The first house to win Passivhaus certification in New Jersey could turn out to be a modular home under construction in Teaneck.
The four modular units that make up the 2,300-square-foot home were constructed by Westchester Modular Homes and craned into place in mid-October, according to an article published in The Record. Big Sky Custom Homes, the general contractor, is now framing the roof, building a porch, and taking care of other details. The owners, Lenny Moskowitz and his wife Deborah Teplow, hope to move in by early January.
“It’s a long story,” Moskowitz said by telephone of their decision to build to the Passivhaus standard. “The short version is we wanted serious energy efficiency. I had gone through the exercise of looking at geothermal heating and other ways of climate control for the house and they all ended up being very expensive unless you made the house itself very tight and very well insulated. So we ended up going for Passivhaus.”
Because it’s not complete, the house has yet to pass a key hurdle for certification: confirmation it meets the airtightness requirement of 0.6 air changes per hour at a pressure difference of 50 pascals. But if it clears that, Moskowitz says, they’ll seek certification through the Passive House Institute U.S.
Open to all ideas
Neither the owners nor architect Malka van Bemmelen was wedded to the idea of using modular construction at the start of the project. But as they began soliciting bids, that approach began to look promising.
They talked to five builders, two who build with structural insulated panels (SIPs) and two who use modular construction. A fifth, who would have built the house conventionally, was ruled out early in the process. Although he had the reputation of being a meticulous builder, Moskowitz said, he would have taken too long to complete the work.
SIP construction was competitive “to a point,” he added, but in the end they settled on Westchester Modular Homes, which built the units at its Wingdale, N.Y., factory.
Moskowitz said he knows of only one or two other modular home companies that are willing to build to the Passivhaus standard, but he added that this project could help expand options for buyers in the future.
“For now, if we can certify and we can spread the good word and cultivate a modular factory that will do this on the East Coast, I think that would be great,” he said. “We want to spread the word.”
Exterior walls are a total of 9 1/4 inches thick and consist of two 2×4 framed walls built on common 2×10 top and bottom plates. Wall cavities are insulated with dense-packed cellulose, and the outside of the house will be covered in 2 inches of expanded polystyrene (EPS) rigid insulation for a total of R-41.
The exterior foam was necessary to get the required R-value for the energy modeling, but they could have skipped that with a thicker wall and more cavity insulation. Moskowitz said that because of a misunderstanding the factory originally said it would be unable to building anything thicker than 9 1/2 in. As it turns out, they could have built the walls on a 12-in. plate and skipped the foam. Should another buyer want a Passivhaus modular, that’s what Westchester could do.
Footings and foundation walls are insulated with 4 inches of EPS foam, with a 2×6 framed wall filled with fiberglass batts on the foundation interior (total of R-36). There are 8 inches of EPS installed beneath the basement slab (R-30). The 2×12 framed roof will be insulated with closed-cell polyurethane foam for an R-value of about R-67.
Other features include:
- A rooftop photovoltaic array with a capacity of between 8 kW and 10 kW.
- Heating and cooling provided by two Mitsubishi Mr. Slim ductless minisplits, each with a capacity of 12,000 BTU/h. One head will go on the first floor, and the other on the second floor.
- Domestic hot water will be produced by a 50-gallon GE Geospring heat-pump water heater.
- Triple-glazed windows made by SchÃ¼co.
- Hardiplank fiber-cement cladding.
- A 500-gallon cistern that holds rainwater for use in the 0.8 gallon-per-flush toilets.
Moskowitz says the four modules making up the core of the house cost about $180,000. When windows, foundation, the roof and other costs are added, he expects the project to total between $375,000 and $385,000.
With the PV system installed, the all-electric house could become energy self-sufficient and relieve Moskowitz and Teplow of all utility bills. Still, there are parts of the Passivhaus approach that Moskowitz could live without.
“It’s not a perfect spec,” he said. “Why, when my foundation goes down to 50-degree constant year-round in temperatures, why do I have to insulate it as though it were above ground? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, I don’t think.”
Moskowitz has set up a Facebook page for those who’d like to learn more: Passive House NJ.