Buying Here: Passive House duplex tackles energy costs
April 14, 2017 12:00 AM
A view of a duplex with Passive House energy-efficient technology in Squirrel Hill.
By Rosa Colucci / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
You might call it a watershed moment in the life of Lucyna de Barbaro, an former expert on particle physics.
“I stood in front of a Union of Concerned Scientists poster predicting negative impacts of global warming, increased wildfires, floods, more intensified weather events, even mosquito migration up north,” she said.
She and her husband, Ayres Freitas, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, decided to build a new house with Passive House technology.
They recently moved into one side of the new duplex at 2883-2885 Fernwald Road in Squirrel Hill and have put the other side on the market for $599,000 (MLS No. 1270335). They will have an open house from noon-6 p.m. April 23. The couple will also answer questions about the duplex’s highly energy-efficient construction and systems throughout the day. Information: 412-320-0567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
At first glance, it looks like any other new house. But then you notice the unusual siding. It’s called Accoya radiata pine, native to New Zealand and acetylated for durability.
“Think of it as pickled in vinegar,” she said. “Wood definitely has the lowest environmental impact. We love the look of brick, but it has a global warming potential of 15 pounds per square foot.”
It’s one of many choices the couple made to reduce their house’s impact on the environment. Even the lot, which was once farmland for an Italian immigrant family, was chosen for its small carbon footprint. Architect Alan Dunn, a neighbor, purchased the land from the family in 2002 and started to develop small parcels to fit in with the landscape.
Mr. Dunn, who was not familiar with Passive House until the couple told him about it, decided it was a good fit for the lot. Erik Fritzberg, a staff architect with Dunn and Associates, became a certified Passive House consultant for the project. Construction began in 2014 and was finished recently.
Passive House is common in Europe — 90 percent of new homes in Austria are built to the standard. To qualify, structures must be virtually airtight, which reduces heating and cooling costs by at least 50 percent compared to traditionally built homes, advocates say. An energy-efficient heat pump and air exchanger replace the air inside the home several times per hour, reducing indoor pollutants, and insulation is increased dramatically.
Beneath the Accoya and gray cement-fiber siding is a very thick layer of mineral wool and other materials that gives insulation values of R-84 in the attic, R-42 in the walls and R-36 below the concrete slab.
“It is like building a thermos and pouring your freshly brewed coffee there instead of continuously heating the pot,” Ms. DeBarbaro said.
Another eco-friendly feature is a series of cisterns that capture rainwater from the roof and slowly release it into the earth, not the city’s stormwater system. There is a sloped driveway and two-car garage at grade.
The duplex’s interior is clean and modern. The entry features 9-foot ceilings and dark-strained hardwood floors that run throughout the first floor. To the right of the entry is a 13-by-10-foot light-filled office. The main living space is open with a 14-by-10-foot dining area that flows into the 19-by-13-foot living room. Walls of windows add light and passive solar heat on cool days.
The L-shaped kitchen measures 14 by 12 feet and has white cabinets with soft-close doors and in-drawer organizers. The counters are soft gray quartz and the appliance package includes a Bosch dishwasher and electric stove (Gas is not permitted in Passive House). The refrigerator is Samsung and drawer-style microwave is by Sharp.
French doors open to the back deck, which features a spectacular view of the east and the Cathedral of Learning.
“When we first looked at the lot, we could not see this view,” Ms. DeBarbaro said.
A custom-made iron railing leads to the second floor, where three bedrooms range in size from 8 by 11 feet to the the 13-by-14-foot master. The master bath has a tub/shower combo and an IKEA vanity.
The back bedroom has a spectacular view and shares a bathroom that includes large tile on the floor and walls and another IKEA vanity.
The second floor also contains a laundry room and utility room with the heat pump and air exchanger. Ms. DeBarbaro refers to it as the “lungs” of the house.
“It produces the cleanest and healthiest air you can breathe. Even micropollutants and pollens are removed in the air filtration system.”
The closets have organizers and all of the appliances are Energy Star-rated. The roof is prewired for solar panels.
The couple have lived on their side of the Passive House duplex for seven weeks and had a monthly electric bill of only $75, including heat.
Over the last five years, 13 houses have sold on Fernwald Road for prices ranging from $133,00 in August 2013 to $419,000 in June 2014 (www.realstats.net).
The home certainly had its challenges, she said. “Finding every little place that had an air leak made all of the difference.”
But they have no regrets. She said the house is priced at what it cost to build.
“We have had 12 tours with lots of design professionals and other builders who want to learn more about this technology,” she said. “The importance of clean, green building and clear air is more important than ever.”
Correction, posted April 15, 2017: Passive House standards require a home to be virtually airtight, our story quoted a 98 percent standard; the garage is at grade, not below; the drawer-style microwave is by Sharp, not Samsung
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