Aiming for Carbon Zero and Portland Housing Choices

By Jack Rubinger

Aiming for Carbon Zero and Portland Housing Choices was a public forum held at TaborSpace last month. The evening focused on the benefits of passive housing gaining popularity globally, and Portland’s Climate Action plan goals for the built environment.

Passive houses are ultra-low energy buildings requiring little energy for space heating and cooling to reduce their ecological footprint and mitigate the challenges of a changing climate.

Lynn Merrick who is associated with Let’s Talk Climate, a community conversation about climate change, organized the event. It was moderated by Stephanie Kaza, retired director of Environmental Studies, University of Vermont.

Forum presenters included Michael Armstrong from the city’s Office of Planning and Sustainability, Alexander Boetzel from the design-build firm Green Hammer, Josh Salinger from Birdsmouth Construction and Jessica Woodruff from REACH, a non-profit organization dedicated to building affordable housing.

Woodruff addressed the affordable part of the equation which comes from tremendous energy savings and from efficiencies gained in building multi-family units with shared walls and a shared building envelope.

An example: built by REACH, the Orchards at Orenco is available for families with incomes under $30,000/year. The Orchards complex is expected to achieve nearly 90% energy reduction for heating and 60-70% reduction for energy use overall when compared to a similar NW building.

The design includes triple-paned windows, a heat-recovery system, and a super-insulated building envelope.

The experts each brought a high level of expertise and provided an overview of these buildings, why they work, where they can be found and local resources who can either retrofit current homes and design new construction for passive homes.

All shared anecdotes and photos of passive home construction which range from schools to office buildings to apartment buildings in a wide range of architectural styles from avant garde to the kinds of bungalows found in Portland neighborhoods. The goal of the discussion was to encourage Portlanders to consider this approach.

“These ultra-low energy buildings are becoming more accessible every day and some are now being built as affordable housing,” said Merrick.

Junior presenters included brothers Jacob and Zach Smith and Gunnar Creasey, Creative Science School students, who showcased a hand-made model of a passive home and talked about the benefits of these buildings.

The forum was a direct result of looking at the city of Portland’s looming 2030 goals for the built environment. Experts believe that passive homes appear to provide a direct answer to the 2030 goals.

Organizers stressed that the key is to understand that both the technology and means to build homes that are (carbon neutral) carbon zero are readily available.

“Building innovations are important but pairing them with housing options and affordability is even more creative in the long run.

“We know that Portland needs more affordable housing options and that the City will be commissioning some of these building projects. Why not insist they be built to net zero standards and show off our local creativity in the policy arena as well,” said Kaza.

The City of Portland’s climate action goals are to:

• Reduce the total energy use of all buildings built before 2030 by 25 percent.

• Achieve zero-net carbon emissions in all new buildings and homes.

• Supply 50 percent of all energy used in buildings from renewable resources, with 10 percent produced within Multnomah County from on-site renewable sources, such as labor.

Armstrong pointed out that Portland has had 20+ years of climate action planning, local carbon emissions have declined ahead of national trends, amid steady population growth, but California and Washington are surging ahead of Oregon on energy requirements in the building code.

Experts agree 2016 was the warmest year on record for the planet. That was also true for 2015 and 2014. The trend lines are pretty clear from the basic temperature measurements.

“For those of us still relying on a fact-based world, these numbers are a wake-up call. Things are not miraculously turning around and getting better on their own, at least temperature-wise.

Junior presenters included brothers Jacob and Zach Smith and Gunnar Creasey, Creative Science School students, who showcased a hand-made model of a passive home and talked about the benefits of these buildings.

“This is not pie in the sky craziness, but a really forward-looking and creative solution to addressing climate change and social needs together. This is the way we need to think now – not in one creative silo or another, but across domains, to generate even more creative ideas and have fun working outside the box at the same time,” said Kaza.

Legislative support is in progress from State Representative Ken Helm who sits on the House Committee on Energy and Environment and is involved in House Bill 2710 which relates to the reduction of energy use in buildings.

Helm suggests staying tuned and watching for progress on HB2710 (including bill text, hearing schedule) at

Aiming for Carbon Zero and Portland Housing Choices

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