East Branch Evolution

Posted On: Posted In: News

When I started in the world of construction, one of my first jobs was working on a production framing crew, which eventually grew into working on a complete production crew. We were building subdivisions where there were less than ten designs for all of the houses. I know- not my kind of dream home either. However, we became very efficient at building at this limited scale and it was taking less and less time to build each home without sacrificing craftsmanship. 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- and it was fun. We were a team and we anticipated each other’s moves so there was a constant uninterrupted flow. We could get a house frame up with siding and roofing installed in less than two weeks. Good stuff, except- yeah, it was the suburbs. If you turned down the wrong street, you could easily step inside the wrong house to the horror of its occupants.

Fast forward- becoming a cabinet and furniture maker, custom home builder, deep energy retrofit contractor… While I love the one of a kind, beautiful historic restorations we’ve done over the years or building a custom cutting edge house designed by a top New York City architectural firm- the joy of super-efficient production I experienced at the beginning of my career had never left me.

Then, 2008 happened. I was introduced to passive house, (or the German spelling- passivhaus), and everything changed. I completed the classwork, studied diligently, took the test and became a certified passive house consultant. Even though we had been building super-insulated houses with double stud walls and air tight enclosures since the nineties through the Energy Crafted Homes program, passive house was at a different level of efficiency, it was exciting and it brought out the energy nerd in me. I viewed it as building homes 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 spreadsheet energy modeling was intense. Calculating energy loads based on exact location with climate data totally made sense. We weren’t guessing anymore, or oversizing the heating and cooling equipment based on what felt right. We were now able to build and integrate all components to work together- like a finely tuned, high performance engine. This was exciting, but of course, all of that extra insulation, high performance windows and efficient mechanical systems came at a cost and added about 15% more to the price than standard code construction.  Now I asked myself, if I’m spending 15% more for passivhaus (my preferred spelling), but the energy savings is 80 to 90 % more than a standard code built home, doesn’t  passivhaus still make sense? Yes it does, but at what scale? Many folks building their homes can barely afford it and can they really be expected to now add even more to the cost? Plus, if we can’t deliver net zero at market rate, then we’ll never bring needed change to our built environment to reduce carbon emissions.  Yes, we can calculate how long it will take to payback that added investment and it’s a pretty good deal, but sometimes…, it’s just still not enough.

So, how do we fix this dilemma?  It was time to dig in. We still used the passivhaus energy modeling programs, both the European Passive House Planning Package and the U.S. version called WUFI Passive, which has the added feature of also assessing the moisture dynamic in building assemblies. We had three major dials to turn; performance, low embodied carbon and affordability. We didn’t want to give up the integrity of what passivhaus was meant to do, but we were learning ways to fine tune these dials and take out or reduce elements that wouldn’t affect the overall performance of the building, but lowered the cost. Plus, we had the added advantage of solar photovoltaic installations getting less expensive and more importantly to us, the embodied carbon footprint of manufacturing and delivery of solar panels had been greatly reduced. We were approaching “game on” and calling it passivhaus aligned homes, but we still weren’t where we needed to be to make a larger impact on our built environment. Considering that buildings account for around 40% of carbon emissions globally, we still needed to keep digging.

You probably know where this is going – yes, back to the beginning of implementing super-efficient building systems. What if we broke down every component of the process and re-worked it with no waste and no wasted movement, like the incredibly successful systems that Toyota developed? But this isn’t a factory setting, it’s primarily site built, it’s craftsmanship and it’s fun. It involves all of our trade partners working together in the same manner, and it makes high performance affordable. Of course those awful designs from the suburbs have to go and we’ll bring a talented group of architects on board to design cool houses, homes we’d want to live in. Enter Coldham and Hartman Architects from Amherst. They’re a wonderful architectural firm that has been designing high performance buildings for a very long time. And we have very talented mechanical and structural engineers on our team who are developing systems that we had never envisioned before.

Now we know that there are some companies who are doing great work in building totally off site high performance houses in factories, bringing them to the site and setting them on foundations. We’ve explored the cost of doing just this model, but found that it’s still less expensive to primarily build on site with some off site components brought in for installation.  More importantly though, it just doesn’t align with our mission of making change in the construction industry and it doesn’t support the local economy of suppliers, trade contractors, local vendors, etc. where the homes are being built.

We have our systems, our team, our designs- we just needed a name. We spent more than a year trying to come up with a name for this new company, (and I thought naming a baby was hard!). There was- eco something, sustainable this or that, but nothing resonated and the fear that the way we describe efficiency now might be passé in a couple of years- like “green”-ugh. Then one day as I was probably daydreaming instead of working, it hit me.  I was looking out at the river that runs behind our old mill where our offices are located. It’s the East Branch of the Westfield River and the name just seemed to make sense. It’s a place we love, it’s a designated wild and scenic river- one of the cleanest in the state, and it’s representative of the beauty of this planet and our resolve to take care of it.

East Branch Homes it is. Welcome to our journey.

East Branch Homes and Eastbranchhomes.com will officially launch in December.

See you then!

Kent