How a PA Affordable Housing Agency is Making Ultra-Efficient Buildings Mainstream

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Architect Laura Nettleton is standing in a former classroom in a 120-year-old elementary school that she helped turn into one of the most energy-efficient apartment buildings in Pittsburgh.

She is talking, metaphorically, about coats.

Her coat — stylish and black with wide sleeves and an open collar — is the old way of building: thinly insulated with lots of gaps where air and heat can escape.

A visitor’s down jacket is this renovated school: sealed at the wrists and zipped to the chin, it traps heat without requiring much energy.

“My coat is useless if it’s too cold outside,” she said.

But in this, the puffy coat of buildings — an example of the vanguard of efficient building design known as passive house — it is warm even right next to the tall, triple-paned windows on a chilly November night. The high-ceilinged, two-bedroom apartment for seniors in Morningside has thick insulation and an airtight barrier separating the inner and outer walls.

The 46-unit Morningside Crossing project and 23 other multifamily affordable housing projects in the state are being built to meet ultra-efficiency standards because of an unlikely green building advocate: the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

The staid state-affiliated agency decides which projects in Pennsylvania earn coveted federal low-income housing tax credits.

In 2014, a change that PHFA made to its competition criteria for the tax credits created a wave of interest in passive house building, and not just in Pennsylvania. It rippled across the country.

Within two years, Pennsylvania went from having just a handful of passive house residential units to having nearly 900 in the works — more than any other state at the time. Since then, 14 other states’ housing finance agencies have followed the PHFA’s model and added passive house to their tax-credit competition. About 16 more are considering it.

“It’s PHFA’s interest and incentive that made this happen,” Ms. Nettleton said.

Craig Stevenson, whose Carnegie-based firm, Auros Group, monitors the performance of energy-efficient buildings — including Morningside Crossing — credited the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency with being “a real thought leader.”

“They are revolutionary in the way they are looking at buildings,” he said.

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