The front of Plattform, three Highland Park homes to be built with leading energy-saving standards. Renderings by Thoughtful Balance Inc.

Architect Laura Nettleton pursued green building projects for a quite a while before she learned about a “passive house,” the leading standard for energy-efficient construction.

“I realized how groundbreaking it was, mainly because I’d been working with rating systems like LEED and feeling superficial but not getting far on energy consumption, the most important part,” says Nettleton. “This is really the way to do it.”

Her Thoughtful Balance architecture firm will soon introduce Plattform, three “homes of the future” to be built on Mellon Street in Highland Park by EcoCraft Homes. Construction could begin within weeks and the homes could be ready for occupancy by April.

Elliot Fabri Jr., co-owner of EcoCraft with his father, Elliot Sr., says a super-insulated passive home gives back to its occupants through lower energy costs and better indoor air quality. EcoCraft’s factory-built houses will use top-of-the-line materials, mostly sourced locally, and aluminum-clad, triple-pane windows imported from Europe.

“It’s the most energy-efficient form of building that we know about,” Fabri says. “And we take extra care about selecting materials — drywall, flooring, countertops, cabinets, doors — so that they’re built with sustainability in mind, no formaldehyde and low-VOC. That plays well into the airtight passive home concept.”

Nettleton’s design of a “pretty typical urban vertical home” with 2,600 square feet of living space, a rooftop deck, clean lines and modern amenities is indeed thoughtfully designed space, Fabri says. The homes will have a ventilation system that completely changes the indoor air every three hours to reduce pollutants. The system uses filters easily purchased at a hardware store.

Even with a planned sales price of $650,000, “There’s a huge market for the product that we’re building,” Fabri says, predicting the project will appeal to young professionals and families. “What we’re offering is something you can’t get in any other way — a modern home in a great location, environmentally-friendly and forward-thinking.”

For new construction in the city, the price is in line with market rate, says Denise Serbin, a Howard Hanna real estate agent helping to market Plattform with Dani Gundlach of INHABIT Real Estate Collective. Homes in Highland Park typically sell for more than $300,000.

“Millennials with money want to know, ‘Is my home environmentally-friendly? Does my home use sustainable materials? I want to make sure the paint and carpeting in my home are of the lowest chemical level,’” Serbin says.

The homes’ design will have porches, a patio, backyard and rooftop deck, shown here.
The homes’ design will have porches, a patio, backyard and rooftop deck, shown here.

A passive home’s airtight envelope keeps a constant temperature indoors and prevents insects and other pests from finding a way inside, Serbin says. The rigorous energy-saving standards can reduce heating and cooling costs by 75 to 80 percent.

The building site in the 900 block of Mellon is owned by Highland Park Community Development Corporation, with whom Nettleton worked to ensure her design fits into the neighborhood. Beyond energy efficiency, she’s proud that EcoCraft will use superior building materials.

“Passive house is just one part of what makes the project special,” says Nettleton. “We are remembered as a civilization by the buildings we leave behind, and what are we doing? Costs have been kind of prohibitive, so Americans have had large spaces with cheap materials.”

These new “right-sized homes” will have three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths and an open floor plan with the kitchen in the center, says Nettleton. The front room could be a dining room; the rear living room opens to a patio and backyard. “The whole house flows and relates to the outside, with a variety of outdoor spaces.”

Nettleton and Fabri say their project has at its heart the values of sustainability, community, walkability, healthy living and innovation. There are only about 1,200 homes of similar environmentally-conscious design in the United States, Nettleton says.

“I’m interested in spreading the word about passive houses and trying to establish a new precedent for construction,” she says. “I think we need to be thinking about how we make smarter, stronger, more resilient buildings. I’m really excited about it. I’m really proud of it.”

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.