Affordable, self-heating homes of the future, inspired by the past

Why We Wrote This

Passive heating and cooling have long helped wealthy homeowners keep energy costs low. A new project in Maine aims to bring that same innovation – and its rewards – to low-income residents.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
By following strict passive house standards, Bayside Anchor, a multifamily affordable housing complex in Portland, Maine, slashes heating costs by using roughly 80 percent less energy than a typical building.
Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Along with 36 affordable housing units, Portland, Maine's Bayside Anchor aims to be an 'anchor' for the neighborhood, with a communal meeting space, the East Bayside Community Policing Office, and a Head Start pre-school on the first floor.

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First conceived of during the 1970s energy crisis, “passive houses,” buildings that rely primarily on sunlight and insulation for controlling indoor temperatures, have long been out of reach for ordinary workers. But a new project in Portland, Maine, aims to change that.

Bayside Anchor, a low-income apartment building near the city’s downtown, boasts 10-inch-thick walls, triple-glazed windows, and a sophisticated ventilation system that keeps the heat in and the cold out during the Pine Tree State’s frigid winters. The result of this careful design: Heat and electricity bills are less than half of what it typically costs to heat a similar building in the city.

For MD Islam, a recycling plant worker who lives at Bayside Anchor with his wife and their two young children, the building represents a significant improvement over his previous apartment, which lacked heat. “Now my family – everybody – is happy. We feel very comfortable,” he says. “Sometimes we turn off the heater because we feel so good.” 

Rubbing their hands and breathing dragon smoke into the cold air, residents rush inside the bright green building. The temperature outside has barely hit double digits, so the warm lobby inside Bayside Anchor, a low-income apartment building in Portland, is a happy reprieve.

The lobby is also an architectural feat, as Bayside Anchor has no centralized heating system. It is a certified “passive house,” which means the building has airtight insulation and thick windows to keep the interior warm and heating costs low.

This energy-efficient design has been gaining ground in American architecture among wealthy homeowners. But some cities like Portland, Maine, have realized this energy-efficient design for the affordable housing sector – for residents who can really benefit from lower heating costs.

Passive house-certified buildings are slightly more expensive to build upfront, but the heat and electricity bills are less than half of what it typically costs to heat a similar building in Portland.

Passive house design is more than just an architectural novelty, says the team behind Bayside Anchor. It is also a necessary tool for residents or homeowners who care about long-term affordability. As the need for affordable housing grows across the United States, proponents say cities should move beyond building low-income housing as cheaply as possible.

“In the affordable housing sector, this kind of forward thinking is critical,” says Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and development officer at Avesta Housing, the nonprofit affordable housing provider that manages Bayside Anchor. “We have to promise that [the building] will be affordable for 45 years.”

A home that looks after itself

Before moving to Bayside Anchor two years ago, MD Islam, his wife, and their two young children lived in a home without heat.

“We had to suffer a lot,” says Mr. Islam, who works at a local recycling plant. “Now my family – everybody – is happy. We feel very comfortable.”

A high-tech ventilation system exchanges indoor air with fresh air from outside, all while retaining the temperature of the indoor air. Thick walls (with 10 inches of insulation, in Bayside Anchor’s case) and triple-pane windows keep the building airtight so very little heat escapes. Instead of a central heating system, each apartment has a small electric baseboard heater.

Combine all these elements, and you have windows that feel warm to the touch – even as the outside temperature is in the single digits.

“Sometimes we turn off the heater because we feel so good,” says Mr. Islam.

In addition the building aims to be an “anchor” for the community. The first floor has a colorful common space, as well as a Portland Housing Authority office, a Head Start preschool, and a community policing office. Mr. Islam also raves about the help he receives from the staff at Bayside Anchor, such as Avesta property manager Lucy Cayard.

Ms. Cayard says the passive house design has helped her build a deeper connection with the residents. Since much of the building takes care of itself, the building’s staff can put their time and resources elsewhere.

“We get to focus more on people’s needs and not the building’s needs,” says Ms. Cayard. “When we don’t have to go into their apartment for maintenance, we can spend that time getting to know them.”

The concept of passively heating and cooling a building is probably as old as architecture itself. Writing in the first century B.C., the Roman architect and military engineer Vitruvius observed that buildings in warmer climates tended to have northern exposures, with windows facing away from the sun, while those in cooler climates had southern exposures. Modern passive house techniques trace some of their history to energy-efficiency efforts in the U.S. during the OPEC oil embargo. The principles underlying Bayside Anchor’s design are further based on techniques honed by scientists in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.

Bayside Anchor became the first multifamily building in Portland to receive a PHIUS+ certification from the Passive House Institute US, a nonprofit that has set passive house building standards in the U.S. for more than a decade.

The building’s 45 apartments – 36 of which target individuals and families making between $19,000 and $54,000 – are desperately needed by locals like Mr. Islam. As the city’s first new affordable housing since the 1970s, Bayside Anchor is partially funded by the city and the state, but the development was jump-started in 2013 after the project won Enterprise and Deutsche Bank’s “Lowering the Cost of Housing Competition,” and a $250,000 investment.

It’s not just Portland experimenting with this design. Philadelphia has long been considered a leader in bringing passive house standards to affordable housing. Village Centre, a 48-unit apartment building north of Portland in Brewer, Maine, is one of the largest passive house buildings in the country, and a building currently under construction in Boston could become the largest passive design office building in the world.

But with a national shortage of 3.7 million affordable rental homes, according to a recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, new building approaches need to be explored. For example, says Mr. Payne, almost 600 households are currently on the waitlist for one of Bayside Anchor’s 36 affordable units.

“We are watching it happen all across the country,” says Jesse Thompson, the Portland-based architect behind Bayside Anchor. “What’s different about Maine is that it’s the affordable housing folks who are the most progressive, who are moving the most quickly.”

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