfront rum distillery, developer Fred Gordon is renting up the first apartments in what will eventually be a 65-unit passive housing building.

"I don't want to be embarrassing about this, but it's a kind of miracle," Gordon said. "I could stand and look at this building all day long. I just eat it up. It's like having a new girlfriend."

Fred Gordon stands in his Boston apartment at the Distillery North.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

It's very much like the one in Portland -- super-tight envelope, high-tech ventilation and no central heating system. But there's also an important difference -- in this case, Gordon isn't relying on government incentives for affordable housing. He's going market-rate, and plans eventually to sell the units.

In Southie's hot housing market, Gordon's got one advantage: he bought an entire city block there back in 1984, when land was considerably cheaper. But he insists that the distillery project proves any developer can radically reduce a building's carbon output and still make a buck.

Gordon said renters and buyers are willing to pay a 10 or 15 percent premium for passive housing features.

“We want to make it so that if a building is not a passive house, then people say, 'Oh well, that's a real negative, I would rather do something that is a passive house: it's just better,’" Gordon said.

The Distillery North Apartments is a new luxury apartment development in South Boston, Massachusetts. It's attached to an old mid-19th century distillery on East First Street.
Credit Jesse Costa / WBUR

Officials at the Chicago-based Passive House Institute say it's still a big ask to finance market-rate units that won't realize full energy-efficiency savings for decades.

But momentum for large-scale passive housing really did start gaining last year, when the number of buildings the institute certified doubled. And that number is on course to more than double again this year, with projects getting bigger and bigger, including a 350-unit New York City high-rise.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.