Cover Story

Passive Aggressive

20100630-cover-0101Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Written By Nathan Stubbs
Photos by Robin May

UL Architecture Professor Corey Saft's new town home in the center of Lafayette is the first in the entire southern U.S. to receive ‘Passive House' certification - a gold standard in green energy efficiency.

20100630-cover-0101Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Written By Nathan Stubbs
Photos by Robin May

UL Architecture Professor Corey Saft's new town home in the center of Lafayette is the first in the entire southern U.S. to receive ‘Passive House' certification - a gold standard in green energy efficiency.

When Corey Saft looked at the first utility bill for his newly built rent house on Whittington Drive, it was with more than the usual sense of apprehension.  The UL architecture professor had spent the past two years dreaming, planning, designing and ultimately building the narrow home, with a footprint under 800 square feet, on the lot adjacent to his residential home, with much of that time devoted to ensuring the house maximized energy efficiencies.

Holding up the bill, Saft now had total vindication. Not only did it read "no amount due" but as it turned out, Lafayette Utilities System actually owed him 62 cents for the month. It was no anomaly. When the next bill came, for the month of April, Saft hardly batted an eye when he saw that utilities for the house had skyrocketed more than 500 percent, up to a whopping $5.

20100630-cover-0102"There was a sense of relief, really," Saft says of his reaction to the first two months' bills. "You don't want to be too optimistic. I mean everything you read says one thing, but usually it never comes out that good. So I was definitely pretty surprised. It was hoped for; I wouldn't say anticipated. It's the first time this was done in a hot, humid climate where everything kind of worked out the way it was supposed to."

This month, the house became one of the first 10 single-family residences in the U.S. to be awarded Passive House certification, a gold standard of green design recently imported from Germany. With the feat, Louisiana becomes one of six states in the U.S. with a Passive House-certified home, making it the first in the South and ranking it ahead of West Coast green energy pioneers Washington, Oregon and California, all of which currently have passive house projects in the works that have yet to complete the certification process. Saft is also in the process of trying to obtain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, a more widely used green building certification system, which could soon make him the first LEED-certified homeowner in Acadiana.

Born out of The Passivhaus Institut, founded in Germany in 1996, passive house design has only recently begun making waves in the U.S., but its standards for strict energy efficiency have proven second to none. At the U.S. Solar Decathlon, where university architecture students compete for the most effectively designed green house (UL's Beausoleil house was one of 20 finalists last year), a passive house took home top honors in 2007 and 2009. The design method has had similar success in like-minded European competitions.

20100630-cover-0103Saft, who has been teaching at UL since 2003, got introduced to Passive House principles by a former professor from the University of Oregon while working on a project in Idaho that strived to achieve some energy efficiency certification. While financing on that project fell through, the idea of Passive House piqued the architect's interest. (The U.S. Passive House Institute served as a design consultant on Saft's house.)

With heavily insulated walls and roofs and double and triple-paned windows, passive homes are engineered to be air tight and high performance. "It's kind of like this German mentality of absolute control," Saft says. "You seal a house so well that you know all the air comes in here and goes out there. "Then you can take advantage of it, filter it and redirect heat. When it's not controlled, and [air] is leaking here and the single pane windows are leaking there, you're a lot more limited in what you can do."


An upstairs bathroom maximizes space
by doubling as a shower.

Their first three weeks in the house, Hunter Duplantier, Liran Timianski and Justin Aubert got regular knocks on the door from curious passersby interested in the house. The three UL architecture students joked that they may be even be able to put out a sign and start charging for tours. Located across from University Place Apartments, the house stands out from the other single family homes along Whittington Drive as the most modern and intriguing building in the area. A single-pitch metal roof extends into an awning over the home's high windows, with wood beams forming a long bracket into the side of the house. Wood steps lead up to the front door and portico, which overlooks a vertical garden in the side yard.
The home's curb appeal was only a small part of the reason Duplantier, Timianski and Aubert jumped at the opportunity to be Saft's tenants in the home. The home is a few blocks from UL's architecture school and offers the opportunity to experience green architecture principles at work. The three have all talked openly about using the home as part of a future thesis project. "Not very many people get to live in their thesis project," Duplantier says.

"I've always wanted to do green architecture," Timianski adds. "That's what I wanted to study. So to get to live in a house that's green, and talk to Corey about his thought process through the design, is pretty cool. I want to learn how to do this."



(top) Saft's tenants and architecture students
(clockwise from top) Liran Timianski,
Hunter Duplantier and Justin Aubert

While Saft expects the house's utility bills to rise over the summer, he predicts utilities will average less than $25 a month for the year. The house has walls twice as thick as conventional homes with up to 8 inches of spray foam insulation inside 2-by-8-inch studs and inch-thick foam board under the Hardie panel siding.

