In 2014, I was living in an apartment a few miles south of Stanford University. I wanted to improve my quality of life by purchasing a home in the same community, but housing prices in the area were accelerating upwards and I couldn’t find anything affordable. I decided it was time to consider a move to a less expensive locale. When an opportunity arose to purchase an undeveloped property in southern Rhode Island, I jumped on it. This looked like a great place to build an interesting new house.

I wanted my new home to be comfortable, quiet, and energy-efficient. After discussions with a local builder, we decided to design and build a house that achieves, and hopefully exceeds, a very stringent set of requirements called the Passive House building standard. The builder and I assembled a team of highly-qualified professionals who understood what we wanted to do and were up to speed on the latest advances in science-based design and construction methods.

A Passive House typically uses up to 90% less energy than a conventional American home – hard to believe, but true. The air inside the home is clean and safe, with very little temperature variation (no hot or cold spots). Occupants aren’t bothered by pollen, excessive humidity, or outside noise.

How does a Passive House achieve this?

  • Passive solar heating. The primary source of heat during the cooler months will be sunlight that enters through large, south-facing windows. Wide eaves and other shading techniques are used to minimize solar gain during the warmer months.

  • Superinsulation. A passive house uses insulation with very high R-values around the main envelope, including the foundation.

  • Minimal thermal bridging. Passive house designers try very hard to eliminate thermal bridging inside the main envelope. Thermal bridging occurs when a conductive material extends from within the main envelope to the outside air.

  • No leaks! The main envelope is virtually airtight, preventing infiltration of outside air and loss of conditioned air.

  • High-performance windows and doors. European-designed windows and doors provide exceptional thermal and acoustical insulation. Features include triple glazing, multiple gaskets, warm-edge spacers, and a multi-point locking system to ensure a tight seal.

  • Whole-house ventilation. An independent ventilation system exchanges the air inside the main envelope every few hours, and includes subsystems for air filtration, energy recovery, and dehumidification.

I also decided to install an array of twenty-two rooftop solar panels that generate up to 6000 watts during daylight hours. Some of this energy is used to power the house; the surplus is sold to the local utility. During power outages, a Sonnen energy storage system supplies power to essential loads such as HVAC, refrigeration, and PV solar. (As manufacturing costs come down, I expect residential energy storage to grow in popularity.)

The Project Team

Construction Photos

During the construction of the house, I took photos every few days.

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The Affordability Crisis

From 2002 to 2016, I rented a small apartment in Los Altos, an upscale Silicon Valley bedroom community. According to Trulia, the median sales price of a two-bedroom condo in this community is now approaching 2 million USD, and the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $4,000. Yikes!

On the Need for Coherence

Steve Baczek and I spent a great deal of time thinking about how my house would fit into the surrounding environment and complement the natural beauty there. A recent Current Affairs essay explains why so much contemporary architecture is badly designed and violates our sense of esthetics and coherence. Here’s an excerpt:

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is an impressive building. Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear any actual relationship to its surroundings; it could have been placed anywhere. Aesthetic coherence is very important. A sense of place depends on every element in that place working together. The streets of the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston are beautiful because the many different elements are aesthetically unified. The Tour Montparnasse in Paris is horrifying because it doesn’t flow with the surrounding buildings and draws attention to itself.

Their conclusion: In terms of coherence, most contemporary architecture is ugly. Some of it is very ugly. The worst examples attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of special effort.