The state-of-the-art Active House, due to be completed this spring, will replace a drafty 67-year-old bungalow.
The state-of-the-art Active House, due to be completed this spring, will replace a drafty 67-year-old bungalow.
Focused on a healthy indoor climate with superior energy efficiency and a minimum impact on environmental resources, the first Active House in North America is now under construction near St. Louis. The 2,500-square-foot home in Webster Groves, Mo., emphasizes balanced and efficient energy consumption; occupant comfort including healthy indoor air; and the use of durable, local, and recycled-content materials.

EcoHome is following this one-of-a-kind project from start to finish through first-person accounts from the construction team. Here, project manager Matt Belcher provides his thoughts on the crucial elements of the project.

Location. Some people have asked how we selected the Active House USA site. I tell them a lot of it was based on its infill location, which makes it inherently more sustainable. Infill housing helps to mitigate urban sprawl, makes use of existing urban amenities, and helps cities improve their existing housing stock. In short, infill housing recycles developed sites. Our Active House is being built in a well-established St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, two blocks from downtown Webster.

Crews began demolition last fall.
Crews began demolition last fall.
Design. Because of our infill location, architect Jeff Day had to work with the architectural guidelines followed in this part of Old Webster. In other words, he had to take a typical traditional home design and make it an Active House. In essence we will be building a home that looks similar to the hundreds of other homes in this Midwest neighborhood as well as many others, while outperforming them exponentially.

During the recent EcoBuild World Conference in London, all of the Active House prototype homes throughout the world were featured in a display of posters at the Active House Network booth. I overheard a few comments that the Active House USA home was “American looking,” which I, of course, took pride in. It was quite fascinating to look at the different designs of all the prototypes—some  traditional like the USA Home and some ultra-modern. All are reflective of the architectural design of the country in which they are located and—most importantly—all will function at the upper levels of building performance. You can see many of the prototypes on the Active House Network website.

Teardown. Builders can keep a lot of material out of landfills by the way we handle teardowns and the Active House project is no exception. For the Active House project, we carefully deconstructed a 67-year-old bungalow. We started by performing an environmental analysis on the existing building and removing any hazardous items such as asbestos floor tiles and any lead painted wood. We donated viable components such as cabinetry, window sashes, wood trim, hardwood flooring, and fixtures to Habitat for Humanity’s Re-store where they will be repurposed and raise much-needed funds while our customers can claim a tax benefit.

Our waste diversion company sorted and repurposed most of the materials, allowing us to divert over 80 percent of the entire home—a  total of approximately 50 tons. After removing the items of value, we demolished the remainder of the house.

We also plan to be creative in re-using some of the teardown materials on-site. For example we plan to crush the old foundation, driveway, walkways, and other concrete components to use for fill under the new driveway.

The house features plentiful windows for optimal solar gain.
The house features plentiful windows for optimal solar gain.
Passive Solar Orientation. There is nothing you can do to a home that has more effect for less investment than proper orientation to take advantage of passive solar heating, and the Active House approach capitalizes on this. A well-designed and properly oriented house not only focuses on healthy comfort but maximizes solar heat gain in winter and deflects unwanted heat in summer. This simple consideration can save a healthy percentage of a house’s energy use—and at no extra cost for the entire life of that building.

Proper solar orientation can also provide glare-free natural light throughout the house, especially with contemporary design techniques such as light-colored surfaces, glass partitions, and transoms.

Skylights will help bring in natural light and cut down on electrical loads.
Skylights will help bring in natural light and cut down on electrical loads.

Although it is desirable to limit northern-facing glazing for cold temperature considerations, incorporation of a balance of daylight from the north usually results in a more constant “softer” natural light. Vertical light (as provided by sun tunnels or skylights), is even more effective as it provides a higher percentage of light with less glare for the investment. 

All of this reduces the need to use artificial lighting, lowering utility use. As a bonus, using less artificial lighting also lowers the amount of heat generated in the house, which, in turn, further decreases the demand for air-conditioning in summer.

The Active House USA prototype is taking all of this one step further by incorporating daylight as part of our energy calculations. Skylights used for natural lighting and ventilation are positioned in the design of the home to let in light (along with heat energy) during cold periods and they are outfitted with automated shading to limit the amount of heat transfer during the summer. We are working with Active House Network engineers in Denmark to maximize the effectiveness of this design, and Jeff Day’s open and airy interior layout will maximize daylight throughout the house as much as possible.

Click here for the previous Active House blog posting.