North America Gets Its First Sustainable ‘Active Home’ — And It’s in the American Heartland

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Over the weekend, an open house was held in the suburbs of St. Louis, Mo. OK, there were lots of open houses over the weekend in the region. But one in particular stood out, for it featured the first “active home” in North America.

What’s an “active” house? Basically, it’s one that incorporates a comprehensive, exceptionally sustainable and green design inside and out. In 2011, an official list of Active House specifications were established, including a wide range of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly practices and guidelines. In terms of energy usage, for example, the established goals are to create:

• A building which is energy efficient and easy to operate
• A building which substantially exceeds the statutory minimum in terms of energy efficiency
• A building which exploits a variety of energy sources integrated in the overall design

How these goals are achieved is left largely to the discretion of builders and homeowners. The world’s first active home opened in Denmark in 2009 and featured lots of solar panels and windows, so that over the years the home could capture more energy than it used. Another active home, in Russia, was built to consume five times less energy than an average home in the country.

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If an active home is green, then you might assume that a “passive home” is the opposite. But that’s not the case. As a 2011 Wall Street Journal story explained, passive house design focuses on conserving energy rather than producing it, and it too is considered sustainable, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective:

Instead of focusing on environmentally friendly ways to produce energy, passive houses cut the need for energy consumption in the first place—by as much as 90% compared with the average American home, backers of the passive-house movement say.

A combination of air-tight building materials, insulation calibrated for the local climate and windows set to maximize the angle of incoming sunlight all are designed to reduce energy needs. Even the expected body heat of the building occupants is factored into the calculations.

Confusingly, there’s a lot of overlap with passive and active home designs. My guess is we’ll see the “active home” moniker spread more widely; it just sounds more positive and less couch potato-y.

Over the weekend, in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, an open house was held for the first active home built in North America. The home, owned by David and Thuy Smith, was built to replace a 1921 stucco house situated in a fairly standard suburban neighborhood. Perhaps surprisingly, the Smiths’ home doesn’t really stand out in terms of appearance. It has clapboard siding, a big front porch, and lots of windows.

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Yet, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch detailed, the home utilizes solar panels and ultra-efficient exterior walls. It’s also loaded with skylights (good for light and ventilation—both money savers), and even something as traditional as the front porch has energy-saving benefits. After all, porches were popular long before air-conditioning because they offered shade and helped keep homes cooler in the summer.

Besides looking like a regular home, it’s interesting that the location for the first U.S. active home wasn’t in a big city along the coasts. Instead, it’s been plopped in the suburbs of middle America. The implicit message seems to be: If it can work here, it can work anywhere.

Also, for the active house to make sense in the marketplace, it has to be reasonably priced. “If it’s not affordable, it’s hardly sustainable,” said Matt Blecher, principal of Verdatek Solutions LLC, a specialist in green building who managed the project, according to a Better Business Bureau report.

The Smiths’ home cost roughly $500,000 to build. That’s more than double the average listing price of homes for sale in the same area code, according to Still, we’re talking about an upscale, brand new home—one that’s expected to be remarkably cheap to heat, cool, power, and maintain. In the long run, the design is supposed to be quite affordable. Just plain sensible, too.