by Jim Flint for the Mail TribuneTuesday, December 15th 2020
Affordable housing may become more energy efficient because of a grant from the Energy Trust of Oregon to Medford architect Mark McKechnie.
McKechnie is the recipient of the $50,000 Net-Zero 2020 Fellowship from the Energy Trust, the only grant awarded this year. He’ll use the funding to research cost drivers associated with net-zero affordable housing in Oregon.
A practicing architect for more than 40 years, he is the owner and principal architect of Oregon Architecture, Inc., 132 W. Main St., Medford.
The Energy Trust is governed by a volunteer board of directors and is overseen by the Oregon Public Utility Commission. Three stakeholder advisory councils guide its work.
Through his research, he will create resources that developers, designers and construction teams can use to evaluate a range of energy consumption reduction options and rate them according to cost of construction and return on investment.
“I’ve always been interested in energy-efficient design,” McKechnie said.
In the early 1980s, he designed an energy-efficient demonstration house in Minnesota.
“The project was so efficient, it could heat itself to 50 degrees through the depths of a Minnesota winter,” he said.
Over the years, he observed that energy efficiency on construction remained primarily an academic exercise.
“It was almost consistently ignored by builders until they were forced to consider it, either by homeowners or code changes,” he said.
Even though energy-efficient construction designs have become more prevalent in recent years, they’re found more in middle- and upper-income housing. Buyers of those homes want and ask for the new technology, and they can afford it.
Cost is the reason affordable housing often fails to utilize the new technologies and building designs.
“Net-zero typically has a higher front-end cost, which isn’t always recognized by lenders as freeing up income to pay for a higher mortgage,” McKechnie said.
“Low-income housing” is generally constructed by public or nonprofit agencies that mostly receive financing from the state or federal government. Those loans typically have per-unit spending limits.
“We are hoping to show that a net-zero home will free up additional monthly income for rent,” he said.
By demonstrating that additional energy reductions will save money over the life of the loan, they hope the state will allow additional costs of building for greater energy efficiency.
Net-zero construction generally means a building produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements. Oregon Architecture has not designed any net-zero housing to date. But it did the design work on three energy-efficient projects for the Klamath Housing Authority, within the limits of the building code and the funding source.
“The Klamath County climate is harsher than the Rogue Valley or the Oregon Coast,” McKechnie said, “so it provides a better opportunity for payback on energy-efficiency expenditures.”
Oregon Architecture will partner with Klamath Housing Authority on research funded by the fellowship. Also involved will be MEP Consulting for mechanical engineering and Bogatay Construction. David Sommer and Niru Patil, associates at the firm, will assist.
McKechnie hopes that the research will provide practical solutions that could demonstrate to the building community how energy efficiency can be instituted without radical changes in lifestyle or large outlays of money.
He sees several opportunities for more efficiency — in the building envelope, better use of daylight, and utilizing low-tech alternative energy systems. A “building envelope” is defined as the separation of the interior and exterior of a building, which can help facilitate climate control.
McKechnie acknowledges there can be resistance to low-income projects, but believes that resistance is based more on perception than fact.
“The local agencies that own and operate projects have a long history of strong management,” he said. “The average citizen would be hard-pressed to identify a low-income project just by looking at it.”
McKechnie expects the results of his research to be reflected in future affordable housing in the Rogue Valley.
“My expectation is we can provide local builders with some energy-efficient construction techniques they can use in their work going forward,” he said. “The purpose of the fellowship, after all, is to flatten the curve on energy usage growth.”
Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.