Harbor Village Affordable Housing

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On September 15th, Beverly Craig of MassSave, senior program manager with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, and Michelle Apigian, principal of Icon Architecture, teamed up to present generally on the Massachusetts Passive House boom and specifically on Harbor Village, a recently completed affordable housing project in Gloucester. Tom Chase of New Ecology joined in to dive into the challenges of verifying Passive House projects.

Check out the presentation transcript below:

Beverly Craig: Here is the contact information for the three of us, and I really encourage people to reach out to any one of us. I think Michelle and Tom are some of the most generous people out there for giving advice and sharing experience. Both of them have been on the Passive House Massachusetts board for a long time and given a lot of time. Michelle worked on one of the earliest Passive House projects, the South Distillery project in South Boston. And that was really the first one in the state.

At the time I worked for a state agency, a quasi-governmental agency, and we were seeing all the amazing work that was happening in Pennsylvania on multifamily affordable housing. We were hearing a lot of great stories about what was happening in New York, in Connecticut, New Hampshire, even some projects in Maine. And we were saying, why can't we do more of this in Massachusetts? And at the time, I think there was a lot of concern about costs, honestly. And so, we weren't having any luck getting extra points with tax credits, because people thought it might be too expensive. My agency said, we don't really think it's going to be that expensive. Let's try. Let's see. So, we started a program in which we provided up to $4,000 per unit for eight affordable housing projects. And you see six of them here, the other two are under construction also. This was really to jumpstart the industry and do a lot of really good tracking on where we saw costs increase and where we didn't. I think there are myths about things, especially costs.

These six projects are in a lot of different towns, all across Massachusetts, some in urban Boston areas of high rises, like Cambridge and Boston. There's some that are very suburban sites. The Hanson Village one is actually something that Dakota Partners is doing as a template for a whole bunch of different suburban style, affordable housing complexes that they're doing. We have Harbor Village, which is going to be talked about today in the upper right there with the thin brick. I love this project. At the ribbon cutting, I actually walked right past it because it fit in so well with the main street in Gloucester that I didn't realize that that was the building that I was supposed to be going into. And then North Commons in North Hampton there at the bottom is the one with the highest cost of all the ones we have. And I think the reason is pretty obvious if you look at the complicated roof line. Most of these projects so far, the incremental costs have been surprisingly low to me. We've seen on average 2.4% incremental costs from the initial base case.

I will say it's been really interesting tracking what's changed in each of these projects. In all eight of the projects, the highest incremental cost in Massachusetts has been related to bringing fresh air to every room. That ventilation increase that you get with Passive House, that's so important and it’s very different than what we have in code in Massachusetts, where we only need one supply. And, that has for sure been the highest cost. I generally think after COVID, haven’t all of us learned, if we're going to pay something extra, shouldn't it be on ventilation? So, I think that's actually not a very hard sell to owners of affordable housing, or even in market rate. I think it translates to something that people are willing to pay a little more for. We are tracking very closely those costs. And I will say there's a little bit of a caveat on incremental costs, right? Massachusetts, compared to other states, our stretch code's probably a lot higher than what the base case would be in a lot of other states. These are all affordable housing also, so the owner's going to be a long-term owner and very mission-driven. In Massachusetts, I would say affordable housing has always been on the leading edge of green building. And so, these are the best projects that are deciding to move up to Passive House. The sale on the cost side hasn't been very hard.

Of course, these projects are just starting to get done. So, we don't always have the data on performance, but Michelle's first project is done. This is the Distillery in South Boston. We're fortunate because Boston has an energy disclosure ordinance, which makes it pretty easy to compare to other similar buildings. And as you'll see here, the Distillery’s energy use intensity is in green with the LEED buildings that were built in a similar timeframe and in a similar typology are in purple, and then the code ones are in blue. The Distillery’s 62% lower EUI, that's pretty dramatic. I think there's a lot of skepticism, honestly, from some policymakers about passive really performing the way that we say it will perform. But we see similar data in Philadelphia where there's an energy disclosure ordinance. Green Building United sees 57% better for the Passive House projects compared to the code ones. And we need to start building more and more of this to validate, because there is still skepticism around that.

So, after we launched our program, Passive House Massachusetts was out there lobbying really hard for our state efficiency program to do a similar offering through the Mass Save program, and they were successful. Nine months after our program was launched, Mass Save for both market rate and affordable projects came up with a $3,000 per unit incentive for anybody who would go and get certified. I really love how ICF and the Mass Save program have administered this program. They have these early incentives, pre-design phase, to sort of talk the design team and the owner into analyzing whether Passive House is going to be a good fit. So they provide feasibility study money and they provide modeling money. And when you actually certify you get this bigger incentive. And that has led to this 87th building. At one point we had, I think 102 signed up. Some of those projects disappeared with COVID and didn't get their permits. And some people decided not to continue on, but we still have 86 buildings enrolled, adding up to over 5,000 units. The other thing I really liked what Mass Save and ICF and Passive House Mass have done is they've paired it with a lot of educational offerings. Passive House Accelerator has so much great content, but so does Passive House Mass' website. So go to that video library that's down there at the bottom, if you're ever looking for additional content. Now I'm going to hand it over to Michelle and let her jump into the details of the projects that I know you guys are all on to hear about.

