Venture Aims to Bring Passive Houses to Cincinnati

Recently UrbanCincy contributor Timothy Broderick sat down with Ronald Vieira, founder of PassivHaus — a venture designed to shake up the region’s building industry by dramatically reducing buildings’ energy expenditures to discuss building Passive Houses in the Cincinnati region. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Who are you?

My name is Ronald Vieira. Graduated from Xavier class of 2016. Born and raised in Valencia, Venezuela, but Cincinnati is my hometown. I like that I come from here.

What’s your job?

I am doing research to figure out how to decrease the extra payment people have to pay to build a passive house (PH). And that research consists in building the first PH in Cincinnati. There are a few PHs in construction in Cincinnati currently, but none of them have been certified yet.

What’s a passive house?

A PH is a building standard, a series of building standards that, if followed properly, you will reduce up to 90% of your heating load of your house, building, whatever your facility is. Overall it reduces up to 75% of your overall energy consumption.

How does it achieve such efficiency?

The main principle is super insulation — or as they call it, continuous insulation — because the idea is to isolate as well as we can the inside temperature of the house from the outside environment. Whether the outside is hot or cold or mild or humid or not it’s just to preserve the indoor environment to the best of the indoor’s ability.

So you’re basically creating a very stabilized climate?

Mhmm. A good analogy is your skin, which are your “walls.” To stay warm when you go outdoors, you put a jacket on. Similarly, when you’re building a house, the plywood is the skeleton of the house and then you build another exterior wall and put a lot of isolating material, like foam, and then that’s your newer, thicker wall.

Then you look where house is more prone to exchange air with the outside, which is windows and doors. You have to have really high-efficiency building doors and windows. Twenty years ago, new houses had single pane windows. Now the standard is double paned windows, and for PHs the standard is triple-paned windows.

How do you keep the air from getting stale/moldy?

Since you basically don’t have any communication from inside air to outside air, the filtration system for a passive house is a little different. This is an add-on equipment that you put on top of your furnace which cleans the air and filters it way more than a standard house. A high-quality filter is super important to a PH because it is airtight and needs better quality air while still using a lot less energy.

The way you put it it sounds like this cool thing that everyone should be doing, but it can’t be that simple. What are the biggest barriers to wider implementation?

Let’s start with the cost, which is the easiest to explain. You need more material — two walls + filler, for example. Another cost driver is the talent to design these buildings. There were only a handful of certified PH buildings in the US in 2009. The materials and the talent sums up to a 10 to 20% more cost. Now, this is all weather sensitive. The larger the building is, and the colder the climate is, the less expensive it’s going to be. It’s easier to keep it cool in the summer. When I did market research in Cincinnati, I found that we won’t need to go over the 10% premium. This is the promise of my company in the first three years. Then, we are going to figure out how to build these houses at 0% extra at the end of the third year.

The second barrier is the learning curve. These houses use new material and new ideas that most builders and architects don’t know. However, if you have the same group of people who are building the first house and then the second house and the third, they will quickly learn the process. That’s what I’m going to do.

You, yourself, are still learning how to build a PH. How will you build the first one?

You just need a PH consultant, which is not hard to get. Paul Yankee is my mentor on PH design, and he is the owner and CFO of Green Buildings Consultants. He has been advising since Day 1.

Are you going to get certified?

Yes, not as a designer but as a builder. But my architects will be certified.

What’s your motivation behind this work?

Typically, I think a little bit more in the bigger picture than the smaller picture. When I graduated college, I wanted to do something that will significantly impact the life of people in the world. That’s where everything starts.

Why climate change and not global poverty or something like that?

I think it was the education I received. Venezuela is a developing country, so my mom’s side is very poor. All my life I had very personal contact with extreme poverty. I felt like I was more qualified to tackle a systemic, non-social challenge than a social challenge. Plus, climate change is science, and my first three years at Xavier were chemistry.

