Housing for the future

Posted 1/18/23

REGION — Housing can be sustainable on a number of levels.

When a housing development gets built, a chief question is whether the local community can sustain it. Will it draw more water …

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Housing for the future


REGION — Housing can be sustainable on a number of levels.

When a housing development gets built, a chief question is whether the local community can sustain it. Will it draw more water from the ground than local wells can handle? Will it put an unsafe amount of traffic on the roads?

Planning boards have to answer these concerns and determine whether the community can sustain a project’s impacts before it can move forward, by working through the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process.

The same basic question—can the environment sustain a given level of development?—applies to the global community as well.

A building’s global impact can be measured in its carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gases that it generates. Reducing a building’s carbon footprint requires changes to a building’s construction and its operation.

If the construction and the operation of a building—the day-to-day use of it, including things like heating, cooling and cooking—produces a net-zero amount of greenhouse gasses, that building can be called “carbon-neutral.”

Reducing a building’s carbon footprint

People often think of renewable energy when they want to go carbon neutral, using sources of energy like geothermal or solar power. That line of thinking misses an opportunity, according to architect Buck Moorhead, one that can be explored with a set of standards called Passive House.

Buck and his daughter Remy are certified Passive House designers, with combined decades of architectural experience working in Sullivan County and New York City; Buck is the chair of New York Passive House.

Passive House buildings might use renewable energy, but the standards for a passive house focus on the conservation of energy, reducing a building’s carbon footprint by reducing the amount of energy needed to power it.

The buildings use high performance windows, continuous thermal insulation, an airtight exterior envelope and more to achieve a minimum of energy loss. Heat is retained very efficiently—the team behind the Catskill Project turned off the heat to an empty passive house in the winter as an experiment, and over the course of a week, the interior temperature never dipped below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

When combined with renewable energy, these buildings can very easily be carbon neutral in their operations.

The cutting edge of sustainable development is the Catskill Project, located near Livingston Manor, which the Moorheads’ firm, Buck Moorhead Architect, is helping to create. It’s a full community of passive houses, with a homeowners association in place to prohibit the use of fossil fuels in their operation.

Even at that cutting edge, there’s still work to do; Passive House standards govern the carbon footprint of a building’s operations, but they don’t cover what’s known as embodied carbon, the carbon footprint of a building’s construction.

The materials chosen for a development project have their own carbon footprints. Certain materials are better than others: concrete and steel are particularly poor choices, according to Buck. Depending on the materials used, even passive houses could take 20 to 30 years to reach net zero emissions, he said, when the operations and the construction of a building are considered together.

The Catskill Project has tracked the embodied carbon of its construction, and while it isn’t perfect, it is still pretty good. The primary source of construction carbon is the concrete used for the foundation, and the structure uses lots of local materials, including trees salvaged from the property, said Remy.

Sustainable and affordable

The question of whether a community can sustain a development project extends beyond the question of environmental sustainability. It has connections, too, to a project’s affordability: Can a community sustain the investment needed to build carbon-neutral housing? Can a family sustain the level of investment required to live in one?

Housing affordability has captured recent headlines (including in the River Reporter). New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s state of the state address included plans to build 800,000 homes over the next decade to meet current shortages. Sullivan County has put together a housing plan that calls for 240 refurbished and 80 new rental units between 2023 and 2027.

As New York builds more homes and apartments to help with its affordability crisis, developers have to keep an eye on costs. For a new, two-bedroom unit to be feasibly built, the rent for that unit will need to be $2,500 a month, according to Sullivan County’s housing study; the typical household in Sullivan County, according to that same study, can only afford rents in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.

Subsidies can split that difference, and Sullivan County is planning to leverage available funds for that purpose. But at least on the face of things, having development be environmentally conscious can impose a cost premium on top of these already strained margins. Many environmental projects themselves carry a premium; the homes available on the Catskill Project’s website start at $1,335,000.

The reality of the situation is more nuanced. It’s hard to tell how much more expensive a passive house is to build, compared to one that doesn’t meet those standards, said Buck, though he generally tells people they’ll spend much more on upgraded kitchens or bathrooms than they will on passive-house elements.

What’s more clear is that once a passive house is built, the efficiency of its heating and cooling means it costs much less to run.

Looking to the future

As projects get built to address affordable housing needs now, they will in some way need to address sustainability requirements. In a different section of Hochul’s state of the state, she called for zero-emission new construction, with smaller buildings weaned off on-site fossil fuel use by 2025. Addressing environmental concerns now isn’t just good for the future; it’s also prudent in response to future requirements.

And while environmental and affordability concerns might come from different angles, they both address the broader question of sustainability. One asks what’s required for an environment to sustain new development; the other asks what’s required for new development to sustain the people who will live there. Together, the two considerations can help in the building of a more sustainable world.

sustainability, carbon neutrality, Passive Home


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