Flywheel Development Shares Insights on Building DC NZE Buildings

Flywheel Development is a real estate development company in the District of Columbia that builds ultra-low energy properties in urban neighborhoods. We sat down with co-owners Jessica Pitts and John Miller to learn more about how they are redeveloping areas within the District and asked about their perspective on the ultra-low energy building market in the region.

What is Flywheel Development and how did you start building ultra-low energy buildings?

Jessica:  John Miller and I are co-owners of Flywheel Development, a small development company that focuses on net-zero energy and Passive House (PH) construction. We see net-zero buildings as an important goal in terms of fighting climate change and pushing the envelope on what is possible in real estate and the built environment. Our primary focus is infill development. We like areas of the city that have already been developed and focus on the vacant lots that are scatted throughout DC and the close-in suburbs. We are focused on sites that work well for dense residential and mixed-use buildings.

John:  Our industry needs to get busy building better buildings and net-zero is a no-brainer. “It’s too complicated” or “I don’t want to change the way I do business” is what we hear some contractors say. We don’t have time for that conversation. Flywheel started out building ultra-low energy buildings as the environmentally right thing to do, and it differentiated us in the market.

How is your process different from a conventional project?

John: We are different in that we are self-performing as the contractor on some of our projects. We look at development through a contractor’s lens and seek out cost-effective solutions upfront. One thing that is unique about designing a net-zero building successfully is that you have to do real integrated design. A lot of architects are assembling components from different subconsultants and not thinking about how it fits together. With integrative design, it’s certainly harder to get all the parties together – owner, contractor, architect, MEP — and build consensus early on. Without integrative design, you end up putting a bunch of independent drawings together and . . . forget the costs . . . the building might not even work correctly!

Have you found design and construction efficiencies in building multiple Passive House projects?

John: We want to find solutions that work for different building typologies and then repeat them on future projects to achieve economies of scale. Of course, developing the prototype is the hardest part. We’re trying to figure out how to provide heating and cooling to multiple 1,200 square-foot units when we can’t have shared systems. How do you provide heating and cooling and adequate dehumidification in the summer with a peak load of a one ½- ton of cooling demand per unit? You have to think outside the box. What are we looking at now is hydronic heating and cooling, using a ¼-ton fan coil system for the units. We’re also exploring decentralized solutions that can be aggregated at the site-level to save costs. Energy-efficient design is all about being smart and not layering in more technology to over complicate things. Unnecessary technology makes operations and maintenance more difficult and confuses the building’s occupants.

Have you seen a social benefit to your work?

John:  What we realized was that ultra-low energy housing is an amazing opportunity to build equity or wealth for families, for both buyers and renters. When someone buys these houses and their energy bills decline, as the energy model predicts, they put that money in the bank. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a 30-year mortgage that otherwise would have gone to dump coal into a power plant somewhere. For a while that made sense but the time has come to produce our energy at home, and we have an opportunity to put all this money back into our economy and create wealth for our low- and moderate-income families. It’s really amazing that ultra-low energy housing can change the economics for families. On projects like Stack Eight, which is an affordable for-sale project, we’re able to deliver a product that substantially reduces energy by hundreds of dollars a month. That can make a big impact if you’re a family making 30% to 50% of AMI [area median income]. In fact, it helps everybody regardless of income. Who wouldn’t like to have a couple hundred dollars a month?

What are the efficiency measures you implement to keep costs down?

Jessica: We lower costs by stripping away building components that you don’t need anymore because you’re building efficiently. One example of this is the substitution of building envelope insulation for mechanical systems. You drive down your energy use so much through a well-insulated envelope that you can downsize your mechanical equipment. On a relative scale, insulation is inexpensive. Mechanical systems are expensive.

John:  You have to put in your mechanical system and insulation anyway. In what proportion are you putting those in? You don’t just design a “regular” building and add components to it to make it more efficient. You have to cut building components as well. That takes a very strong design team.

What advice do you have for an architect interested in designing ultra-low energy buildings?

Jessica: They should take the Passive House International certification course. You don’t have to know how to do all the energy modeling, but you need to know what it takes so that you know how PH is different from a normal design process. Additionally, you can start by designating a PH expert on staff or bring in a consultant to assess the energy consequences of decisions in real time. Doing that will give space to the architects to think outside the box to find solutions. And finally, the first project will be hard. You will get a building that is substantially better, and the process will get easier with each future project.

How is the market welcoming net-zero and Passive House? 

Jessica:  Net-zero and Passive House are definitely of interest to consumers. It’s in the ethos of the city, as a lot of people are savvy on policy and the consequences of their consumer decisions. People aren’t experts on building science though. The general public can’t tell you how a building became net-zero, but they understand the general concepts.

John:  DC is a small market. For the most part, developers know how to build economically, and they are building more conventional buildings, even as they try to stay ahead of trends. It’s a conservative industry in that sense. But our peers are asking us about net-zero, and there are lots of opportunities to re-align the design process and the developer-contractor relationship to make net-zero a market standard. As you look more broadly across the U.S., there are low-rise building types that could easily be net-zero: retail, office parks, and flex space, starting with the addition of solar panels. If developers and property owners of these buildings wanted to be net-zero, they could do it now profitably.

What is the District doing to support net-zero construction?

John:  DC government has done a really good job in pushing high-performance building forward. DCRA [District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] is looking at the net-zero code [Appendix Z], and they are bringing in experts to give lectures to industry about how this is done. DHCD [District of Columbia Department of Housing and Community Development], DMPED [Deputy Mayor’s Office for Planning and Economic Development] and DOEE [District of Columbia Department of Energy and the Environment] are working together to make net-zero happen.

Jessica: The most important support that we get from the District agencies is their willingness to think outside the box to consider solutions that they’ve never seen before. The reception to zero-energy is great. It can take a lot of time to convince a city’s permitting office that your design needs to be different than normal. Whereas in DC, we’ve gone in early to meet with DCRA and given presentations. We’ve previewed the unusual things we wanted to do, and they say, “It sounds good. Here’s the documents you need. Here’s the expectations. Here’s what you should be prepared for.” It’s clear that they want to see great buildings be built.

John: Two of our upcoming projects, Stack Eight and Cycle House, are competitive awards from city agencies. The city’s RFP process awards preference points to projects proposing LBC [Living Building Challenge], PH, and net-zero buildings. That’s a really big deal. The city has really pushed ultra-low energy buildings forward, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.

What do you see happening with net-zero development in the next 3-5 years?

Jessica:  In DC, it takes three years to get a project all the way through the design and construction process. If the timeline is pushed to 10 years, we’ll see a steady curve upward of interest for net-zero buildings.

Learn more about Flywheel Development and their latest projects on their website.