East Branch Evolution – A New Venture
One of my first jobs in construction was working on a production framing crew. We were building subdivisions—so many homes that looked practically identical (garage on the left or on the right). I know, not my kind of dream home either. However, we were becoming very efficient at building at this scale and it was taking less and less time to build each home without sacrificing craftsmanship.
The truth is we weren’t moving any faster, but the systems of production we had developed were enabling us to get more accomplished in a shorter amount of time.
Plus, it was fun. We were a full production team, anticipating each other’s moves, working with a steady, uninterrupted flow. We could get a house framed up with siding and roofing installed in under two weeks. Good stuff, except—yeah, it was the suburbs. If you turned down the wrong street, you could easily enter the wrong house much to the surprise of its occupants.
Kent Hicks Construction
Fast forward—becoming a cabinet and furniture maker, custom home builder, deep energy retrofit contractor and owner of Kent Hicks Construction Co., Inc. It’s been a great ride as I’ve had the good fortune to oversee beautiful historic restorations, custom renovations, and cutting-edge homes—some designed by renowned architecture firms.
And yet, that simple joy of achieving super-efficient production has stayed with me since my early years of building.
A Pivotal Year: Passivhaus
In 2008, I was introduced to Passive House (or the German spelling, Passivhaus), and everything changed. We had been building really well-insulated homes since the 90’s, using double stud walls and airtight enclosures through the Energy Crafted Homes program. But Passivhaus was at another level of efficiency, and I soon found myself diving into the demanding coursework to become a Certified Passive House Consultant.
I viewed building a Passivhaus as you would build a piece of furniture. Only instead of cutting the perfect dovetail, we were fine-tuning the entire building to run at peak performance. The science was exciting and brought out the energy geek in me. Using spreadsheet energy modeling, we were able to calculate precise energy loads of homes based on site conditions and detailed climate data.
We weren’t guessing anymore or oversizing the heating and cooling equipment based on what felt right. Instead, we were able to build and integrate all components like a finely tuned, high-performance engine.
It came at a cost though.
The extra insulation, high-performance windows, and efficient mechanical systems added around 15 percent more to the cost than standard code construction. But when you factored in the energy savings of 80-90 percent over standard construction, Passivhaus clearly made sense.
But, at what scale? We knew that many prospective clients were already squeezed and reluctant to increase their up-front costs. And from an industry standpoint, if we weren’t able to deliver net zero at market rate, then how would we ever bring positive change by reducing global carbon emissions in our built environment? Sure, we could calculate the time to pay back the investment—and it’s a pretty good deal, but sometimes it’s just still not enough.
How could we turn the dials to align the rigorous efficiency standards of Passivhaus with affordability, low embodied carbon and healthy building materials?
Through research and collaborations with our trade partners, we were learning ways to fine-tune these dials by removing or reducing certain elements that lowered costs while preserving our Passivhaus energy modeling and WUFI moisture analysis. Fortunately, solar photovoltaic installations were coming down in price and, more importantly to us, so too were the reductions in embodied carbon in the manufacturing and delivery of solar panels.
We were approaching “game on” Passivhaus aligned homes, but we still weren’t where we needed to be in demanding a larger impact on our built environment. (Did you know that buildings account for around 40 percent of carbon emissions globally?)
We needed to break down the entire construction process and (inspired by my early construction background) implement efficient building systems throughout. We compared the cost of bringing in assemblies that are built off-site versus building on the site, all with the goal of minimal waste in product and process. We also considered a complete production factory, but that didn’t align with our goals of advancing the building industry: supporting local economies where we build our homes and teaching best practices to future trade partners in the region. After breaking down all components of the building process, we determined that the most efficient solution is a combination of off site and on site production.
Fortunately, we weren’t doing this alone.
We knew it would take all of our trade partners working together to turn the dials. Enter Coldham and Hartman Architects from Amherst and several talented mechanical and structural engineers—innovative, experienced partners who share our vision of creating beautifully designed and affordable high-performance homes that people want to live in.
We had our systems, team, and designs in place; now we just needed a name. Kent Hicks Construction Co. will continue to build custom high-performance net-zero homes and thoughtful energy retrofits, but we wanted this venture of affordable high-performance homes to be an independent entity. We spent more than a year finding the right name (and I thought naming a baby was hard!). There was eco-this and sustainable-that, but nothing resonated and I feared that the new “green” would prove passe’ in a couple of years. Then one day as I was probably daydreaming instead of working, it hit me.
I was gazing at the river that runs behind our offices at the old mill in West Chesterfield. It’s the East Branch of the Westfield River, a place we love: a designated wild and scenic river, one of the cleanest in the state and representative of the beauty of this planet and our resolve to take care of it.
East Branch Homes it is. We’ll be open for business soon and welcome you on our journey.