“Why do we build houses with utility bills for people who can’t afford [those bills]?” That’s what Tim McDonald, president of design/build firm Onion Flats, wants to know when it comes to low-income housing. This summer, Onion Flats showed what’s possible.
On Belfield Avenue in North Philly, Onion Flats built three houses that are “passive,” meaning they’re so energy efficient, heating costs are reduced up to 90 percent. With solar roof panels generating energy to cover the other 10 percent, a passive house has the potential, over the course of a year, to have zero energy consumption. These are the first certified passive houses in the state.
“This isn’t science fiction — it’s insulation,” says Mc-Donald. The virtually airtight building features such things as triple-paned windows and a condensing dryer that doesn’t need to be vented to the outside. After you’ve walked through a passive house, it’s hard to look at dryer heat being released into the atmosphere without cringing.
Onion Flats’ buildings are modular: The structure is made off-site while the foundation is built. “A lot of wasted time and money can be eliminated” this way, notes Habeebah Ali, executive director of the nonprofit Raise of Hope, which funded the houses through grants. And passive-house construction doesn’t cost any more. “Our motto for Belfield and all our projects to come is ‘zero energy, zero premium, zero debate,’” says McDonald.
Raise of Hope works to get families out of the homeless-shelter system. Among the Belfield homes’ new residents are Lisamarie Howse and her children. Howse was in a homeless shelter two years ago. Now she’ll be living in one of the most innovative homes in the city.
Through advocacy and a lot of walking tours, this group brought into real consideration the idea of an above- and below-ground park along the former Ninth Street and City branches of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad.
Penn Engineering and Wharton students developed a design modification for luminescent solar concentrators, allowing ordinary windows to be converted to solar panels that generate sustainable energy.
ICY Sign Co.
Best known for his Love Letters series around the El in West Philly, artist Steve Powers (aka ESPO) is setting up a community-minded sign shop in Brewerytown. He’ll be making free signs for Girard Avenue businesses to beautify the corridor and help spur economic development.
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