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Portland’s ultra energy

Jan 21, 2024Jan 21, 2024

Tad and Maria Everhart have spent 10 years making their 1997 Southeast Portland house more energy efficient and comfortable. They didn't retrofit it, they say they "future fitted" it by adapting Passive House building standards to make their now all-electric home airtight.

"We have enjoyed greater comfort and indoor air quality while cutting our total household energy consumption by 62 percent," says Tad Everhart.

New structures built to exacting "passive house" standards can use 80 to 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling, according to the nonprofit Passive House Northwest, a group dedicated to high-performance building.

The goals: No weak points in the building envelope, comfortable temperatures year round and lower energy costs.

In passive houses, continuous insulation reduces heat losses and gains, airtightness prevents drafts and moisture problems, and continuous ventilation improves air quality. Triple-pane windows draw in solar heat in the winter while carefully selected shading blocks it in summer.

Zero-energy homes, those that consume less energy than they generate, also use solar panels to power electric appliances, heat pump heating and cooling as well as water heating.

Ultra-high performance doesn't mean ultra-high expense. Scott Kosmecki of the Portland design-build company Hinge-Build says upgrades can add 2 to 10 percent to construction costs, depending on the home's size and finishes. Doubling the amount of insulation isn't a budget breaker, he adds.

Savings are realized over time, but the benefits are immediate. "The buildings are so well insulated that if you lost power your home would stay at a level temperature," says Kosmecki, who has yet to turn on the heater of his super-insulated home in Sellwood.

More passive houses are being built as developers and home buyers look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint. In 2016, Passive House Northwest produced a free online book with almost 45 examples in Oregon and Washington.

Here's your chance to learn more: You can wander inside new and retrofitted houses and townhomes built in Portland to passive house standards from Friday, Nov. 8, through Sunday, Nov. 10. The free, self-guided tour is part of International Passive House Days.

The Everharts’ remodeled single-family home at 539 S.E. 59th Court will be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Park on Southeast Stark. Groups of 10 or more must call 503-239-8961 in advance.

Over the last 10 years, the family of four has consumed roughly 77,000 kWh less power than they would have before they rebuilt the envelope (read details in the essay below).

Kosmecki of Hinge-Build just completed a handsome, compact house at 8425 S.E. 8th Ave. that will be open from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9, and on other days by appointment ([email protected] or 503-705-7761).

The designer oriented the house to take advantage of natural light – "free’ solar energy," he calls it. Solar panels also help to create enough energy to charge the all-electric home and the owner's electric car all year.

Also participating in International Passive House Days are Rob Hawthorne and Bart Bergquist of PDX Living, who have been designing and building only passive homes since 2009.

They will open their latest, yet unfinished project, two townhomes in Northeast Portland, and explain how they created net-zero energy homes on small infill lots with a west orientation.

Since south-facing wasn't an option, the roof angle was optimized for solar production with a 5.4 kW PV system and west-facing windows have powered exterior shading to prevent overheating, says builder-developer Hawthorne.

The townhomes, at 620 and 622 N.E. 61st Place, will be open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 9. Hawthorne and Bergquist will be on site on Friday, and Bergquist will be there on Saturday to answer any questions about the project and systems – mechanical, electrical, plumbing – which are visible since the walls are still open.

PDX Living's earliest passive house is next door to the townhomes. The company's 2010 CoreHaus was the city's first certified passive house and the 2012 TrekHaus in Sunnyside is a net-zero energy townhouse and the first passive house duplex in the U.S., says Hawthorne.

The two new townhouses will be completed by spring 2020 and listed for sale in the $500,000s. One unit has three bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms and about 1,800 square feet of living space. The other unit has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, approximately 1,350 square feet and a single-car garage. For more information, [email protected] or 503-389-0754.

All kinds of buildings can meet the passive house standard, but they share these features:

--Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072

[email protected] | @janeteastman

Tour old, new zero-energy homes that make more power than they use

Walk through a dozen green Portland homes, from newly built to ones retrofitted to minimize the carbon footprint of their energy use, during Goal Zero Tour 2019 on Saturday, Oct. 19.

We asked Tad and Maria Everhart to write an essay about their 10-year remodel to retrofit their 1997 house to reach Passive House standards.

Greta Thunberg, Sweden's famous 16-year-old environmental activist, and our fellow Climate Strikers are asking adults, especially parents, "Do Something!" Something now. Not just words, but action. More than mere plans for the future and distant deadlines.

We are taking action. We’ve reducing our home carbon heating footprint by about 80%.

Our own climate action journey began just over 10 years when we started remodeling our home to the Passive House Standard.

We hoped to be finished in months, but like many construction projects amidst busy lives, ours stretched to years.

A decade after we started, we look our children in the eye knowing we reduced our home's global warming footprint as much as possible.

One of our first steps on Sept. 12, 2009 was to remove our gas furnace, confident we could heat our Passive House with a tiny electric heater no larger than a hair dryer.

And then rebuilt our exterior home envelope: cutting air leakage 85%, installing a new ventilation system, super-insulating the walls, and installing new windows with the best available thermal performance.

