Cincinnati's first 'passive' house comes online in Mt. Airy – The Cincinnati Enquirer

While it is powered by its own solar panels, the new passive house will still be connected to city water and sewer. An earlier version misstated the house’s off-the-grid status. Scott Hand co-founded Urban Artifact, a brewery in a church.
For his next act, he’s doing something even more unusual: building what’s soon to become Cincinnati’s first “passive house.” A passive house is a home designed with an air-tight building shell, usually made from timber, foam and glass, that allows virtually no air to escape through crevices.
It’s heated and cooled via a special fresh-air ventilation system that delivers fresh air from outside and removes stale air from inside the house. This is unlike a standard home in which a central air conditioner circulates recycled air through the house via ductworkor or relies on a furnace for heating. A passive house also uses minimal fuel or electricity. 
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The first such homes were created in Germany in the 1990s, and have now spread through Europe. Though it’s not as well-known in the Midwest, Hand wanted to introduce it to Cincinnati.
“As I’ve matured in the architecture field, I’ve gotten more into the sustainability of buildings and how the places we inhabit can be a net benefit to the environment as opposed to a loss,” he said. “I hadn’t yet been able to convince anybody to build in this way in Cincinnati, so I decided to show folks that this type of construction is possible. To get more visibility on it.”
Hand is a native of Fairfield, Ohio. He’s also a trained architect from the University of Cincinnati and founder of his own firm, Trilobite Design. He and his wife and two sons currently live in Walnut Hills. But his new passive house underway at 4580 Colerain Ave. in Mt. Airy is his studio’s debut project and his family’s next permanent home. 
He bought the eight-acre property the house sits on from the Hamilton County Landbank for $10,000 in May 2021. The area was formerly part of a driveway that led to a mansion higher up the hill. Despite its proximity to a busy thoroughfare, it’s surrounded by trees and feels like a cabin in the woods.
“The site is an extreme abnormality,” he said. “If I was going to build here, it absolutely had to be a passive house because we would have had to run all new utilities.”
Tucked into a lush hillside off of Colerain Avenue, the 3,400-square-foot home taking shape has three stories, timber siding and large, boxy windows.
It’s what’s inside the walls that makes it a passive house.
Hand teamed up with Matt Strausbaugh, a Northside-based contractor and owner of Strausbaugh Construction Services, to build it. Both had zero experience with passive house construction before they began the project, but plenty with the LEED standard, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design efficiency rating system used by the U.S. Green Building Council. Once complete, the Colerain Avenue house will hold both LEED Platinum, the highest rating, and passive house certifications. 
“LEED takes care of a lot of things that passive house (certification) doesn’t and vice versa,” said Hand, noting that passive houses have a bigger impact on overall climate sustainability. “With us paying extra attention to things like the plumbing and permeability of the driveway, for example, we got the extra way there.”
Right now, there are two separate entities that certify passive house construction in the United States: The Passive House Network and the Passive House Institute US (Phius). Hand and Strausbaugh are working with the Cincinnati firm Green Building Consulting to certify the building through Phius. In order to do that, they have to document construction every day and perform three blower door tests that measure the amount of air leaking from the building. 
So far, they’ve successfully performed two of these tests, which consists of sealing an open door with a tent-like fabric and fan that blows the air into a volume calculator. Apassive house project is designed to allow no more than 60% of the air volume to escape the building’s shell over a one-hour calculation, which is five times less than the amount of air that can escape a new building built using standard construction, according to Ohio residential energy code.
Hand’s current brick Victorian home in Walnut Hills loses 400,000 cubic feet of air per hour, he said. The passive house is sixteen times as airtight by comparison.
Between the charred-wood shiplap siding that wraps the house and the drywall on the interior are two thick layers of closed-cell foamboards, an insulating product that is rigid and traps air, and one layer of sprayed open-cell foam, a loosely-packed insulator similar to fiberglass. All of the windows and doors are triple-pane and are flush with the exterior walls. 
The foundation of the house, which sits on the site’s sloped terrain, was built off of a solid concrete retaining wall beneath three layers of closed-cell foam behind its wooden frame. Six inches of foam also support the roof, which features custom copper and steel panels that will prevent water from leaking into the house. The highest point of the roof is 18 feet from the third floor. 
It took a full semi-truck and half of another to deliver all the foam now included within the home’s four walls.
Though the house won’t use any gas and will generate all of its electricity from the solar panels on the roof, it’s not technically off-the-grid because Hand is choosing to connect to the city water and sewer systems. He’s also consolidated plumbing to one central location in order to minimize the number of pipes exiting the exterior walls.
In the end, he won’t have to pay utility costs to Duke Energy.Instead, the house will use solar panels to power the lights and appliances, and a special HVAC system called CERV2 that delivers fresh air from outside and removes stale air from the inside the house. The product is made by Illinois company Build Equinox and cost Hand about $5,700 – similar to the average price of a standard furnace which does not bring in or exhaust air. Hand also installed a small air conditioning unit in the basement as a backup resource for the extra-hot months. 
“I wanted to design something that essentially requires zero maintenance,” he said. “We plan for this to be our forever home, so I wanted to make sure all the materials chosen for the exterior and the insulation products would perform well for 50 years or more.”
He even hopes the copper roof will patina over time and the wood siding will turn gray, disappearing into the forest around it.
Once complete this fall, Hand and his family will have spent around $700,000 on the house. It will be one of just six passive house-certified residential projects in the state of Ohio, according to Phius.
Both Hand and Strausbaugh want the project to spark a passive house movement in the Midwest, or at least stir up business for them both in Cincinnati. 
“We want to better understand the data needed to certify passive house so that when we do more houses similar to this, we can make these material decisions with a little bit more certainty,” said Strausbaugh.
Through his sustainability and acoustics firm Trilobite Design, Hand has already commissioned a dozen projects in the city. 
The Passive House Network reported that there are about 50 structures designed to the passive house standard in the region with over 250 on the East Coast and more than 400 nationwide. The gap is so wide here because of the area’s varying humidity cycles.“Trapping moisture in any house is not good,” Strausbaugh said, “but in a passive house, it completely defeats the purpose.” 
Some states and cities are even adopting tax incentive programs for passive house construction. Washington, New York and Massachusetts have already figured out ways to make passive house compliant with building codes. After about 10 years of experimentation in the U.S., said Ken Levenson, executive director of the Passive House Network, demand for it is growing. 
“It doesn’t surprise me that this project is being built in Cincinnati because you never know where they’re going to pop up,” he said. “But I’m glad to hear it. Even in a place like New York where it’s been around for a long time, almost nobody outside the industry knows about it.”
Sydney Franklin reports on the business of real estate in Cincinnati. Follow her on Twitter @sydreyfrank_ and send story tips to sfranklin@enquirer.com.

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