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Saying bye-bye to extreme temperatures

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHASE ALLGOOD - Bryan Farris uses a motion-detecting sprinkler to keep a stray peacock away from his new passive house. Bryan and Stephanie Farris learned a few things about extreme weather conditions while living abroad for work. In Jakarta, Indonesia, the mercury rarely dipped below 75 degrees, and monsoons brought average rainfall twice that of their soggy home state of Oregon.

In a high-rise apartment in coastal South Korea, the sun reflected off the Pacific Ocean, making their windows hot to the touch, even in winter. They wore shorts inside while people on the street sported down jackets.

“We didn’t like the extremes,” Bryan says. “We wanted it to be 72 and sunny all of the time in our house.”

So they built a home where it is.

The Farris family — Bryan, Stephanie and their two sons — live in a passive house in North Plains. Über energy-efficient, passive houses are nearly airtight and cost just a fraction of the amount needed to heat and cool a normal house. Temperature in the family’s large 3,600-square-foot home is controlled by a small heat pump about the size of an overhead carry-on bag.

“The house is benign to what’s happening outside. It really doesn’t change, day after day, month after month,” Bryan says. “Downstairs, we run 68 to 70 degrees every day, whether its 95 degrees outside or 28 degrees outside. Upstairs we range between 72 and 75 degrees.”

It’s a welcome change from the sweltering heat and blistering cold found in the places they lived abroad. Or from a drafty 100-year-old foursquare, for that matter.

“I used to wake up in our old house in the winter, and I would be freezing until I took a shower,” Stephanie says. “Now, even if I get up in the middle of the night, it’s not cold, and in the summer it’s not hot and stuffy; it’s just so consistent and pleasant. There’s no dramatic change.”

It’s not just the air temperature the Farrises notice; it’s the air quality. While passive houses don’t require much energy to heat or cool, their shells are so airtight they require a system to frequently recirculate fresh air. That keeps building materials from getting too wet or dry, and keeps air in the house from becoming stagnant.

“I have two teenage boys, and their rooms don’t smell like teenagers’ rooms,” Bryan says. “When people walk in they say, ‘It just feels really good.’ ”

Disciples needed

Sam Hagerman has heard those types of stories before. He’s the founder of Portland-based Hammer and Hand, which built the Farrises’ passive house and about a half-dozen others in the area, and served as the first president of the national Passive House Alliance.

For all of the energy-saving facts and figures behind each passive house project, he says there is nothing quite like

experiencing one from the inside. He knows that to sell the passive house idea, the movement needs avid disciples like the Farris family.

“We’re just now getting to the point where we have proof of concept in the marketplace,” Hagerman says. “We’re finally at the point where people who are interested can at least drive up to it and say, ‘That’s what it looks like.’ ”

Like many environmental initiatives, the passive house movement began and flourishes in Europe. The Germans built the first passive homes, with state assistance, in the early 1990s, and there are now tens of thousands of certified passive buildings on the continent, including a hospital and a grocery store.

The idea was slow to catch on in the United States, with the first passive home popping up in Illinois around 2003. But it’s gaining traction in the Northwest, where favorable climates and attitudes have spawned a motivated group of builders and designers who are pushing the envelope on energy-efficient homes.

Simple concept

The concept is pretty basic: build a home that is essentially airtight by using thick layers of insulation and high-efficiency windows, and take advantage of south-facing designs to capture natural light. Do it right, and homeowners slash energy used for heating by 90 percent and hold dinner parties to impress their greenie friends.

Of course, if it were that simple, everyone in Southeast Portland would own a passive home and pay their heating bills with the change beneath their couch cushions.

But it’s awfully hard and expensive to retrofit an existing house to meet passive standards. It’s more practical to start with a clean slate.

“You make the house airtight and you insulate it really well, and you really only get one chance to do the envelope,” Hagerman says. “You can’t really do serious upgrades to the shell without a lot more expensive work.”

And if the house is done right, the inhabitants, and house itself, have to breathe.

Keeping it fresh

Jonathan Cohen is an engineer and owner of Imagine Energy, which created the heating, ventilating and cooling system in the Farris house. He likens passive houses to Tupperware containers, which do a great job of keeping air out when sealed. Unfortunately, homes don’t have lids. And even if they did, you’d want to keep them closed nine months a year in Oregon.

Cohen’s job is to make sure a steady stream of fresh air moves through the house, and the air is at the right temperature — even when the home’s proverbial lids are closed.

The primary goal is keeping the homeowners comfortable, but it’s also important to avoid mold and other issues related to stagnant air.

“Fresh air on a nice day feels great, but if you take that day and put it in the middle of winter, it’s not ideal,” Cohen says. “The ventilation system gives you the fresh air of having the window open without the energy loss associated with it. And it’s not just bringing in fresh air, but actually expelling stale air, and outgoing air preheats the incoming air.”

Cohen uses heat recovery systems in which the outgoing air heats the conduit through which the incoming air passes.

Big leap in Hillsboro

What’s the future hold for passive house construction in the Northwest?

Single-family homes continue to gain momentum, while the 19-unit Kiln apartment building is leasing on North Williams Street in Portland. Reach Community Development Corp. says it will build the nation’s largest multifamily housing project using passive house standards in Hillsboro.

Commercial buildings, both Hagerman and Cohen lament, seem to be a little way off in the U.S., as builders often lack the incentive to spend money upfront to yield longterm savings.

But better technology is driving prices down. The Farrises say they only spent about 10 percent more to build a home that met passive house standards, a number they easily will offset through reduced energy bills.

Every passive house in the region brings one more chance to convert skeptics.

“The perfect piece of apparel, the perfect shoe, the perfect car; it’s the one that’s in harmony with what you do. You forget you have it; you forget you’re in it,” Bryan Ferris says. “It’s really hard to capture a snippet of something like this in just a couple of hours of a visit. You’ve got to spend the night; you’ve got to stay in the guest room ... and if you do, you’ll understand the difference.”