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Oberlin will build Kent student-designed house that runs on sunshine

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/27/14 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Building new

Each time architect Joe Ferut, Jr. designs a home he would like it to reflect all that he’s learned about making habitats that tread as lightly on the planet as possible.

Believe in magic<br />Joe Ferut designed a net positive energy house called Trail Magic in Oberlin. Owner Carl McDaniel has written a book on the subject.

Ferut’s homes take more time to build—he averages about two a year—because they provide as much space to learn about tricking the environment with design as cutting edge technology.

In 2008, he designed a net positive energy, 2,284 sq. ft. house, Trail Magic, in Oberlin which greatly influenced his thinking as an assistant professor in Kent State University’s School of Architecture and Design.

This semester, Ferut joined forces with The Oberlin Project and Zion CDC, the sole non-profit developer serving Oberlin, to challenge students in his Integrative Design Studio class to come up with a energy efficient home that low to moderate income individuals can qualify for.

The Elyria native is as close as they come to an expert in the field of super energy efficient homes; the quest he shares with his students is how to scale it down to the masses.

“So much is happening in building science with air barriers,” Ferut says. “We’re teaching a lot of that here. It’s about not solving it with technology, just with physics.”

The winning entry from the class came from Lydia Karoscik. Underneath the modern design is a double-walled building envelope, an idea that helps the space inside hold its temperature much like a Thermos keeps coffee warm. The kicker: The 1,200 sq. ft. home will actually be built by Zion CDC in an underserved area of Oberlin.

“It’s paramount that homeowners aren’t held hostage by energy bills,” Ferut says.

Since 1992, Ferut’s searched for the sweet spot between ‘green’ and affordable. Recently, his class produced new designs for Habitat for Humanity, and Ferut has collaborated with contractors like Matt Burgess at Environmental Health Watch’s Affordable Green Housing Center and Mark Hoberecht, a NASA engineer who builds extremely energy efficient homes with his company, HarvestBuild. Burgess and Hoberecht were on the creative team of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s SmartHome, the first to achieve Passive House certification in Ohio, and the Nissen-Butler home in Cleveland Heights which is as air-tight as a passive house.

“If it’s easy, how come everyone’s not doing houses that reduce energy use by 80 percent,” he quips.

So, each time they start a new project, Ferut, Burgess, Hoberecht and a small but growing group of architects and builders in Northeast Ohio are interested in how to reduce the construction costs but still get a home to reach the energy-use standards established by the Passive House Institute.

“It’s all about size and orientation (to the sun),” he says. “Then, we start to talk about the building envelope and energy systems. We tune the envelope and can run different computer programs on air tightness.”

Ferut’s target for insulation aligns with the Environmental Protection Agency which calls for R20 walls and R40-60 in the attic. But to achieve a HERS rating of 17 like Trail Magic takes a “very competent team who can produce a more full-proof building system” (by comparison, EnergyStar requires that homes earn an 85 HERS rating).

“You want what my builder did on a home in Oberlin with plywood sheeting and taping and caulking to get to 1 air change per hour," he says, "and that was before insulating."

That was an 1,800 square foot house which cost $127 per square foot to build, he adds. It has vinyl siding, and double-pane windows with a UV film. Triple-pane would be better but are still difficult to find in the U.S. because there are no major manufacturers like in Europe where the building codes demand it.

Near Passive House energy efficiency is still achievable with the right air sealing, double-wall construction and orienting the house for southern sun exposure, he says. His homes are equipped with two mini splits to provide climate control, not a conventional furnace. Commissioning, or inspecting that a home is performing up to its potential, may be even more valuable than the certification.

The Ohio State University Extension College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences in Wooster is teaching these building science techniques, he says. At Kent, the next generation of architect is also benefiting from Ferut’s knowledge.

He can see a future where all homes use 80 to 90% less energy than they do today, especially if the environmental values of Americans continue to grow.

“It’s a bit of a struggle if someone’s weighing granite countertops against double wall construction,” he says, “but at least I can show them which pays for itself.”

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Hi, there -
8 years ago

What's the useful live (measured in years) of houses built pre-WWII? At what point are the houses to be abandoned or torn down for new construction?

David Beach
8 years ago

As Marc says, the National Trust study makes good points about the issue of retrofitting vs. building new. This is a complex question, and any calculation requires a lot of assumptions about life-cycle costs and benefits. But it's certainly good practice to look first for opportunities to upgrade old buildings and make them more energy efficient. New techniques are being developed all the time to make retrofits less expensive and more effective at reducing energy use, while retaining the historic character and quality materials of old buildings. One of my favorite examples is the recent renovation of the Empire State Building (esbnyc.com/sustainability_project.asp).

If one does decide to build new, the sustainability goal should be to develop long-lived, durable structures (lasting 200 years or more) that are very energy-efficient (net-zero energy or better) and meet changing human needs over time.

8 years ago

Thanks for your question. This 2012 study from National Trust for Historic Preservation concluded that it is greener to retrofit than build new.

Location does play a large role in how green your home is particularly in carbon emissions produced from transportation as this report that we wrote about found:

Hi, there -
8 years ago

Is it still true that the greenest home is the one that isn't built and that the location of a home has lots to do with determining whether it is green?

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