Returning the service

Multi-family passive house structure in Pennsylvania to give veterans the homes they deserve.


Forty-nine apartment units in a three-story building called Whitehall in Spring City, Pa., will soon provide U.S. war veterans with housing that’s safe, comfortable and affordable.

The complex, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, will also meet one of the world’s most exacting energy performance standards, called Passive House, which will result in extremely low energy bills for the occupants when it opens in March 2017.

With a mission of building “communities where everyone can live independently in affordable, safe and sustainable homes with access to resources and opportunities in their community,” the project’s owner and developer, Mission First Housing Group, takes particular pride in the ability to provide extremely energy-efficient housing through Passive House construction to this specific population.

“The opportunity to provide this for people of all incomes, and in this case veterans, it’s a privilege to do that,” says Chip Darling, development operations manager for Mission First. “(Whitehall) is for folks who have made sacrifices for everyone else. The whole idea is to get these folks into permanent, affordable and quality housing and give them everything they need to succeed.”

As the organization’s first Passive House development, Darling admits it’s a little scary to be stepping out into unchartered territory, but says “it’s the right thing to do for us, and it’s the right thing to do for them.”

The estimated $12.7 million project (with an estimated construction cost of $8.1 million) was aided financially through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA)’s recent decision to accept Passive House projects in its application process for allocating funds to affordable housing. PHFA is the organization responsible for all low-income housing tax credits and allocates a 9% tax credit to selected projects.

Tim McDonald, Whitehall’s Passive House consultant and president of design-build firm Onion Flats, played a primary role in 2015 in lobbying the PHFA to accept Passive House designs in its highly competitive system of awarding low-income housing tax credits to project proposals. “PHFA was already looking to raise the bar with respect to energy efficiency as developers had been surpassing their standards for years,” according to McDonald. “(They) welcomed the challenge and within four months, put the project in motion by introducing language into their 2015 Qualified Allocation Plan.”

That year, the agency received 85 multi-family project applications for funding. Out of those, 32 applied as Passive House projects. Thirty-nine projects were awarded funding – eight of them (Whitehall included) as Passive House projects.

Those are pretty great numbers for the first year of the program’s acceptance of Passive House designs. But they look even greater in the program’s second year of Passive House recognition.

In July 2016, the PHFA announced that out of 38 projects funded for this year, 10 of those projects are designed to Passive House standards. Over two years, that amounts to more than 900 new affordable housing units – which McDonald says will create the largest concentration of Passive House/net-zero energy dwellings in the country.

Affordability is king

Several coordinated organizations and companies are coming together to make Whitehall more affordable for everyone, from the developer and builder to the occupants.

The Housing Authority of Chester (Pa.) County applied for and received HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers for the project, which will enable 35 of Whitehall’s 49 units to be rent-subsidized. “The voucher will make up the difference between the underwritten rent and what the veteran can afford to pay,” says Darling of Mission First.

The VASH vouchers mean that tenants of those 35 units (varying between 1-, 2- and 3-bedrooms) will pay a flat rent equal to 30% of their income, Darling adds.
That program (a collaboration between HUD and the Veterans Administration) will also provide Whitehall tenants with a dedicated case manager to serve the specific needs of a community of veterans. Mission First will provide supplemental services to the veterans.

“All the services are person-focused,” Darling says. “They may need vocational training or employment training on how to be employed. There’ll be some that have mental health counseling needs, including for PTSD and past substance abuse issues. Then there are physical disabilities, and there’ll be connections to that. It’s specific to the individual.”

Building to Passive House standards guarantees an additional layer of savings on energy bills. Darling received an initial quote that the project would yield anywhere from 60-80% savings in utilities. That means significantly lower bills for Whitehall tenants as well as Mission First, which will be responsible for heating and cooling common areas like offices, a laundry room, a computer lab, hallways, a multipurpose room and others. “It’s a benefit to everybody involved,” Darling says.

In addition to the tax credit boost, the 52,781-square-foot project designed byArchitectural Concepts is also reaping significant labor savings in its current construction phase through the use of a pre-fabricated wall panel and foundation system manufactured by Build SMART.

According to Joel Wunderlich, Passive House-certified builder and the project superintendent for general contractor Caldwell, Heckles & Egan Construction, the Passive House-ready Build SMART panels allowed the shell to go up two to three times faster than conventionally built structures.

It took four crew members from sub-contractor King Builders 4.5 days to complete the first floor – that’s about 805 lineal feet of walls. “In a conventional framing, to frame the whole thing in one floor and the exterior wall, it would take around 2-3 weeks,” Wunderlich says. That doesn’t even take into consideration the time to install windows and doors in a conventional build. The Build SMART system eliminates that process entirely with pre-installed, Passive House-certified windows and doors, ensuring even more savings on labor and time. “You’re not taking the time to go back through and install windows,” he adds. “The panelized system is a lot more efficient.”

As not only the first Passive House project he’s worked on, but also his first project with Build SMART wall panels and foundation, Wunderlich expressed his satisfaction at the Build SMART products, which are designed to make Passive House simple and affordable. “They’re very well-built,” he says. “The installation and appearance of them, everything has been going great.”

Once the final project is completed in early 2017, Whitehall will be one of just a few multi-family projects to be Passive House-certified, Darling says.

Rob Leonard, field technical manager of Build SMART, believes that Whitehall is setting a trend in energy-efficiency for multi-family structures that will see exponential growth. “Our feeling is that once this project goes up and shows the proof of delivery and meets performance, it’s just going to take off,” Leonard says. “The rest of the pending projects in Pennsylvania are going to say, ‘This system works, and it’s an easy way to get to the performance standards we’re requiring.’”