Getting rid of fossil fuels in buildings

Passive house building too cost effective to resist

ATTORNEY GENERAL Maura Healey recently ruled that Brookline’s clean energy bylaw prohibiting installation of oil and gas lines in new and substantially renovated buildings violates state law. It’s true—state preemption law does not allow cities and towns to pass energy requirements stronger than the state’s code. But cities and towns still have substantial leverage. While we work on changing state law, we have other means to get rid of fossil fuels in buildings.

For example, the passive house building standard, promoted by the Commonwealth’s own three-year energy efficiency plan, released in October 2018, is one key element. The plan includes tax incentives and subsidies for developers for both market-rate and low-income housing. Even if energy codes are unchanged, this technology is becoming too cost-effective to resist.

A passive-house building is designed to keep heat in, using super-insulation, triple-pane windows, and similar measures. It consumes about 90 percent less energy for heating and 60 percent less energy overall than a typical building and usually does not require active heating and cooling systems. The buildings also use air exchangers that use the heat produced from lighting, cooking, and other sources to warm incoming cold air.

Dozens of European cities require the passive-house standard for some new construction—particularly in Germany, where it was developed. The passive-house standard is technologically and economically feasible for both new construction and retrofitting existing buildings, even in cold climates. By definition, passive house construction can be fossil-fuel free if it uses electric heating and appliances.

It’s been slow to catch on in the US, but Massachusetts is poised to become a leader—and gearing it to low-income housing. In 2017, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the state economic development agency accelerating the growth of the clean energy sector, launched the Passive House Design Challenge to demonstrate that the standard can be employed at little extra cost. In 2019, the Clean Energy Center funded eight projects to the tune of $1.73 million that will build 540 units of affordable passive housing.

The program offered most projects a $4,000-per-unit incentive. It is funded by the state’s 2016 $15 million Affordable Access to Clean and Efficient Energy Initiative. Beverly Craig, a senior program manager at the Clean Energy Center says the project is building familiarity with the standard in the development community and notes that once developers realize they can do it with low-income housing, it will become the standard for most housing.

And once people live in passive housing, they experience lower noise (due to the triple glazed windows), better indoor air quality, and very low utility bills. All this adds up to lower turnover as well, says Hank Keating, an architect and president of PassiveHouse Massachusetts, who has built more than 5,000 units of affordable housing—a recent development being a 160-unit public housing project in Taunton built to passive house standard.

The emphasis on low-income housing is doubly important, given the shortage of affordable housing and what we’ve learned from the pandemic about housing inequities. Both incidence and death rates from COVID-19 are higher in low-income areas and communities of color partly because they tend to be highly polluted, leaving residents more susceptible to asthma and related conditions that leave them more vulnerable to the virus. Passive house should be the standard for all low-income housing.

To that goal, the Clean Energy Center just launched the Triple Decker Design Challenge, which will award nine prizes for design proposals for all-electric building retrofit approaches: three $25,000 grand prize winners; four $15,000 runner-up prizes; and an additional $10,000 added for the People’s Choice prize. And the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency responsible for distributing federal low-income housing tax credits, is now including bonus points for developers that commit to attempting the passive-house standard.

Meet the Author

Joan Fitzgerald

Professor, School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, Northeastern University
Massachusetts should adopt a building energy code that moves us closer to this standard. Right now the Board of Building Regulations and Standards, the state body that controls all building code changes, has been directed by the Legislature to produce a net-zero energy stretch code, which means that a building has to produce as much energy as it uses on an annual basis. Passive House advocates are working to make sure that Board of Building Regulations and Standards builds passive house into the new code as the base for net-zero energy. Building electrification will happen with these changes.

Joan Fitzgerald is a professor in the School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Her latest book, Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change, was published by Oxford University Press in March.