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.

Brewery Event to Tell Neighborhood Development Tale

Craft brewing has taken the nation by storm and as evidence from the Ohio Craft Brewers conference held here in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, the phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down. One factor that has eluded many speculators predictions of “Peak Craft Brew” is the fact that many craft breweries come in different shapes and sizes. Even locally, whereas Rhinegeist and Madtree push for more distribution, smaller scale breweries have opened with the focus on neighborhood Main Streets like Brink Brewing in College Hill.

This trend is the focus of the Congress for New Urbanism’s Midwest Chapters first regional event. Titled, ” The New Neighborhood Brewery,” the event will focus on neighborhood craft breweries and their impacts on building neighborhood revitalization efforts throughout the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky and Dayton regions.

“We’ve seen the positive impacts craft brewery scene has had on local neighborhoods and we want to get to the heart of what is their formula for success,” said Jocelyn Gibson, the Event Organizing Committee Chair, “Our hope is that this event will spur more communities to consider craft breweries as a tool for neighborhood success”

The event will take place on Friday March 3, starting at 12:20 PM at the Woodward Theater in Over-the-Rhine. It will conclude with a panel discussion and happy hour within viewing of the annual Bockfest Parades march down Main Street. Tickets are $25 a person and can be purchased via CincyTicket.

The event will be feature speakers from the Over-the-Rhine Brewery District, local brewers, real estate experts and neighborhood advocates. It will also provide continuing education credits for the American Planning Association.

The Midwest chapter of the CNU is dedicated towards advancing the issues of revitalizing urban neighborhoods in cities and towns across the region. The organization has three central goals including reclaiming public space for people, reactivating and reconnecting vibrant neighborhoods and championing urban development that is enduring, adaptable and human scaled. The chapter committee is in the process of becoming a regional chapter of the organization spanning from western Pennsylvania to central Indiana and from Lake Erie to Lexington Kentucky.

Woodward Theater is located within a block of Cincy Red Bike, Metro bus routes #17,19,24 and 16. And is two blocks north of the Cincinnati Bell Connector Hanke Exchange Station at 12th and Main.

 

Sewer Improvements Save Money, Reduce Environmental Impact

Changes are afoot for Cincinnati residents — underfoot, that is.

The Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) recently unveiled sweeping changes to the region’s sewage system. By optimizing the existing infrastructure’s ability to handle wet weather, newly-installed smart technologies will reduce environmental risk, slash rates, and prolong its life.

“Our smart sewer system is anticipated to save tens of millions of dollars in capital investments in projects to control sewer overflows,” said MSD Director Gerald Checco in the press release. “This is our best chance of reducing spending and ultimately costs for our ratepayers.”

Prior to this announcement, MSD’s reputation had been marred by a string of scandals. Investigations into their financial practices exposed several improprieties and a once-in-a-century storm flooded homes across the county with backed-up sewage.

Illustration of a CSO (City of Cincinnati)

Yet, amid the hoopla, the Mill Creek basin was reaping the benefits of a smart sewer system. A centralized “brain” tracked flow rates throughout the system. New sensors and gates diverted excess storm runoff into larger pipes or other areas that weren’t full. “The ability to have a view of our entire system in real time really helps us to respond quicker to things because it raises that awareness,” said Missy Gatterdam, head of MSD’s watershed operations division, in an interview with UrbanCincy.

Outside this basin, MSD’s pipes empty into nearby streams or rivers, a process called a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). CSOs are legal, but they can damage the environment. Sewers combine domestic, commercial, and industrial runoff with storm runoff. On dry days, this is not a problem. Toxic wastes migrate to a treatment facility.

On particularly rainy days, however, the pipes can’t handle all of the waste and water and must dump these undesirables into the ecosystem. (Here is a video MSD made to help explain the process.)

Untreated water isn’t just disgusting; it’s also deadly. An Environmental Protection Agency report to Congress in 2001 says bacteria found in untreated waters can cause gastric disorders, typhoid, and even cholera. Thankfully, MSD’s smart system will reduces the 11.5 billion gallons of runoff and waste overflow that wind up in the region’s waterways every year.