So climate change, turns out the largest emitter [in the United States] is residential living. Why aren’t people doing anything about this? That’s when the research starts: how do I get people to generate energy in a greener way, or how do I get these people to use their energy in more wisely.

This has to do with energy efficiency and energy generation. Energy generation is far more complex, and my technical ability is not there at all. But my ability to find out how to build buildings in a way that keeps energy and consumes a lot less energy — ok, now I can do that. Doing research on home energy efficiency is how I stumbled upon PHs.

Is this only for rich suburbanites? Can you build something in the city?

No. I’m currently looking at a lot close to downtown. Furthermore, anything and everything can be built passive. You can use any particular architecture style whether it is contemporary, whether it is a bungalow, whether it is classical, or civil war era. You can have any type of architecture built to PH principles.

Now what you’re getting at, renovating houses like in Over-the-Rhine, that’s the next big challenge for PH builders. It is possible, but it is just another design challenge because you have to deal with existing structures. For historic buildings, specifically those in OTR, those are going to have more aesthetic and cost challenges.

What’s your short-term goals?

The official mission is to accelerate the adaptation process of PH principles to home residential construction. And then we’ll send segue into commercial, and that means mixed, urban living. I have a particular affinity for urban spaces. I am from the most inner city you can ever be in Valencia. So that’s all I know, basically.

Endgame?

Getting a large organization — like 3CDC — in charge of redeveloping a lot of buildings, getting in with them — that’s the goal. But all my energy right now is focused on building that first house. Nothing more. Who knows from there.

If you’re interested in building your own passive house, visit Ronald’s website or shoot him an email at vieirarxu@gmail.com.

Walking Tours from ‘Urbanologist’ Max Grinnell Return to Cincinnati

Max Grinnell is an author, historian, and professor who excels at sharing unique perspectives of American cities. For each of the last two summers, Grinnell has visited Cincinnati to host a series of walking tours that offer a historical look at the city’s urban core. This June, Grinnell is bringing back the tour, which looks back on the Cincinnati of 1943 and compares it to our modern city.

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 10.57.51 AMThe walking tour is inspired by Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, a book published in 1943 for the Federal Writers’ Project. This book was a part of the American Guide Series, also known as the WPA guides, which was a program funded by the New Deal to employ writers during the Great Depression. Today, the book serves as a snapshot of 1943 Cincinnati, when the city’s population was 455,610 and now-iconic structures like Carew Tower and Union Terminal were just a decade old.

This time period was “a bit of an ‘amber’ moment” in Cincinnati’s history, Grinnell told UrbanCincy, “as this was the Queen City at its industrial peak. I consider [Cincinnati’s book] one of the better city guides produced by the Federal Writers’ Project.”

The 60-minute tour will include many of the same elements as previous years, but will also touch on buildings that Cincinnati has recently lost and others that have been repurposed over time.

The tours will take place on June 1st and 4th, and will cost $15 per person. Tickets can be purchased at Grinnell’s website.

New Race Street Project Seeks Exceptions, Draws Criticism

Steiner + Associates, a Columbus, OH based development company, has submitted plans through Platte Architecture + Design to the City’s Historic Conservation Board (HCB) to build a six-story mixed-use infill project along Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine (OTR). The proposal has drawn criticism and support from neighbors and the local Over-the-Rhine Foundation Infill Committee, an independent committee which reviews new construction in the neighborhood on a volunteer basis. A hearing on the project is scheduled for Monday, April 10.

The proposal for new construction would demolish two single-story garages at 1216-1218 Race Street and replace them with a 20-unit apartment building with approximately 3,300 square feet of ground level retail. Along Race Street the building will be five stories, and along the rear alley it will be six.

The developer is seeking three variances relating to buildable density, parking requirements and retail frontage. The variance for density would double the allowable number of units allowed on the site by its current zoning. The property is located along the Cincinnati Bell Connector route and qualifies for a 50% reduction in parking, the applicant is asking for relief from the remainder.

