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ecoMOD experiment takes shape in town
SoVaNow.com / April 01, 2013The newest housing units in town use energy sparingly, are virtually air-tight, feature a design that originated in Germany and are now ready for rental occupancy.
And if all works out, the ecoMOD — the creation of a University of Virginia architecture and engineering team — could become a viable, low-cost, permanent housing option for everyone.
Construction workers spent the morning and afternoon Thursday stacking together segments that make up the modular units, two of which now stand at the Poplar Creek Subdivision across from Fairmont Apartments.
One of the homes is built to standard code, the other to a “passive house” standard. A passive house is designed to use virtually no external energy, with thickly insulated walls holding in room temperatures and solar and ambient energy providing almost all the warmth a home needs, even when it’s cold outside.
With no heating and cooling source at all, the ecoMOD is designed to maintain room temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees in most circumstances.
Design is one thing, reality another. South Boston becomes the second test location for the U.Va. team, which also has erected ecoMOD units in Abington to positive reviews. South Boston’s humid summertime climate poses a different, but hopefully manageable challenge for the passive house design, said Liz Rivard, a research assistant and U.Va. architecture graduate who was in South Boston Thursday to oversee the assembly of the two units.
Rivard explained that the ecoMODs are designed to provide comfort in most weather conditions, with large windows letting in warmth and light and 10-inch particle board and styrofoam walls keeping out the extremes of the weather — both in terms of temperature and humidity. The emphasis on space, insulation and light comes from the original German design, with the U.Va. architects and engineers offering their own improvements through the use of advanced techniques such as computer modeling and simulation.
Modular designs are relatively inexpensive to produce, and long-term energy costs are nil — making the passive house design potentially ideal for elderly residents, low-income families and others looking to get out from under monthly heating and cooling bills. According to Passive House Institute US (http://www.passivehouse.us), homes built to the passive house standard can lower energy costs by as much as 90 percent.
The promise of energy savings drew the interest of Southside Outreach, a non-profit affordable housing group that was looking to build rent-to-own homes for people going through tough economic times. The director of Southside Outreach, Earl Howerton, also was at the Poplar Creek subdivision site on Thursday to see the blocky, high-walled structures take shape.
Howerton said his group initially sought to erect stick-built housing but became intrigued by the ecoMOD design due to the promised energy cost savings. The project came to fruition when the Virginia Tobacco Commission provided $2,445,000 in grant funding for a concept-to-commercialization partnership that includes Southside Outreach, the University of Virginia, SIPS of America, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center and Riverstone Energy Center, and Cardinal Homes of Wylliesburg, which manufactures the housing units.
The units in South Boston feature three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, living room and full disabled access.
The aim was to identify and establish a market for the housing units worldwide, whether for use as permanent housing or as temporary shelters such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to name one potential client — might erect after a natural disaster.
In South Boston, the first two units erected Thursday will house people looking to get on their feet, said Howerton. The occupants will pay rent to live in the homes, with a portion of the payments going into an escrow fund to use as a future downpayment on a new home. The idea, he said, is to spread home ownership to families that aren’t able to participate in the conventional housing market.
But the project also is a test for the building industry, which stands on the precipice of revolution as it confronts the growing challenges of climate change and energy scarcity. “It has been abundantly clear for some time that the Building Sector is a primary contributor of climate-changing pollutants, and the question is asked: How do we best square our building energy needs with those of our environment and of our pocketbook?,” asks Passive House Institute US.
Designs such as one now in place in South Boston, will “make possible extraordinary reductions in energy use and carbon emission,” according to the group’s website. 1169
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