City hopes for super-green home here

David Taber

Gazette Photo By David Taber Neighbors gather at the corner of Catherine and Florian streets Sept. 15 for a city Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) and Boston Redevelopment Authority hosted meeting about selling the DND-owned lot their for development as a two-family home that city officials hope will employ “green” technology to produce more energy than its inhabitants consume.

WOODBOURNE—The Boston Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) plans to sell off a vacant parcel at the corner of Catherine and Florian streets for construction of what officials hope will be a super-“green” net energy-producing home, City officials said at a meeting Sept. 15.

Boston was one of the first cities in the country to have green design requirements for development on DND–owned property, and the idea is “to push it up a notch and do a net-positive house,” said Jessica Lord, a staffer with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), which is working with DND on the project.

About 20 neighbors and community members showed up for the twilight outdoor introductory meeting at the 5,600 square-foot parcel, where DND officials say they envision a two-family house. The site is at the other end of Catherine Street from the privately developed “JP Greenhouse,” one of the first attempts at energy-neutral building in the city.

DND staffers said they hope to sell the Catherine and Florian street lot to a private developer, using specific design criteria to turn the bidding process into an open contest. “One goal we have is for it to be a competition,” said DND staffer Jay Lee. “We want to track developers and see what they can do. It is a test to see if this is something that is replicable in other parts of the city.”

DND is planning to put two lots in the Highland Park section of Roxbury out for bid as part of the same program, DND staffers said.

The technology used will likely be similar to that used in the JP Greenhouse—where the main energy-saver is a hermetic, airtight building seal and super-thick insulation that allows for the home to be heated by residents’ body heat. A sophisticated “energy recovery ventilation” filtration system that uses warm outgoing air to heat cooler incoming air ensures circulation and keeps mold and mildew from growing. The house-building system is commonly known as “passive house” construction.

Other features, including energy efficient appliances, rainwater collection and photovoltaic solar energy collection systems could also contribute to energy savings. If enough energy is saved, the photovoltaic could end up generating a small surplus of energy.

In a phone interview with the Gazette, DND staffer John Feuerbach said the DND has no idea how many contractors in Boston have done passive house construction. “We might have some kind of a training during the time the request for proposals [RFP] is out,” he said.

One potential small stumbling block for construction is that the southern edge of the property—a key causeway for sunlight— is bounded by a line of tall trees. Those trees will likely have to be trimmed back and some may have to be removed.

While city officials said that a significant effort would be made to make sure that whatever is built fits with the existing character of the neighborhood, BRA architect John Dalzell said the house might have to be closer to the street than some neighboring houses, in order to get as much sun as possible. Any trees that are removed will be replaced, he said.

Dalzell, a JP resident, is working on the project despite the fact that his second child was born recently and he is currently on paternity leave.

Ken Ward, who, with his partner Andree Zaleska, built the JP Greenhouse, and who attended the Sept. 15 meeting, told the Gazette he did not see any major problems with the site that would stand in the way of the city’s net-positive goals.

“You don’t have to generate that much if you bring consumption way down,” Ward said.

One problem he and Zaleska have run into, he said, is a state rule governing how much electricity homeowners are allowed to return to the grid. “They cap how much you can sell back at three times your use,” he said.

Because the JP Greenhouse’s energy consumption is virtually non-existent, it is not economically feasible for Ward and Zaleska to set up a solar energy reclamation system. “I presume [the developers of the DND parcel] will have the same problem,” Ward said.

And, Ward suggested to the Gazette after the meeting, that problem might end up, in part, being his. “It might be interesting if the neighborhood came up with its own proposal” for the site, he said, “There are lots of contractors and electricians here.”

Most of the people gathered at the meeting said they supported the DND proposal. While DND officials initially said they would host another meeting for community review of the RFP, Feuerbach later told the Gazette the response from the meeting was so positive that he does not think that meeting will be necessary. The community will have a chance to review the eligible proposals once developers have responded to the RFP, he said.

One neighbor, Hansy Better, broke with tradition by recommending that DND not worry too much about the design. “It needs to be clear that the construction standards are performance-based,” she said, saying aesthetic concerns should be secondary.

“I think I might be opposed to it if it is too different,” said another neighbor, Aspasia Bakolas.

Others said they would be happy just to see the vacant corner lot—often used as a dumping site—cleaned up.

The eventual development project would likely have to go through a zoning variance process that would allow for additional community input.

Feuerbach said the city hopes to issues the RFP in the fall, get proposals back within three months and have determined what proposals are eligible by early 2011. The hope is construction will start by next spring, he said.

“We want to see a lot of energy,” he said.

“You might say ‘positive energy,’ Dalzell said, making a joke about the house potentially producing energy.

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