City staff recommends denial.

Included in information presented in the HCB packet are numerous letters of support for the project coming primarily from other residents and members of the city’s architectural community praising the design for its modern, 21st century design.

In one letter OTR residents Marcia Banker and Jeffrey Schloemer expressed their frustration with the Board, “We continue to be at a loss why well-designed projects that look as though they were created and built in the 21st century receive push back while new construction that is little more than not a good copy of 19th century design that is more fit for Main Street USA at DisneyWorld encounter little resistance.”

The OTR Foundation Infill Committee reviewed the project and found it to meet only one of eleven evaluation criteria for conformance to its infill guidelines. In her review of the application, City Historic Conservator Beth Johnson found that the project only met two of the OTR Historic Guidelines on infill projects.

“At this time staff does not feel that enough support or evidence has been provided to staff to justify that there is a hardship of any nature, to allow for a doubling in the density allowances, to not have the applicant attempt to provide any of the required parking, as well as justifying the extensive amount of building recess on the ground floor of the building,” Johnson stated in her report.

There is no question that demand for development in OTR is accelerating the scale and impacts on the historic urban city neighborhood. But should zoning and historic guidance rules be ignored for the sake of development? And if not, is it time to perhaps reevaluate these rules in light of the evolving development patterns and changing conditions in the neighborhood?

The Historic Conservation Board hearing on this project is at 3pm on Monday April 10 at the 5th Floor Conference Room of II Centennial located on 805 Central Ave.

Update: The hearing for this project has been moved to April 24th as reported by the Cincinnati Business Courier.

Editors Note: Mr. Yung is a member of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation Board of Trustees.

PHOTOS: Downtown Construction Boom Underway

With well over $2 billion in new construction projects underway in Cincinnati’s urban core it is not hard to miss with construction fencing, cranes and lifts working at full tilt all over downtown and Over the Rhine. Many new construction and building renovations are underway throughout downtown and Over-the-Rhine. This gallery features photos of 16 projects taken this month. If added up the projects in the photos below are just a fraction of overall development with just over $400 million in construction activity.

 

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Cincinnati Neighborhood Wins Major Preservation Award

In 2006, Over-the-Rhine was listed as one of America’s Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today that very same neighborhood is celebrated as a tale of monumental historic revitalization and revival. That effort was honored yesterday at an awards ceremony in Washington D.C.

At a reception that is part of National Historic Preservation Advocacy Week, representatives from the City of Cincinnati’s Zoning Department, Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) and the Over-the-Rhine Foundation were presented with the “Preservation’s Best” of 2016 award by the group.

The event is sponsored by Preservation Action, American Institute of Architects, National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Trust Community Investment Corporation, Unico, Inc., and Center for Community Progress and aims to highlight significant projects developed through federal incentives such as Historic Tax Credits.

“Through federal incentives like the Historic Tax Credit, historic preservation drives economic development and community revitalization across the nation by taking historically significant buildings that are dated and abandoned and turning them into viable community assets for a 21st century economy.” spokesperson Rob Naylor said in a statement.

On hand from Cincinnati to receive the award was Kevin Pape of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, Zoning Administrator Matt Shad and Historic Conservator Beth Johnson from the city. West side Congressman Steve Chabot (R) also attended.

Naylor stated that the award, “highlights exemplary Historic Tax Credit projects that revitalize our cities and small towns and breathe new life into our communities. At a time when the future of the Historic Tax Credit is uncertain, these projects help to highlight the impact the program has had in communities across the country.”

Since 1981, federal tax credits have helped save over 377 buildings in Over-the-Rhine for a total of $267 million dollars. Despite losing 50% of its housing stock since the 1930’s the neighborhood is still considered the largest collection of 19th century Italianate architecture in the country and has been regarded  as “the coolest neighborhood in America.

Editors Note: Mr. Yung is a member of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation Board of Trustees.