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Lansing Home Builder Pushes Green Envelope

Only two builders in the state are certified to build highly energy-efficient “passive” homes. One is based in Lansing.   WKAR’s Mark Bashore joined Michael Klinger at the site of his latest “deep green” creation.  

Situated at the end of a rocky, makeshift driveway, Maura and Kurt Jung’s new home could be out of the pages of ‘Vermont Life’ magazine.  The 2,000 square foot  structure is brand new, but the setting suggests the austere tranquility of old New England.  Seconds after I step inside, the home’s builder--Lansing’s Michael Klinger--cuts to the chase.

“So our current outdoor temperature is 34 degrees,” he observes. “Our indoor temperature is 66 degrees.  We’re keeping three stories warm with a 1500 watt space heater.  So this is the beauty of ‘passive house.’”

We head downstairs to the heart of a passive house—the aforementioned quartz space heater.  It’s one of three carefully-planned heat sources. The other two are the warmth from appliances, body heat and the like….and the sun.  That’s it. Klinger maintains it requires one-tenth the energy of conventionally-heated and air conditioned homes.

About 20 feet away, the lungs: a ventilation unit that redistributes air.  It’s essential in these tightly sealed structures to ensure the right temperature and humidity.

“We bring fresh air in through this machine,” he explains. “We exhaust stale air from kitchens and bathrooms, um, high humidity areas, high odor areas.”   

These fixtures--along with high–performance windows and other design features--make up the ‘passive’ house.  “Passive” since its engineering emphasizes being a receptor and a holder of energy. 

The evolution of passive housing has led to tussles over how much ‘green’ belongs in state construction codes.  Homebuilders Association of Michigan spokesman Lee Schwartz says its members applaud—and practice--energy-efficient construction.  But he says the group resists mandates because of the building codes’ primary function.   

“The construction code has always been about protecting safety,” he says. “The green code goes beyond that.”

Schwartz says there’s nothing to stop buyers from building passive homes now and that the focus of codes should remain on safety.

Klinger feels the U.S. housing industry should promote passive design more.  For now, he’s hopeful market forces may lead to greener building codes as more consumers come to grasp the costs of fossil fuel and the benefits of green.

“As long as the American consumer demands cheap, glitzy housing, that’s what it’s gonna get,” he says. “When we start to come back from that—if we do—this house will make a lot more sense.”

Passive housing is more expensive—Klinger says at least $140 a square foot compared with around $87 per square foot for standard construction here in the Midwest. But he adds that passive housing costs are trending down.  He says  that, and long-term energy savings, make it a bargain. 

But such sterile calculations seem out of place in the space that will soon be the kitchen in the Jung’s new house.  Even amid construction, the bucolic setting enables Kurt Jung to reflect on their housing journey.  The couple has planned its airtight home carefully, but the process includes unexpected revelations.

“When you open the door, even when it’s windy outside, you just don't get that rush of air,” he explains. “It’s just a real, pleasant surprise.  And I think there’s going to be lots of things like that, living in a passive house.”

The Jungs hope to move into their new house before Christmas.  They’re anticipating an especially memorable holiday season.

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