The Story and Goals of Active House USA

Just about a year ago I was asked if I would be interested in taking part in the construction of a prototype home using a European “green building specification.” The location was to be determined, but would be somewhere in the USA.

I have been involved with building codes and code development, including serving on committees for developing energy and green codes, nearly all of my professional life. So, naturally, I was very interested. I was invited to attend a meeting last May in Charleston, SC with several key representatives from Active House including the current Committee Chair of the Active House Network, Mikkel Olsen, who is an engineer for our Active House USA project partner Velux in Copenhagen, Denmark.

After reviewing the Active House specifications and information regarding previous prototypes, I realized the large scope and potential of this project and immediately reached out to an old friend and green builder, Kim Hibbs of Hibbs Homes. I knew his attention to quality and efficient building process, including his attention to outstanding communications, were perfect for this opportunity.

I asked the group at our meeting in Charleston to consider letting us build the prototype in the St. Louis area due to our location in the center of the country. It seems that the larger markets on both coasts tend to end up with these opportunities, however, we are in an area that has an advantageous mixed climate zone, as determined by the International Building Code.

Where climate zones located to the North or South may focus on extended periods of colder and dryer or warmer and more humid conditions respectively, by placing the home in St Louis’s mixed climate this prototype will require focus on both extremes, which are inherent to this zone, and necessitate a broader focus for durablity, efficient design, construction, development and retrofitting.

Under normal circumstances, when you build a prototype of most anything you are doing so to test and even push new technology or materials, or both.

Active House is a specification for home design and construction that is currently being developed in Europe. It is a “holistic” specification; meaning it takes into account the resources it takes to construct a building, its impact in terms of energy & water consumption, occupant health and comfort, and even external effects such as storm water runoff.

There have been several prototype homes built around Europe, one was recently completed in Russia during the development of the current specification which was issued in Brussels, Belgium in April of 2010.

The Europeans have a wealth of knowledge in durable construction in harsh climatic conditions, and planning for concentrations and density of population. This experience includes dealing with scarcity of materials (the origin of resource efficiency in today’s green standards, such as Green Globes stem from post war construction and the limited amount of natural resources, such as timber, due to deforestation), along with managing the impact on existing and future resources as a result of those population densities. These issues, combined with the ever increasing demand for energy, created an opportunity to merge knowledge and experience to address resource efficiency while promoting better comfort and health for the building occupants.

Here in the United States a continually growing demand for energy efficient developments, buildings and homes-as well as increased requests for efficiency upgrades and retrofits in the 128 million existing homes, which are responsible for the bulk of the nation’s residential energy loss-necessitates that the construction industry is able to use innovative concepts capable of addressing energy efficiency challenges.

There are also many rapidly developing advancements in local and national building codes, industry technologies and process as a result of incorporation of high-performance standards such as the American National Standards Institute’s ANSI ICC-700 “The National Green Building Standard”, which is a reference standard for the Building Code, the Department of Energy’s Building America/Builder’s Challenge Program and E.P.A.’s Energy Star, Indoor Air and Water Sense Programs.

Incorporating this evolving criteria, implementing a systems-based approach to quality and performance testing into site development and design, and using quality building design and construction practices gives us the ability to identify components that will provide site and building performance competitive with traditional building counterparts. This will also result in a built environment that outperforms traditional buildings in energy efficiency, CO2 emissions, careful conservation of resources, environmental impact, maintenance costs and occupant, health, comfort and satisfaction.

When the opportunity to be a part of the team to construct an Active House prototype in the United States was presented to us, it was apparent that the goal of the Active House Specification and the “National Green Building Standard” were complimentary. Part of our mission with this prototype is to demonstrate how similar they are and create opportunities to expand the market familiarity and impact of both.

About Matt Belcher-Mr Belcher, owner of Verdatek Solutions, is an experienced builder/developer and nationally recognized consultant, educator and author on the business of green building and development. He served on the steering committee of the Canadian based Net Zero Energy Home Coalition to develop a North American Net Zero Energy Home Standard. He has advised the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in the Development of the “Green Star” Green Building Standard in China. In 2008 Mr. Belcher testified to the U.S. House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee on Climate Benefits of Improved Building Energy Efficiency.

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