The VOLKsHouse offers a viable example of how production housing might move affordably into the realm of net-zero energy. Designed for a standard 50-foot-wide lot, this experiment in building to Passive House standards cost 6.5% less than a similar conventional home, the architects say.

The challenge was fitting a typical starter-house program—three bedrooms, two baths, a small home office, and a two-car garage—into a compact but attractive box. The house comprises two cubes—a two-story volume containing the kitchen, dining room, office, and bedrooms, and an attached one-story living room whose roof serves as an upstairs deck. “It pays homage to the pueblo style, but with a sculptural form that’s really elegant,” a judge said approvingly.

Smart thermal technologies helped reduce material and mechanical costs. A 10-inch-thick foam “frost skirt” installed vertically around the foundation slab perimeter reduced concrete use by one-third. Four inches of rigid foam insulation protects the slab, and the walls contain 10-inch-thick foam panels.

Those measures, coupled with the airtight design, brought the HVAC investment—a ducted, mini-split heat pump tied to an 83%-efficient ERV—down to $8,000. Tipping the VOLKsHouse into net-zero territory are a $6,000 2-kW PV array and a solar thermal system that supplies 91% of the hot water.

“It’s been difficult to adapt the level of insulation required for Passive House certification to North American construction sequencing,” says architect Jonah Stanford. “This project strove to simplify those details.” Plans are under way to develop the prototype as multiplex units.