I recently interviewed Alex Melamed and Andrew Kline of Green Generation Building in Yellow Springs, Ohio Here for an upcoming video story. They design and build highly insulated homes that meet the Passive House standard. A Passive House uses innovative construction techniques to keep itself warm in winter and cool in summer with almost no fuel. The initial cost of building a Passive House is usually slightly higher than a conventional home (10% on average), but the cost of operating the house year after year is radically lower so the up front investment can be repaid by significant energy savings. It’s also been suggested that today’s conventional homes are oversized and that by making a home 10% smaller a Passive House wouldn’t cost any extra and no one would miss the “bonus room” above the three car garage. (That’s another story. Don’t get me started…)
Here are photos of Andrew Kline’s home. As they walked me through all the features that made the house so super energy-efficient I kept getting distracted by something that’s seemingly unimportant. Andrew is 6′ 6″ and his wife is 5′ 4″. I had to asked how the cabinets, counter tops, and windows were organized for two very different sized people. It turns out that Andrew is in charge of reaching up for the seldom used things and his wife keeps her must-have items down below. Instead of cabinets all the lower under counter storage is pull out drawers so there’s never any bending down for things way in the back.
Several blocks away I toured Alex’s property which actually contains two homes. The first was built a few years ago at the rear of the lot. It’s not only a super insulated Passive House, but it’s also a super small and cute Tiny House. It was part of a long-term plan that allowed Alex and his wife to buy land, build a honeymoon cottage for themselves, then save and organize the construction of a larger home in the front portion of their lot. The Tiny House in back will eventually be pressed into service as a home office/guest house/rental unit that can provide flexibility and/or generate income as they go through different stages of life. They’ve actually built with their future children and grandchildren in mind. People are more likely to build a durable high quality home if they expect to occupy it for a lifetime. That’s a very different approach than a developer slapping up cheap condos and speculators buying them with the intention of flipping as the market fluctuates.
The larger home that’s currently under construction will not only meet the Passive House standard for energy efficiency, but it will blend with the historical character of the neighborhood while sporting a few modern touches. The peaked metal roof and overall geometry of the house reads like the homes on either side and across the street. At 1,800 square feet it’s significantly smaller than the national average for new homes which is about 2,400 square feet, yet this house is in no way small. It certainly feels expansive with massive windows, high ceilings, and a free-flowing floor plan. My favorite element of the home is the third floor screened porch with a view over the neighbor’s roof out to the center of town.
Photo credit: David Smith
Of course the town itself is a significant part of why Alex and Andrew are building where and how they are and it’s a key part of the success of their business model. Yellow Springs, Ohio is a pre-World War II “Norman Rockwell” town that offers a pedestrian oriented environment where kids can walk to school and the elderly can age in place in their own homes without the isolation and auto-dependency that is common in post war suburban sprawl. The town consciously chose to preserve large tracts of productive farmland and open space over the decades and the result is higher property values, a more vibrant downtown, and a higher quality of life. It wouldn’t make sense to build a super energy efficient home in a remote location that required the family to spend an hour or more on the road each day to accomplish ordinary tasks like getting to work, going to school, or buying groceries.
As a pleasant side effect the municipal government of Yellow Springs isn’t saddled with endless infrastructure costs associated with road and sewer expansion projects or the never-ending cycle of building new police and fire substations and new schools out in the cornfields as new subdivisions and strip malls chew up the countryside. What is often interpreted as crunchy Hippie dippy liberalism is actually a much more fiscally conservative model for local government and long-term solvency. Property in Yellow Springs also sells for markedly higher prices than neighboring communities that have rushed head long into sprawl development. Evidently, people are willing to pay more for a higher quality of life – or perhaps simply a kind of life that hasn’t been provided by developers for many decades. New buildings are always needed and it’s reasonable to ask how the town will grow if new land can’t be developed. As real estate values rise property owners have a market incentive to subdivide their land and/or add density to the property they already own. Both Alex and Andrew built their new homes on land that had been vacant since the town was founded over a century ago. Once there was enough of a profit motive local home owners cashed in. For other properties that are already “fully built out” a one story structure can be expanded into a two or three story building. There’s plenty of room to grow without resorting to either high rise development or sprawl. And this kind of densification occurs incrementally and in a diffused fashion at the discretion of individual families over time rather than a top-down bureaucracy that swoops in with bulldozers.