Michelle Apigian: Awesome. Yes. Thanks. Thanks, Beverly. That was awesome. And I'm going to repeat a couple of things that Beverly said, because they're so noteworthy and necessary to articulate how we've gotten where we're going. I fundamentally see Passive House as building inherent value into every building period. It's a very complicated path. It's not easy. But there, if I were to sum it up, I think that these are the five words that I would focus on. So, intention is sort of at every level, as is teamwork. Communication cannot be underestimated. And we often think that we are speaking in shorthand, but we really need to be more explicit. And I want to talk a little bit about craft. We have long underappreciated and undervalued our building community, and we cannot do these projects without them. And so, we must not only express how important the work they're doing is, but also give them the tools and the support to actually do it the way we expect it to be done. And then ultimately, as good as we all can try, mistakes happen and there are issues that have to be addressed. So, confirmation is really important. As Beverly said, we started with the Distillery, top left. We completed Finch last year, which was a long-time labor of love and so exciting to see come out of the ground. We now have 12 or so PH buildings in the works, all committed and all on track to get there. And we're just delighted with the uptick.

And again, just to reiterate, that is not in small part because of the amazing work that the state has done and local organizations have done. So in 2015, this was a huge coup to acknowledge Passive House as an alternative compliant path. But then the MASSCEC incentives really set the stage for what became a version of the Mass Save incentives. None of these projects works without a pretty substantial team. And I think that we tend to want in our minds to make that a pretty small team, but the truth is it's just not. I've probably missed some people, frankly, in this team, but every one of these trades mattered. Every one of these sub-consultants mattered. And we need to be just thinking strategically about how beautiful it is to bring all that expertise together and find the right synergies and move forward.

I do want to talk about communication. So, we're learning how to design these buildings. Lots of architecture firms are learning how to design these buildings. Lots of mechanical firms are figuring out how to do the ventilation and figure out all the efficient heating and cooling systems that are based on that fabulous envelope that we've designed, but then you have to actually get it done in the field. And this is really what I want to focus on, which is how do we communicate our intentions to the builder and the folks that are working for the builder, the sub-consultants. Their sub-consultants. How do we speak in the language that is going to be proactive and successful in that conversation? They work in schedule. We work in schedule, when we're talking, when we're in CA as a general rule, there's often a three-week look ahead. We talk about end dates regularly. We talk about sequencing. And then, what we often don't talk about, but I think what becomes so critical is, if you know the schedule and we're talking about the sequence, who's really involved, and who's going in first, let's really get into that.

Here's an example of a three-week look ahead. Totally do not need to read the minutia here. The point is that we want to plug into this and we want to say, where are there particular aspects of work that are starting to hit on something that's pretty critical to our Passive House envelope? And if that's there, let's see that it's coming and let's plan a call in advance to involve every trade that might be involved in that line of work, so that we can make sure that our assumptions about the sequence are actually accurate. And very often we find out that we made inaccurate assumptions. I know it's a shocker, but you know, we're mostly accurate, but occasionally like a few nuances, "oh, shoot. You're not, you can't do that first? Oh, darn it."

We're really working within this language. And that language then gets translated into a sequence that's happening in plan that we can all kind of talk through. Red is red-hot coming soon. Orange is coming next, right? This is not rocket science, but it is a new way of just thinking collectively about what's coming. And then, you have that red hot spot that we really have to talk through, because it has so many critical intersections and details and sequence issues and let's get on the phone, let's talk through it. Let's rethink it if we need to. Let's make sure that we don't have to remediate after the fact, because we actually just executed it the way we intended the first time. Cause it's new construction. And so we've been more and more doing this and, I think ultimately it goes a long way, at the end of the day. We still miss things, right? We all just still miss things. There are things that can't get buttoned up until late. There are problems, aspects that just are our Achilles heel. There are these really wonky, weak points that we don't understand. And so, this is when we need the confirmation and we need it on so many levels. I praise New Ecology for being on this project and just sticking with us. Thank you. Thank you, Tom. Because I really didn't know that we would get there. I mean like seriously, we went several extra miles to figure out. With that, I think I'm just going to turn it over to Tom.

Tom Chase: That was great. And thanks Bev too for the intro. It's been super exciting to work on a lot of these projects and figure out how to translate the verifier’s perspective. New Ecology was the Passive House verifier on this project. Handled the others in the CEC pass design challenge as well. So, continuing on Michelle's theme of communication, this is really a lesson in using testing as a communication tool. More and more we've been doing early and often whole building blower door tests. Whole building blower door testing in commercial buildings is not code required in Massachusetts, and not even in a lot of residential buildings, it’s not code required. So, in a Passive House building, it might be the first time a team has ever done a blower door test like this. That is a long ways off from communicating just how tight a Passive House building needs to be. And these are the multiple blower door tests that we did along the way. And just looking over on the right-hand column, what that does to our air tightness, as we test and explain, and test and explain, and test and find and correct and explain throughout. So I just want to share some photos before we jump to the Q&A. So, this is what things look like at the first whole building blower door. A lot of intentional openings, things that aren't finished yet. So we're doing temporary construction to actually run the test, which is always a challenge in very complicated buildings. We're finding major leakage and addressing it before things get fully buttoned up. And as we go along, we're finding smaller and smaller gaps. You see the top of the elevator there, we're still not quite having a fully complete whole building air barrier, but we're able to test and find the additional leakage. Getting closer, things are getting tighter. Some things like these piping penetrations are interesting for folks who are learning how to do them. Following not just our requirements for air barrier testing, but also the plumber's requirements and the code requirements. And the fire safety requirements. There's a lot going on to get those tight, which we certainly did by the end of the day. And the last slide is really lessons learned for the next project as well. So once we get to the end of the day, that image on the left had the whole building going on one single blower door fan, and we were able to hear the whistle of a window that arrived without its gasket complete. We were able to identify a broken window that could be repaired. And then another lesson learned. That image on the right there is electrical conduit, very complicated, lots of it going into the building and something to keep figuring out for the next one, but we did get there. Big shout out to Michelle for her confidence in pushing us really to the end and Groom (construction team) as well for sticking with us, the GC there, because they, they went through each of those. I forget how many, six or so.