LIVINGSTON MANOR, NY — For about the past three years, a group of architects, designers and environmentalists have been working to create a carbon-neutral community …
LIVINGSTON MANOR, NY — For about the past three years, a group of architects, designers and environmentalists have been working to create a carbon-neutral community in the Catskills. Situated on 90 acres in Livingston Manor (more than 40 of which will be left untouched as a nature reserve), The Catskill Project is currently in progress as a single-family residential development, encompassing 11 house sites, with plans for 17, all designed to the Passive House Standard. And with the addition of solar panels, each home will have the capacity to operate at net-zero energy consumption annually.
Passive House briefly explained
Buildings that are designed to the Passive House building standard are extremely energy efficient. Utilizing features like continuous insulation throughout the structure, an airtight “building envelope,” high-performance windows, balanced heat and moisture-recovery ventilation and minimal space conditioning, passive houses require minimal energy to keep buildings heated and cooled.
Early research into these concepts began in North America during the 1970s and 1980s. Interest then began waning on this continent for the next couple of decades but gained popularity among European scientists, who further researched and refined the design techniques. Passive House was eventually reintroduced to the U.S. in the early 2000s and has been regaining interest since.
A Passive House building, which can be anything from a single-family home to a skyscraper, taps energy sources like occupants’ body heat, solar energy from the shining sun and heat from indoor appliances to keep the buildings at a consistent temperature throughout the year.
“A building that’s designed to the Passive House standard can reduce the heating and cooling energy required by 80 to 90 percent and the overall building energy use by 70 percent or so [compared to typical building stock],” said Buck Moorhead, an architect and Passive House-certified designer in the New York area who’s leading the team behind The Catskill Project. “About 40 percent of our country’s energy use is in buildings... so if you can reduce the heating and cooling component by 80 to 90 percent, you’re making a big dent in terms of climate change.”
Beyond the environmentalist’s perspective, Passive House designers also stress that with the benefits of airtightness, minimal temperature fluctuations, the constant exchange of indoor and outdoor air, and reduced mold and condensation buildup, Passive House buildings offer enhanced comfort and health benefits to its residents as well.
The Catskill Project
Through his architectural studio, Buck Moorhead Architect, Moorhead and his team have worked on several projects throughout the region, both designing new energy-efficient buildings as well as retrofitting old ones. Some of Moorhead’s projects in Sullivan County include the Narrowsburg Union, The Laundrette restaurant and bar, and a new event-space barn at Callicoon Hills.
Perhaps most ambitious and “a major focus of the firm right now” is The Catskill Project, which Moorhead said he’s hoping to have certified by the Passivhaus Institut in Germany. Aside from Buck, the other team members include Remy Moorhead, architectural designer and certified Passive House designer; Greg Hale, former director of energy efficiency finance for the Natural Resources Defense Council and, now, an advocate for carbon-neutral buildings; Laura Carter, architect and project manager; and Peter Malik, former investment banker and environmentalist holding senior positions at the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Nature Conservancy.
Three years in so far, the first building, a prefabricated model home, is slated to be completed in March. Remy Moorhead said that the team has been careful not to rush past any of the initial planning steps so far.
“This project means a lot to everyone who’s involved in it, and we’ve taken no aspect of the project lightly at all. And every aspect of the site design: the architectural design, the materials that we’re using, the manufacturers that we’re working with—every one of those decisions has been intentional,” she said. “Building these homes once they’re purchased—doing that with expedience will be a priority, but we certainly wanted to take our time during the planning stage, making sure that all of the decisions surrounding this project were made carefully and thoughtfully.”
Future of Passive House
Looking toward the future, Buck foresees Passive House standards not only becoming more popular but also becoming simple necessities as cities, states and even the federal government set goals to drastically reduce carbon emission over the coming decades. He referenced New York City, where his studio is based out of, which has set a goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050. New York State passed legislation in 2019 that looks to limit statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 85 percent of 1990 levels by 2050, as well as achieve 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2040.
“It’s incredibly difficult to meet [those standards] unless you’re designing your buildings to passive house standards... If you design a passive house right now, you meet the 2050 energy requirement of [New York City],” Buck said. “This train has left the station; this is happening.”