Next Generation Housing: Radical, Affordable, Scalable

“Radical efficiency and affordability are not incompatible outcomes,” asserted architect and professor Timothy McDonald (Onion Flats) at the Brilliant Methodology panel last Tuesday at the Center for Architecture.

McDonald has been touring the country, presenting to state governments to encourage a small but meaningful tweak in their scoring criteria for developers who apply for funding to build affordable housing.


It started in Pennsylvania. There, tax credits are for awarded for affordable housing projects on a point system, with preference given to projects with high scores. Points can be earned, for instance, for locating a development in an area with high poverty rates (30 points), for redeveloping a brownfield site (5 points) or for the adaptive reuse of a vacant building (10 points). In 2014, McDonald convinced the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Authority to add 10 points to the scorecard for building a certified Passive House.

The first year after the change was made, 39 of the 85 project submissions were for Passive Houses. Eight of those projects went on to be funded—a huge achievement given that there are only about 130 certified Passive Houses in the United States.

McDonald, who built the first ever Net-Zero-Energy-Capable Passive House in Pennsylvania, has taken his success on the road, encouraging state housing authorities across the U.S. to follow Pennsylvania’s lead. So far, 12 states have committed, with more expected to follow suit in the near future.

These changes are bringing the Passive House standard into the mainstream from the fringes of green building practice. McDonald sees these incentives as crucial to training the industry in Passive House standards, which are already the norm in some European countries.


Greg Hale (New York State Governor’s Office on Energy and Finance) also argued the need for institution-led incentives for greener building practices.

Inspired by a Dutch net-zero energy retrofit initiative called Energiesprong, NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) is working on a plan to create a large-scale, self-sustaining market for deep energy retrofits in the affordable housing market.

Energiesprong delivers non-intrusive retrofits that can be installed in about a week without requiring residents to move out—YouTube has a video of an Energiesprong installation in action.

Though New York State’s retrofit program is still in its infancy, the idea is to accelerate innovation through open competitions for tax-credit funding for affordable housing retrofits. Their goal is to have 100,000 retrofit projects completed or in the pipeline by 2025, with the first round of competition scheduled for 2017.

Watch our Airtight, Tested Right video series to get up to speed on residential airtightness and blower door testing requirements in the new NYC Energy Conservation Construction Code, coming into effect this fall.

About the authors

Theresa Wetzler
Theresa is the Administrative Associate at Urban Green.