Climate-resilient community in Newburyport rises from toxic ashes

Just off Route 1 in Newburyport, A Bit of the Future is under construction. A huge orange crane hoists a three-story concrete slab and flips it precisely into place, forming the wall of a house. The crane accomplished in five days what would have taken weeks using standard construction techniques.
“The building system has not been done on this scale for residential before,” says Boston developer David Hall, who, along with his partner, architect Keith Moskow, changed the commercial construction method known as name of “reclining construction” to create the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living. They build the village on a cleansed industrial wasteland, after removing 3,000 tons of toxic ash.

“There were places where it was 8 feet deep,” Hall says, laughing. “It was a dump.”

David Hall at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
The Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Massachusetts with four new passive house buildings under construction.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
The Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Massachusetts with four new passive house buildings under construction. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Hall and Moskow had decades of experience building urban brownfields and saw the possibilities of this hazardous waste site. “We jumped on it,” Hall said, “and created this vision of what could be.”

The Hillside Center is an experiment – the kind Massachusetts will need to attempt to meet ambitious climate goals that impose net zero climate emissions by mid-century. In less than 30 years, we must transform virtually every aspect of the state economy. The objective: to build a climate-resilient society powered by renewable energies whose benefits are shared by all.

And if Hillside is any indication, there will be tough decisions, painful compromises, and compromises along the way.

“Something really new”

The developers completed the first phase of construction last fall and the dozen of one, two and three bedroom townhouses are already rented. The second phase is underway.

Passive House Buildings at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Massachusetts (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Passive House Buildings at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Massachusetts (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Hall – a self-proclaimed “energy nerd” – and Moskow designed the village community to reach out to the main contributors to climate change emissions: housing, fuel, food and transport.

“This is our first big foray into something really new,” says Hall.

How is this new? “Bad novel,” he laughs.

When completed, this community of 48 one- to three-bedroom units will be built almost entirely of concrete.

The concrete walls are made in an open-air shed that construction workers call “Santa’s Workshop”. The workers fix the walls with steel beams, seal the joints between the ceilings and the floors and insulate everything with 12 inches of polystyrene. Then they use knives to carve spaces in the white blocks to run electrical and plumbing ducts and high-power ventilation – airflow is essential to prevent the growth of fungi and bacteria.

Each unit is actually a thermal battery which slowly stores and releases heat. The windows are triple glazed. Solar energy on rooftops provides electricity. The price of energy is included in the rent.

Solar panels on the roofs of passive houses at the Hillside Center.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Solar panels on the roofs of passive houses at the Hillside Center. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

“This electricity does everything,” says Hall: “It makes your hot water, it does your heating, it does your cooling, plug in the loads, the lights. “And because the structures are so energy efficient, the solar panels generate more electricity than the apartments consume, it only takes 1,300 watts to power a unit’s heat pump.

“So in January, on the coldest night, the electricity from a hair dryer is basically used to heat your whole house,” says Hall.

Green living is not cheap

“That first building really felt like a start-up because everything you did, you did it for the first time,” says Sarah Holden, owner of Fishbone Project Management, who oversees the construction.

Sarah Holden, Project Manager for Hillside Development.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Sarah Holden, Project Manager for Hillside Development. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Holden commends Newburyport building officials for embracing the many innovative and sustainable features used at Hillside.

“We collect rainwater from the rooftops,” she says. “It will go into a cistern under the greenhouse which will be pumped to the units for flushing the toilets.”

The community greenhouse is part of the landscape master plan developed by Cornelius Murphy of Whole Systems Design Collective. Murphy says it’s an experiment to cut carbon emissions while growing food for residents.

“Most of the site is planted with what we call a ‘perennial multistory perennial forest,’” says Murphy. “We have nut trees in the upper canopies, we have fruit trees in the understory, we have basic perennials under the fruit trees, and we have ground covers – all of which produce food for the tree. the residents of Hillside. “

Permaculture consultant Cornelius Murphy at the Hillside site in Newburyport.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Permaculture consultant Cornelius Murphy at the Hillside site in Newburyport. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

But all this green life doesn’t come cheap. A bedroom, including utilities, costs $ 2,200 per month.

So, to create an economically and socially diverse community, the developers donated land on the site for an affordable housing project. The YWCA of Greater Newburyport will own and operate the building. John Freehan, executive director of the YWCA, says 10 residents will each have a one-bedroom apartment with private bathroom and share a common kitchen and community space.

“It’s just amazing,” Freehan says. “For low-income people, the most difficult issues they face are food security, housing security and transportation. And this project is designed to meet all three of these needs.”

John Feehan, General Manager of YWCA Greater Newburyport, inside the new YWCA building in Hillside.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
John Feehan, General Manager of YWCA Greater Newburyport, inside the new YWCA building in Hillside. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
The new ten-unit single-bedroom occupancy YWCA under construction at the Hillside Center in Newburyport, Mass. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
The new ten-unit single-bedroom occupancy YWCA under construction at the Hillside Center in Newburyport, Mass. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

In Hillside, residents can share a fleet of small electric vehicles. There’s also community bike storage, and downtown Newburyport and the Boston commuter train are just steps away.

Sounds like an eco-paradise, right? Not enough.

“ A very controversial decision ”

To foster community, developers designed townhouses with large farmhouse porches – complete with rocking chairs – that emphasize outdoor living. Each unit also has a huge terrace or patio, which includes a connection to natural gas.

“It was a very controversial decision,” says David Hall. “If everyone burned wood in a fireplace it would be horrible. People want to extend their time outdoors, and it seemed like the best way to do that was to make natural gas available.”

But the biggest clash between climate and construction comes from the very material that helps make Hillside Center so sustainable: the ubiquitous concrete. The material makes the community resilient to floods and wildfires – and even to the rare earthquakes in the area.

Stephen Moore is working to fill the space that will be under the first floor with a thick layer of insulation.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Stephen Moore is working to fill the space that will be under the first floor with a thick layer of insulation. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Construction workers poured concrete over a thick layer of insulation to form the ground floor of one of the new passive house buildings at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport.  (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Construction workers poured concrete over a thick layer of insulation to form the ground floor of one of the new passive house buildings at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

But concrete requires cement, and making cement involves burning huge amounts of fossil fuels and releasing climate-warming carbon dioxide. Global concrete production represents 8% of global CO2 emissions.

Developer David Hall admits: it’s a big deal.

Certainly the durability of this form of construction in terms of resilience is the best, “he says.” But we have to get the carbon out of the concrete. So that’s our goal. “

Hall tried to convince two Canadian companies to ship their “green” concrete to Newburyport, but the companies did not want to ship a redi-mix to Massachusetts.

Passive house buildings under construction at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Mass. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)
Passive house buildings under construction at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Mass. (Robin Lubbock / WBUR)

Yet the developers believe that an even stronger component is built into Hillside that makes it sustainable: the community itself.

“After a hurricane, people often talk about the fact that what got them through was for the community to come together and share,” says Hall. “Community is therefore an important part of resilience, which is often overlooked.”

Hall and Moskow are looking for a site to build their next sustainable community. Perhaps soon another village will rise from the ashes of a brownfield site and become more resilient to climate change.


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