Passive houses incorporating extreme energy efficiency catching on in region

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Lucy de Barbaro is months away from moving into her new home in Squirrel Hill, but she's counting the savings she'll reap in utility bills.

De Barbaro, a software engineer at Alcatel Lucent, and her husband, Ayres Freitas, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, expect to save up to 90 percent on those bills by building their duplex along Fernwald Road to extreme energy-efficient — so-called passive house — standards.

“We make a lot of personal choices that consider environmental impacts,” said de Barbaro, who drives a hybrid car.

Passive houses, popular in Europe for years, are built around the idea of making buildings airtight, super-insulated and energy efficient so they don't allow warm air to escape in the winter or cold air to escape in the summer. Signature features often include thick outside walls and multi-layered roofs, triple-pane windows and a south-facing orientation.

“To the average person, visually you're not going to notice a difference. It's not going to be unlike other houses you've been in,” said Nathan St. Germain, a Sewickley architect who helped build the first American passive house in Colorado.

For a house to be certified, a project must meet three crucial benchmarks: A certain level of airtightness; the annual energy consumed by heating and cooling the space cannot exceed a certain amount; and energy consumed by other things, such as heating water and powering electronic devices, cannot exceed a certain amount.

The beauty of passive homes is that they're built using a performance standard, not with required building materials or designs, St. Germain said.

“You pretty much have free rein to flex your design muscles however you want,” he said. “You can really design and build a beautiful home.”

Passive buildings run, on average, 15 to 20 percent more than the cost of typical construction. Experts said the savings from lower utility bills is estimated to give a return on investment within 10 years.

Although there are thousands of passive houses in the world, only about 80 exist in the United States, according to the Passive House Institute U.S., an Illinois-based certification, research and consulting group.

In Western Pennsylvania, four passive buildings are in the works, in part pushed by Action-Housing Inc., a Downtown nonprofit that provides housing-related programs.

The group finished the region's first passive house, in Heidelberg, in July and is converting the old YMCA in McKeesport into 84 passive house-certified apartments. The organization is renovating the former VFW in Hazelwood into a passive building that will house a branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, said Linda Metropulos, Action-Housing's director of housing and neighborhood development.

The growth of passive houses in the region partly caused the Passive House Institute U.S. to decide to host its eighth annual conference at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, beginning Tuesday. Two days of workshops will precede the main conference. On Saturday, participants will tour buildings.

“We were drawn to Pittsburgh because there are a number of projects there,” said Mike Kernagis, the institute's co-founder. He expects more than 500 people to attend the conference.

Critics say passive houses work better in Europe because temperatures are relatively stable compared to many parts of the United States. They cite pricey materials and the fact that passive houses have smaller-than-typical furnaces, and most don't have air conditioners.

Action-Housing will break ground next month on two buildings along Fifth Avenue, Uptown — one built to passive house standards, the other built to the 2012 international energy code — to determine whether there's a great difference in cost versus energy efficiency.

“It truly is an experiment,” Metropulos said.

Kernagis looks forward to the results: “I believe we'll be pretty well below the 2012 standards” with better energy performance, he said. “We've seen it proven out a number of times.”

De Barbaro, who will talk about her future home at the conference, is looking for a buyer to occupy half of the unbuilt duplex. The 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, two- or three-bathroom home with an attached garage would sell for $479,000.

“You are paying approximately 10 percent more for making this house a passive house, but if you spread the 10 percent over the life of the mortgage, every year you will be saving on electricity bills,” she said. “There's no question in our minds that it's very much worth it.”

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or

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