New Habitat house in Berea is a model of energy efficiency

jwarren@herald-leader.comJuly 14, 2012 

BEREA — This is a big weekend for J.T. and Marlena Hoover and their daughters, Madison and Jaidyn: they're moving into their new home, the very first they've ever owned.

On top of that, their house on Brown Street in Berea promises to set new standards of energy efficiency and cost savings for homes in Kentucky.

It's a "passive house," built for the Hoovers by Habitat for Humanity of Madison & Clark Counties. Deceptively simple-looking, the house employs a variety of non-mechanical features — mainly extra insulation and lots of sealing to prevent air leaks — which keep occupants cool in summer and warm in winter at very low cost.

Habitat officials expect it to be the first house they've built in Kentucky to receive official certification from the Passive House Institute US, a non-profit group that promotes such structures.

"It's a very big deal for us," Marlena Hoover said Friday as the family started moving in. She works as a laboratory medical technician; her husband is a relocation specialist at Eastern Kentucky University.

"We probably wouldn't have been able to afford a house without Habitat," she said. "And if we did, it certainly wouldn't have features like these. We feel very lucky."

The Hoovers applied to Habitat of Madison & Clark Counties months ago and had already been approved for a new home when Habitat officials asked whether they'd like to have the organization's first passive house. They immediately said yes.

Ginger Watkins, who designed the house for Habitat, estimates that the family could enjoy total energy savings of about $103 per month in their new digs.

A passerby will notice nothing unusual about the 1,100-square-foot bungalow. Only if you look closely do you start to notice things like the foot-thick walls and the high-efficiency, triple-glazed windows that make the house unique.

"It's one of the most energy-efficient houses in the state right now," said Lexington architect Richard Levine, who specializes in sustainably driven design. "The brilliant thing is that innovative methods like these usually are adopted first by wealthy people who want to be part of the next big thing. But it's Habitat, which builds some of the least expensive homes, that has produced the most efficient house. That's really something."

The passive house concept originated in Europe, where about 25,000 such homes have been certified. Now, the United States is starting to catch on.

Passive houses can be designed in various ways, but all are well-insulated and virtually airtight to minimize energy loss. They also utilize natural sunlight, as well as the warmth that electrical appliances and occupants themselves generate, to help with heating. Each structure also relies on an energy recovery ventilator system that provides a constant, balanced supply of fresh air from outside.

The Passive House Institute US Web site says that the concept represents the highest energy standard available and could slash energy consumption by up to 90 percent.

Passive houses usually cost about 10 percent more than a standard house, but proponents insist that energy savings more than offset the extra expense. Habitat houses typically cost around $70,000, and officials say they're still figuring the cost of the Hoovers' home.

Ginger Watkins, sustainable building specialist for Kentucky Habitat for Humanity, said the agency previously created several highly energy-efficient homes but has wanted to build a passive house for some time. Things got rolling when Habitat of Madison & Clark Counties and the Hoover family joined forces.

Watkins said she adapted passive house principles to meet Habitat's needs and budget requirements as she designed the house.

"You only have a few criteria to meet, but you can meet them in whatever creative way you want," she said. "It opens the door for builders to figure out how to do it best."

Construction began in March. A few minor things remain undone, but the house is ready to occupy. The Hoovers, who have been renting a house about a mile away, said they can't wait to move in.

Judy Flavell, executive director of Habitat of Madison & Clark counties, said her organization hopes to build another passive house soon, but that will depend on financing and finding another family willing to participate.

"I don't see passive houses becoming our standard, but I do see increasing energy efficiency in our homes," Flavell said. "Some may think of energy efficiency as kind of elitist, but I think we're showing that it can be affordable for all income levels."

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.

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