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Designer challenges traditional construction methods with high-performance passive home in heart of major city: 'The organic interest is growing'

"There's a blue ocean of a marketplace that is starting to ask more and more of our buildings."

"There's a blue ocean of a marketplace that is starting to ask more and more of our buildings."

Photo Credit: Phius

Clutch City Passive has brought nature to the city in a remarkable way, and the stunning, high-performance home may have people thinking twice about the wisdom of traditional construction techniques.  

Houston's first-ever certified passive building was completed in 2023 thanks to the vision of designer Jesse Hunt, who told The Cool Down in an email that he worked as a sustainability professional in architecture for eight years before becoming a Phius Certified Passive House Consultant.

After commercial clients were unreceptive to the idea of passive design, Hunt said he took matters into his own hands. 

"I was back to the drawing board during the [COVID-19] pandemic and came up with the biggest small project I thought I could raise money for and pull off myself," he explained. "... It was one part frustration and one part complete passion that made me jump into the deep end of building science on a speculative first build." 

Unlike traditional construction, passive building is focused on energy efficiency, meaning that homeowners spend considerably less on electric bills

Passive construction also benefits the planet. Most of the grid in the United States still relies on dirty energy, which is driving rising global temperatures linked to an uptick in extreme weather events, including deadly heat waves in places like Texas. 

One thing that makes Phius certification special is that it is the only passive standard "customized to fit each project's unique climate," according to a media release. In Houston, that meant Hunt needed to account for heat and, most importantly, humidity.

"The elephant in the room is humidity, and it's a huge elephant," Hunt told TCD. "But the physics of Phius still works down here. Air tightness is everything; far more important than insulation."  

A partnership with PH Builders of Houston helped Hunt achieve those goals, with Phius noting in a media release that Clutch City Passive is "14 times more airtight than building code." 

"We made the details very simple, we educated, and we participated," Hunt explained, adding that a dedicated dehumidification unit "solves for the inside sources of humidity and intermittent opening of windows and doors" — something he says is particularly valuable during Houston's long shoulder seasons with high humidity. 

Clutch City Passive, a multifamily unit, also features a heat pump water heater and an air source heat pump for both heating and cooling, cutting electrical costs for lucky occupants even further. According to Hunt, the multifamily construction provides additional money-saving benefits.

"The shared wall means an entire side of your home is not subject to outdoor conditions, which provides a lot of savings in an energy model and the occupant's utility bills," he told TCD. 

As for the Clutch City Passive's "greenroof," it not only serves the functional purpose of stormwater retention but also is a paradise for pollinators

"I wanted to bring the beauty of our bayous to the homes by having perennial flowering meadow plants. There are something like 40-50 species of plants up there all competing and blooming at different times of the year," Hunt told TCD of his design. "... The 4" deep system can handle a 1" storm without discharging a drop of water." 

According to a Phius press release, Clutch City Passive receives additional water-proofing from its "integrated rain screen system." Meanwhile, an on-site solar system provides support in the event of climate-driven power outages. 

Hunt added that an energy recovery ventilation unit and a dedicated dehumidifier are "a game-changer for indoor health, comfort, and performance." 

The property is currently under contract as of earlier this month, according to the real estate listing, which most recently showed an asking price of $515,000. 

Considering all the benefits of passive construction, it's easy to see why these types of projects have been popping up across the country. And while the construction of Clutch City Passive was a groundbreaking, celebratory milestone for Houston, Hunt believes the best is yet to come.

"Personally, I can't look back. Clutch City Passive is a repeatable model that I hope to build again, but it's also an example of how anyone that cares enough can do this," he told TCD. "There's a blue ocean of a marketplace that is starting to ask more and more of our buildings. The organic interest is growing. It's incredibly exciting to have the vantage point of seeing the curve before it hockey sticks upwards. I'm here for it." 

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