Meriden affordable housing to use German energy efficiency knowhow

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The affordable housing project slated to go up later this year in downtown Meriden may look conventional, but it’s not.

The 81 new apartments and townhouses will be built to "passive house" standards, a rigorous, super energy efficient design popular in Europe, but still relatively unknown in the United States.

As a result, the units will use much less energy than conventional or even other types of green buildings, producing big savings that will be passed on to the tenants, said Andy Davenport, vice president of Michaels Development Company, the project’s developer. The New Jersey-based firm, the nation’s largest private owner and builder of affordable housing, has done energy efficient projects before, but this will be the first built to passive house standards, Davenport said.

"We like to be pushing the envelope on green and sustainable development," he said. "We’re excited to get this project underway."

Key to realizing the development, named 11 Crown Street after its address, were tax credits provided by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority in part for the use of passive house technology, Davenport said. Michaels will receive $1.7 million in tax credits from the CHFA, a quasi-public agency that promotes affordable housing, he said.

CHFA spokeswoman Lisa Kidder said that the 11 Crown Street project, to be built on the site of the former Meriden-Record Journal building, is among the first to receive agency tax credits for using passive house technology. The agency in 2016 added the building standard to the basket of factors it considers when weighing applications for the credits, she said.

"Energy efficiency is something that CHFA wants to make sure the properties we finance have," she said.

Passive house technology was developed in Germany in the 1990s, and most of the more than 10,000 passive house buildings worldwide are located there and in neighboring Austria and Switzerland.

The technology aims to seal buildings as tightly as possible. This is achieved with super-insulated walls and triple-glazed windows and by situating buildings to maximize passive solar heating. In warm weather, the process reverses itself to keep buildings cool. To keep interiors fresh, passive houses use air exchange systems that constantly circulate air in and out of the structure.

Some passive houses report being as much as 80 percent or more energy efficient – they often do not require a conventional furnace – than conventional buildings. Davenport said he did not have a specific estimate on how much more efficient the 11 Crown Street project will be, but said it would be significant, likely at least 50 percent greater.

Davenport estimated that using the passive house standard would push up the price tag of 11 Crown Street about 8 to 10 percent. Project architect Kenneth Bronson of Bronson Architects in New Haven noted that while the cost of using passive house technology may be higher, owners will recoup the difference over time through lower energy costs.

The development is Bronson’s first passive house project, but he does not intend it to be his last. Grant Wright, one of his architects, earlier this year become a certified passive house consultant, and the firm has received inquiries about doing more projects built to the standard. The firm earlier this month attended the New England Passive House Multi-Family Conference in New Hampshire to give a presentation on the 11 Crown Street project.

"As architects, we are always looking to provide more efficient buildings that are leading to net zero (structures that create as much energy as they consume), and this is a stop on the way," Bronson said.

Wright said he had to undergo about 50 to 60 hours of online training through the Passive House Institute US, attend a week of classes in New York City and then pass a test to obtain his certification.

Designing the 11 Crown Street project, which also includes a solar array, to a green house standard presented some challenges, Wright said. The building’s skin must be smoother than a conventional structure’s, precluding certain architectural flourishes, he said. The small footprint – just 1.6 acres – made it harder to maximize passive solar heating, while the uneven topography added other challenge, he said.

The development will have 63 apartments in one building and 18 townhouses in two other buildings, Davenport said. Of those, 17 will be market-rate rentals, while the remainder will be affordable units, meaning rents will be tied to a person or family’s ability to pay, he said.

Construction is expected to begin in the fall and be done before the end of 2019, Davenport said.

Christopher Hoffman can be reached at news@newhavenbiz.com

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