When David and Thuy Smith first were approached about the possibility of building an ‘active house’ for their new home in Webster Groves, the couple was turned off by their admitted misconceptions of what a green home would entail. “We thought if we built green, we’d have a home covered in solar panels, lukewarm water with solar water heating, and the design had to be funky or odd,” David Smith explains.
However, the Smiths soon discovered their new home could feature all the amenities and details they desired, while reaping the benefits of green living. “We realized that we could design the house the way we wanted, but on top of that, have it be extremely efficient and low-cost to operate. The more we looked at it, the more it made sense,” Smith says.
As a result, the Smiths and their 6-year-old daughter, Cameron, will soon move into the first active house in North America. An active house is a high-performing green home that follows a new set of strict construction standards set forth by the Active House Alliance, formed in 2010 in Denmark. While there are several better-known green-building programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), those standards focus more on the energy and water consumption side. On the other hand, an active house takes a more holistic approach, looking at energy efficiency, as well as homeowner comfort, indoor air quality, and attention to the surrounding environment, says Kim Hibbs, owner of Hibbs Homes, the builder behind the Smith house. “For example, we spent a lot of time focused on daylighting in this home. We have 11 skylights and/or sun tunnels to take advantage of solar angles, which is going to help with the energy load, but also improve homeowner comfort by providing warmth or shade when needed, and bringing light into the space.”
The Webster Groves home is one of several prototypes around the world aiming to prove the Active House Alliance’s theories of performance, efficiency and comfort. Hibbs explains that this location is particularly useful for testing the standards, with St. Louis facing the natural challenges of hot humid summers and cold winters. Architect Jeff Day, who first offered the option to the Smiths when they approached him about a new home, designed the building with particular attention to incorporating it into the existing neighborhood. “One of the attractive parts of the active house was not being tied to any particular design and being able to put the house anywhere we wanted,” Smith notes. “It’s truly taking a building standard and making it work in a typical design.”
The Smith house helps to dissuade the typical assumption that a green home has to be a modern, contemporary structure, Hibbs says. “This shows that you can build a very efficient home in a historic neighborhood and design something that looks like it’s been there for years. Everything starts with design, but then it’s important how well you build the home and how tight you create that thermal envelope.”
While Hibbs has experience with green-building programs as an Energy Star-rated builder, the active house requires more attention to the holistic approach and how every element will work together. The team responsibly deconstructed the existing home on the property, allowing Habitat for Humanity to remove any reusable items, then salvaged some material before demolishing the rest. Existing concrete was reprocessed to use elsewhere for fill. The three-bedroom home with approximately 3,600 square feet of living space will use five different sources of heating and cooling—photovoltaics (solar panels), solar thermal heating, natural gas, electric and daylighting—to create a net-zero cost for utilities, Hibbs says. “In the dead of winter or heat of summer, you may have some utility bills; but for the rest of the year, your energy consumption is zero, or you’re actually feeding back into the grid.”
While there is a price increase to build this type of home, those negligible utility costs can more than make up for the difference, says Hibbs, who hopes the consideration helps to correct people’s assumptions that green or high-performing homes are unaffordable. “We want people to understand the economics of building this way. Even if it does cost more, you’re saving it on the back end, and that doesn’t even account for the decrease in maintenance and repairs and the time you save because of that.”
Smith agrees. “The long-term benefits outweigh the short-term cost. And the design of an active house isn’t just about saving on utilities; it’s also about making the home much more comfortable for the occupants, which I don’t think you can put a price on.”
The Smiths look forward to moving into their new house by the end of March, and they have agreed to have their home monitored for factors, including energy use, lighting consumption and indoor air quality for one year. Documented by the University of Missouri’s Center for Sustainable Energy, the results will help to encourage the implementation of active house standards in the future, Hibbs says. “I think more people are seeing the importance of building better homes to these higher standards. We’re trying to prove these theories so we can say, If you build a home this way, it will perform this way, and we have the data to prove it.”