To bring in fresh air, the house employs an Energy Recovery Ventilation system. An intake and exhaust, part of a black box located in the basement of the house, connects to a duct that runs through the house to ventilate. The real magic happens inside the black box. The cold air going out through the exhaust actually serves to cool and dehumidify the hot air coming in, preconditioning it to a relatively comfortable level even before the AC unit has to go to work. In colder months, the system works the same in reverse, pre-heating the cold air coming in. The ERV claims to be able to recover 95 percent of a home's heating and cooling, all while exchanging the home's stale air for fresh air every two hours.
In addition to the ERV, the home manages with a single 1-ton air conditioning system, a ductless mini-split with one indoor venting unit. (a similar-sized conventional home would require a 3-ton system). Saft says the house operates similar to the way a common thermos keeps coffee piping hot for several hours without using any power. "When something's super-sealed and super-insulated, it acts like a thermos; you don't have to use your mechanical system that much, and that's really the big idea. It's really a low-tech strategy."

In colder weather, the house should require virtually no air conditioning. The home's southern windows are designed to catch the low winter sun at a more direct angle, bringing more warmth into the house. In addition, the thermos-like insulation will help trap all heat put off from appliances and warm bodies.

Everything in the house, from the concrete kitchen counters to the water-conserving shower to the condenser dryer, was installed with efficiency in mind. Another innovative feature is an AirTap unit hooked onto the water heater. The unit acts like a heat pump, using a compressor to extract heat from the surrounding air and sending it down copper tubes into the water tank. The AirTap, which requires only a 110-volt plugin, has allowed Saft to unplug his 220-volt water heater.

The home also works wonders in maximizing space. Saft managed to fit three bedrooms and two full bathrooms into the 1,200-square-foot space. The upstairs bathroom is a model of efficiency. The curtain hung just inside the door and the drain on the floor serve notice that the entire room is a shower. The sink, affixed to the back of the toilet, comes on automatically after each flush for hand washing with the water then draining into the toilet's tank.

Downstairs, an open kitchen and living room provides the main communal space, which is overlooked by a small loft area above the laundry room/ bathroom. Aubert, Timianski and Duplantier have made creative use of the loft, positioning a video projector there to show movies on the opposite wall in the living room. It's also become an ideal space for creative outlets like painting and playing guitar.

For its tenants, who regularly update Saft on how the house is functioning, the home has served as a constant reminder of low-impact living, inspiring them to go beyond just using less electricity. They recently started a vegetable garden and now often opt for walking or taking a bike over getting in a car.


The open living room is overlooked by a small loft space.

"Being energy efficient and having a low impact on the environment, that's where everything is leaning now," Duplantier says. "And I think now more than ever it's important for people to start living that in their daily lives. Instead of just hearing about it and talking about it and learning about it, being here has allowed us to actually be able to live with a low impact on a day-to-day basis. It's probably made me a better person."

Aside from generating obscenely low utility bills, the building technique has also proven to be relatively cost-effective. Saft, who had the added advantage of designing and overseeing the project himself, calculates his building costs at under $120 a square foot - a price that includes the $20,000 solar panel system installed on the roof (Saft was able to get an 80 percent rebate on the solar system through state and federal incentives and a $2,000 green builder's tax credit).


Jaron Young of HJ Design and Construction.



(submitted photos): Saft's passive
house is heavily insulated from roof
to foundation

For construction, which wrapped up in February, Saft employed a former student of his, Jaron Young, who recently launched his own local company, HJ Design and Construction. Along with Saft, Young oversaw construction of the home from roof to foundation. A-Plus Sevices of Lafayette installed the home's mechanical systems, including the min-split, ERV and solar system.

"We learned about green building principles in school," Young says, "but we never actually got to experience it and see the benefits from it. This has inspired me to build more energy efficient and experiment more with these principles.

"I can see there's a market for it," he adds.

Young is now on a mission to make green building even more cost effective. The 29-year-old plans to begin construction on his own house this year on property donated from the family of Jared Doise, whose Legends bar franchise in Lafayette Young has helped to build. If the house lives up to his expectations, Young says he and the Doises could expand it into a small development.
Young is aiming to build his home for well under $100 a square foot, while at the same time incorporating several components of passive house and green design.

"I learned a lot from Corey," he says. "He basically opened the book for me as far as a lot of these [green architecture] principles. Now, I'm applying my construction knowledge to those principles."
While Lafayette's first passive house has proven inspiring and Saft has gotten positive feedback form the several tours he's done for friends, student groups and even the city planning department, the UL professor is quick to point out that the main impediment to a project like this comes in a builder's ability to finance it. Because banks and appraisers base home values strictly off of comparable sales within a given neighborhood, and no precedent exists with the type of energy savings Saft's home offers, his home can be considered grossly undervalued.

"It gets locked up to the point that you can't get a bank loan," he says. "Someone can't buy this house. Even if they think the solar panels are worth what I paid for them, they can't buy this house with a bank loan that takes that into account. The bank won't pay any attention to the solar panels. And they're not cheap. So the guy who wants to buy it, either he buys it above appraised value and just assumes the loss or doesn't. So the incentive for building these things is just not there in the way the banks appraise.

"It all costs," he continues. "If you're rich and you want to make a zero energy house, it's not that hard. But the trick is to make it standard practice, that's the goal. For me, it's making it cheap and staying inside the realm of standard practice, and that hopefully will inspire other people to do it. Hopefully, little by little, projects like this will help establish some precedents."