Some might remember Net Zero as an Internet service provider back in the stone-tool days of the late 1990s when Internet access was free, modems made beeping sounds, and you had to kick the teenager off the phone to check the electronic mail.

That’s the Net Zero of the past. The Net Zero of the future is being built up at Eco Village, and what that means is housing that doesn’t lose more energy than it requires in order to exist.

“Eco Village still has one of the largest number, if not the largest number, of passive houses in the United States,” said Fred Schoeps, a board member of Learn@EcoVillage, the housing cooperative’s nonprofit education arm. “Ithaca is clearly recognized as being in the forefront in terms of renewable energy. We are pushing the envelope in terms of building.”

That avant-garde position will not easily be relinquished, as TREE—the Third Residential EcoVillage Experience—is complete. The 40-unit expansion includes several residences, all already purchased, that meet the stringent Passive House Institute of the United States standards for extreme energy efficiency. There are fewer than 100 residential units that meet those standards in the entirety of these United States.

A passive house, for those not following the burgeoning sustainability blogosphere, is not a house that is only painted in beiges and grays and hides itself in a corner at house parties. The Passivhaus, as they are often termed because the movement’s Teutonic origins, is one that’s designed to absorb solar energy and trap those sunbeams inside by all means possible.

The buildings are all designed to meet some level of LEED or Passive House certification and many of them have been LEED Platinum certified. The buildings are super insulated with smaller and very energy efficient windows and electric air source heat pumps for heating and cooling designed by Taitem Engineers. These buildings use very little energy compared to an average home. There are several details that are unconventional but for the most part everything they are doing is covered by the NYS building codes.

These are not buildings that look very unconventional. This is not Mike Reynolds’ Earthship concept, where a group of volunteers spend a summer pounding dirt into tires and aligning walls full of beer cans to create a home that keeps itself warm and cold and look something like the giant in-ground turtle at the Ithaca Children’s Garden.

“In some regard these are traditional homes; they’re not underground or earthen or anything like that,” Schoeps said. “They’re still made out of wood, they still have drywall, and all that. How it’s put together and what results you get varies from more traditional house building concepts.”

Issues did arise as planning was done for the TREE common-house and apartment building, which soars up to four stories. An elevator, for one, was a thing that was not expected but became part of the planning process. Those sorts of requirements between town planning and zoning, and EcoVillage ideals, are always something that must be worked out in the process of putting up a structure using the International Building Code, and the International Building Code often hold lots of surprises for those who don’t step foot in municipal meeting rooms on a regular basis.

“I’ve since been involved with the third neighborhood for the past year and half as the architect of record,” said Noah Demarest of STREAM Collaborative, “but I did not design the project. Through an unusual course of events, the design architect—Jerry Weisburd—retired and let his NYS license expire before TREE was able to secure building permits. I stepped in to help TREE finish the permitting process and continue to coordinate field changes during construction.”

According to Demarest, any challenges with the Town of Ithaca were primarily because the project is complicated, with buildings in very close proximity to each other and inherent life-safety issues with a four-story wood frame building. The underlying zoning was already in place to allow the third neighborhood to exist, he said, but the planned development zone (PDZ) was updated to reflect the final site design by Rick Manning along with TG Miller. Jerry Weisburd was the lead on the overall architectural design and Taitem provided the structural and mechanical engineering.

“There are always challenges in terms of what’s doable and what’s not doable,” Schoeps said. “There’s always a difference between what one thinks is going to be built in a place and how things get dragged out in the building process. For me, the question is if we’re going to get more and more intentional in terms of promoting greener buildings, and so forth, how do authorities and developers learn lessons and apply those to the future.”

“The town, like any municipality, has the difficult challenge of enforcing the state building code which can be pretty black and white,” said Demarest. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the building code, and I think it is safe to say that most code officials, builders, engineers and architects are not fully up to speed with everything in the code and have probably been misinterpreting one thing or another over the years (building something one way for a long time doesn’t make it right). So when we add in new technologies like spray foam, alternative moisture and vapor barriers and energy recovery ventilators it can take some effort to make sure everything will function properly.”

If the future is being built on West Hill, the nation should take notice. For those looking to learn more about “net zero” building (and earn some American Institute of Architects credits) can join Taitem Engineering’s Ian Shapiro and EcoVillage co-founder Liz Walker at a Net-Zero Energy Design training for two all-day sessions on May 11 and 12. Email Liz.learn@ecovillageithaca.org for details. §

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