Our ventilation system continuously blows filtered air from outdoors into our living room, dining room and bedrooms. And exhausts stale air from our kitchen and bathrooms.

In winter, heat in the outgoing stale air transfers to the incoming fresh, cooler air without the two streams of air touching or mixing. This is "heat recovery ventilation." It is common in the best commercial buildings and now widely used even in single family homes and apartments in Europe. Although most important in winter, it also provides "free cooling in summer." Heat in hot fresh air is transferred to the cooler stale air expelled from the house.

This work cost approximately $100,000, mainly because we employed several $25 an hour carpenters. High-performance windows were much more expensive ($17,000) than today, when over 50 companies offer them. Our ventilation system from Europe cost only $2,500 in parts and $2,000 in installation labor. Garth Everhart, Tad's brother, is a general contractor and donated his time.

After carpenters did the heavy work rebuilding the walls and roof, we took over. In 2010-2011 we carefully sealed leaks between the second floor bedrooms and the attic. And then we had 24 inches of shredded waste paper ("cellulose") insulation added on top of the original 12 inches of fiberglass insulation.

Later, we re-insulated our ground floor with 15 inches of Styrofoam insulation. The four of us, Tad's sister and mother, and friends completed 100 percent of the work. Styrofoam and sealants are light enough for anyone to install if they work carefully. And they cost only $3,000.

The next year, 2011-2012, we hired finish carpenters to install insulating trim around the inside and the outside of the window frames, further enhancing the windows. The materials were expensive at $2,000, but the carpentry was only $2,000.

Finally, in 2012-2013, we finish our home's thermal blanket by installing Styrofoam and foam glass panels outside the home's concrete foundation. College students help shovel soil out of the way, but once again, with extended family and friends's help, we do almost all the work. The materials cost $2,000. College students helped with excavation and then backfilling for $1,000.

Thermal performance by the numbers:

However, the numbers don't tell the full story. We enjoy supreme comfort of even temperatures, no cold spots, and no drafts. An added bonus: thick insulation muffles even Tri-met buses gunning their engines, sirens, garbage trucks, traffic and other city noise.

With the thermal performance of our home's walls, roof and ground floor dramatically improved, we took a break from energy efficiency to improve the interior atmosphere by hiring carpenters to install pre-finished oak stair treads and custom bookcases in our family room. We repainted the entire interior of the home in warm pastels.

Since finishing the hard, expensive and largely invisible work of tightening, ventilating and insulating our home, we’ve enjoyed easier, less-expensive finishing touches.

During our remodeling, we relocated our gas clothes dryer from our home to our attached garage because you cannot keep moist air from a clothes dryer in your home in our mild, wet climate, but at the same time, a conventional, vented clothes dryer moved too much air out the vent and upset the balanced ventilation. We’d have to make up that air with more cool fresh air from outdoors. And the dryer wastes all of the heat it produces.

In 2014, we installed a clothes drying closet and gave away our tumble dryer. Hot, moist air coming out of the clothes drying closet flows into our exhaust system where it helps warm the incoming air without mixing with it. Thus, drying a load of clothes functions like the proverbial Passive House hair dryer that can supply all the warmth our house needs on many winter days.

In summer, we line dry clothes and use the drying closet without its heater. It is also much easier on all clothes and can dry delicates without damage because it does not tumble the clothes, but simply circulates warm air through the closet where they hang.

With our gas clothes dryer gone, we decided to ditch another gas appliance that occasionally introduced deadly carbon monoxide, our gas range/oven. Although the gas burns cleanly on the range burners, the oven always set off our CO monitor. After adding an electrical circuit, we installed an induction range with convection oven.

Over the years, we tightened our energy belt in many minor ways: converting to 100 percent LED lights, wind-up timers for many of those lights, low-flow faucet aerators, thermal blinds on the inside of our high-performance windows, and other minor tweaks.

Our water heater was the last big energy consumer in our house after cutting space heating. Even though it was high-efficiency, we know that we must start disconnecting gas appliances and get "B.C.--beyond combustion."

We’ve welcomed a new technology into our home, one for which we’d waited since 2009: the Japanese "EcoCute" heat pump water heater that uses high-pressure carbon dioxide to collect and concentrate heat from the air and then transfer the heat into water.

This remarkable technology became available in North America in 2012, and we were lucky enough to get one in 2016.

EcoCute is the world's most efficient water heating technology. One unit of electricity yields from two to five units of 150-degree hot water depending on the temperature of the air from which it collects heat. Our Passive House's heating load, is so low that our Sanden hot water heater by itself produces not only all of our hot water, but enough surplus heat to keep our home warm.

Our Sanden was a perfect match for our Passive House. By reducing our need for heat to a minimum, a single small device provides both our hot showers and comfortable living room.

Finally, the most easy step is replacing appliances as they fail with more efficient new models. As they failed, we’ve replaced our clothes washer, dish washer and microwave with some of the highest efficiency ENERGY STAR appliances.

And although we do not have solar hot water or PV panels, we enjoy 100 percent renewably-produced electricity from PGE at a small additional cost.

– Tad and Maria Everhart

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