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Construction crews broke ground last Tuesday on what will eventually be one of the most progressive affordable housing units in the country.

Located near Orenco Station in Hillsboro, the development known as The Orchards at Orenco will feature 57 apartment-like housing units built using the principles of “passive housing,” a sustainable design philosophy that uses insulation and air recycling systems to reduce heating costs by as much as 90 percent and overall energy use by 60 to 70 percent.

The Orchards’ proximity to the MAX line will also cut down on the residents’ transportation HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Hillsboro City Council President Aron Carleson was among the many who turned shovels to celebrate groundbreaking for The Orchards at Orenco June 17.

“We’re very excited to be building this project and about the support we’ve received from Hillsboro,” said Laura Recko, director of fundraising and public relations for REACH Community Development Corp., the company responsible for Orchards at Orenco.

Planning for Orchards started when REACH’s former executive director, Bee Walsh, toured passive housing units in Germany, where the design was first standardized in the 1990s.

“She [Walsh] started talking about all the benefits of passive housing, and it inspired the board of directors to put it in our strategic plan to be implemented by 2015,” said Recko.

Passive housing is anything but passive in terms of making homes more efficient. The design uses heavy insulation and triple-paned windows to retain heat while a mechanical ventilation system re-routes stale air from kitchens and bathrooms to heat air in bedrooms, reducing energy waste.

External shading devices absorb the winter sun but block the summer sun. Also, Energy Star-certified appliances reduce the cost of utilities.

“REACH’s goal is to provide a more comprehensive model of affordable living,” emphasizes The Orchards at Orenco fact sheet on the REACH website. For REACH, the cost of living includes utilities and transportation as well as rent, which should cost $611 to $733 a month at The Orchards.

The project took nearly four years to start, time mostly spent awaiting $14.5 million in funding.

“It was a very difficult and competitive process to acquire funding,” Recko said. “It took a couple years to obtain low-income housing tax credits from the state of Oregon. We sought grants and special funding, and REACH put in $300,000 of its own money to help start this.”

Construction of the 57 units will not be complete until June of 2015, and REACH won’t take interested names for tenants for another six months, but Recko isn’t worried about finding residents who earn $30,000 per year or less.

“We’re already getting a lot of phone calls about it, there’s incredibly high demand for this kind of housing,” Recko said.

Once completed, Orchards at Orenco will be the largest multi-family passive housing building in the United States. But there are even more on the way.

“We expect to have 150 units built in two more phases in the next five or six years,” said Recko.

The next two phases of the project are a long way off. Phase two is still in the design stage, and work on phase three has not yet begun.

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