Gatterdam remarked that the original plan was to rollout the technology to the Muddy Creek and the Little Miami River basins this year, but budget cuts by the county have halted any expansion.

New Group Launched to Focus on Midwest Urbanism

Great places are often referenced as places where people gather in urban centers around the world. In Cincinnati places like Fountain Square and Washington Park are often associated as the City’s front lawn or back yard. Streets are often referenced as great places such as Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine (OTR), Hyde Park Square or Madison Avenue in Covington. These places usually already exist, are reclaimed and sometimes created brand new.

Creating great places not only involves understanding what makes places great but also spreading awareness, education and building partnerships to do the hard work of revitalizing and celebrating the urban environment. That is the central mission of the proposed new Midwest chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism.

The group was engaged by the national Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) to create a regional chapter of the organization spanning from western Pennsylvania to central Indiana and from Lake Erie to Lexington Kentucky.CNU Midwest

They are having their first event which will be an introductory meeting and happy hour tomorrow May 17, at Graydon on Main in OTR.

CNU-Midwest is working to advance the issues of revitalizing urban neighborhoods in cities and towns across the region. The organization has three central goals including reclaiming public space for people, reactivating and reconnecting vibrant neighborhoods and championing urban development that is enduring, adaptable and human scaled.

“The ultimate goal is the reimagining and repopulation of our urban cores and inner ring neighborhoods,” said Chapter Organizing Committee Chairperson Joe Nickol told UrbanCincy, “Starting at the level of the street and continuing up through the neighborhood, town, city, and region, we encourage the development of great, equitable, urban places where all people can enjoy all aspects of daily life.”

By launching the CNU Midwest Chapter, the group aims to positively influence the dialogue around healthy urban policy and design within Midwestern cities.

This event which is from 5:30pm to 7:30pm is open to the public and will serve as an introduction to the group and networking opportunity for attendees. Anyone interested in participating can sign up here.

Graydon on Main is located at 1421 Main Street in OTR. There is a Cincy Red Bike station across the street and is easily accessible via Metro bus routes #’s 16,17,19,24.

The CNU is a national 501c3 organization which is dedicated to the cause of helping to create and advocate for vibrant and walkable cities, towns, and neighborhoods where people have diverse choices for how they live, work, shop, and get around. CNU’s mission is to help build those places.

UrbanCincy is a media partner for CNU Midwest and a promotional partner for CNU24, the organizations annual Congress which is being held next month in Detroit.

OTR Foundation Hosting Workshop for Those Interested in Rehabbing Historic Buildings

Last year over 100 people attended a series of workshops focused on rehabilitating distressed properties in Over-the-Rhine. The 3OTR Owner-Occupied Workshop series was hosted by the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, and each session featured realtors, rehabbers, architects and other experts telling their stories to people who were interested in rehabbing properties of their own.

Organizers say that the series was so impactful that its graduates even earned mention as qualified potential developers by 3CDC for city-owned properties north of Liberty Street.

“When we conducted our evaluations of the workshops last spring, participants spoke loudly that they benefited most from hearing from individuals who acquired and rehabbed properties,” said Thomas Hadley, an Over-the-Rhine Foundation board member. “This workshop offers hands-on insights into what it takes to do a project in OTR.”

Now, a year later, some of the graduates are returning to share their stories with a new crowd. The event, this time called Lessons Learned, will focus on four rehab projects that resulted from the last year’s series.

Planned discussion topics, organizers says, will include financing, structural changes, LEED projects and combining a multi-family into a single-family building. One of the sessions will even feature a project that involves rehabilitating a three-unit building with retail.

“Lessons Learned is a unique opportunity to find out how alumni from last year’s workshops used what they learned to acquire and rehab property,” Hadley explained.

The workshop will be held on Saturday, June 6 from 9am to 11am at Venue 222 on Fourteenth Street in Over-the-Rhine. Those interested in participating can register online for $10v.

The event is easily accessible via Metro’s #16, 17, 19 & 24 bus routes, which all stop at Main and Orchard Street, where there also happens to be a Cincy Red Bike station.