This is a post from the JP Green House intern, Lewis Seton.
Five construction workers and I crowd around a covered picnic table outside a run-down little house on the outskirts of Boston. Formerly a 100-year-old neighborhood store called “Jack’s Corner Store,” the place was abandoned for five years before current owners Ken Ward and Andrée Zaleska purchased it in 2008. With a sinking foundation, rotting siding, and wood infested with various creatures, the house was an odd choice to become one of the first passive houses in New England.
The passive house design, which is relatively new in the U.S., is commonplace in Europe and required by law in Germany as the minimal standard for all new homes. Passive house buildings are ultra energy-efficient. In order to accomplish this, passive houses primarily attempt to minimize heat loss through super-insulating walls and windows and maximize heat gain by taking advantage of passive solar design. Using these methods, well-designed passive houses can often do away with central heating systems entirely, even in frozen New England winters. For the JP Green House, the goal is to become a zero-carbon home through passive house design that will reduce the need to burn fossil fuels, erecting solar panels on the roof to eventually remove it from the electrical grid, and supplying a large portion of their food using the quarter-acre backyard as a farm and chicken coop.
As a 22-year-old recent college graduate with a degree in environmental policy, and an intern for the JPGH family — a chaotic blend of two intense environmentalists and three rambunctious young boys, I expected to feel out of place having lunch with the group of construction workers from Placetailor — the firm that agreed to take on the daunting task of renovating a dilapidated hovel into an extraordinarily efficient green home. Yet, Placetailor is not your ordinary construction crew. Four out of the five workers biked to work today, the oldest member of the crew has not reached his 30th birthday, and two of them haven’t even graduated from college. Also, it’s Baked Goods Day.
The crew today is made up of five guys. Placetailor has a fairly unique hiring policy, as each member of the team has a background in both architectural design and hands-on construction. When the construction team can work together on scene to identify a problem or improve a design, the final product will ideally be much improved.
Simon Hare, the founder of Placetailor, has a unique history himself. Growing up in Israel, he always had a keen interest in how certain places affect the people who use them. A self-described autodidact, Hare is mostly self-taught in architectural design through traveling around the world, auditing courses at his local university in Israel, and lots of hands-on learning. By his early 20’s, he was already designing and building a passive solar home for himself in Sde Bokar, Israel. “To me, efficient design is just common sense,” Hare says. “It seems odd that anyone would not want to pursue such standards as Placetailor.” Growing up in a neighborhood where solar access to a building’s south façade is protected in local ordinance, he believes that the U.S. needs more families like Ken and Andrée’s to set a powerful example of the dramatic environmental improvement that can be achieved using current means and methods of construction.
Declan O’Keefe, the 23-year-old student and foreman of the team, has baked a delightful apple crisp. He’s been with Placetailor for a year and a half, and is in his third year at Boston Architectural College. A photographer, O’Keefe transferred from the Museum of Fine Arts, feeling a lack of academic fulfillment there. Architecture was the natural next step, combining the design aspect of art, the math/science aspect of academics, and the concrete ability to “build something with his hands that will actually perform at a higher level than other buildings around.”
Baked Goods Day is a tradition at the two-year-old company — every Thursday, a different person is in charge of bringing in a homemade dessert. Highlights in the recent past include lemon meringue pie, cookies, and the occasional homemade ice cream. In separate interviews, each member of the team confides in me that Baked Goods Day is really the best part of Placetailor. “If there’s anything from the Placetailor model that should be moved to every other construction model, it should be Baked Goods Day.”
As O’Keefe concludes, “You’re not going to go to any other construction site and find five guys who are totally OK with baking. We’re taking on this task of construction and design from a completely different perspective. We’re not using any of the predetermined rules for how things need to be done and I think it’s allowing us to gracefully enter this new world of passive house and be successful in this depressed economy.”