BY BRIAN LIBBY
On Saturday, August 27, Portland's already-packed roster of home tours will see a sizable new entrant. The Dwell Home Tours series, which has proven popular in a variety of cities, touches down in Portland with an impressive quintet of residences. If you've never been inside Allied Works' magnificent 2281 NW Glisan building, for example, it's more than worth a look. So too is the Fivesquare residence by Lever Architecture, which I wrote about for The New York Times last year. There are also intriguing projects from Olson Group Architects as well as Lisa McClellan and Hunter Williams.
The fifth house on the tour is one I visited a few weeks ago and quite liked: the Phoenix Passive House, designed and built by Scott Kosmecki and his Hinge Build Group.
As its name suggests, the house, which was built on spec and recently sold, is designed and constructed to meet the rigid energy-efficiency standards of the Passive House Institute US. For example, behind its exterior walls of Douglas fir reclaimed from the original house on the site siding is a robust double-stud wall construction. The triple-paned windows were framed with Oregon-grown FSC certified wood. I also enjoyed the rich array of salvaged wood on the inside, from white oak to more of the house's Doug fir. Reclaimed wood is used to clad a lower-ceilinged foyer, for example, which gives way to a higher-ceilinged living room and kitchen, as well as a wall of the kitchen itself.
The house is full of light but not glare. Dating back to the Northwest midcentury-modern houses of acclaimed architects like Pietro Belluschi, John Yeon, Saul Zaik and Van Evera Bailey, residential design has made ample use of large overhangs, which allow in lots of diffused light while strategically blocking out the direct sunlight that can overheat a home. Kosmecki's design goes one further than the usual overhangs coming off the roof to connect them at the front entrance to two walls of wood that extend past the front facade. It's aesthetically striking, especially as the natural wood contrasts with the white siding. Upstairs there is another clever design trick: a skylight shines light into two rooms at once thanks to a second interior skylight carved into a diagonal portion of the wall.
Although the Dwell tour includes residences by some of the city's most highly-acclaimed architects, Kosmecki has had a roundabout and more low-profile path to designing this house, although the results speak for themselves.
For nearly a decade in the 1990s, Kosmecki owned The Graphic Station, a graphic design business that eventually expanded into signage, the latter of which, to deal with installation, prompted him to get his general contractor's license, which in turn led to regular tenant improvement and construction jobs. "I really loved construction and architectural design far better than the graphic design and signage work I was doing at the time," he explains. So from 2000-2008, he ran his new business, Kosmecki Construction. But he also saw an opportunity with design. "We realized there was a need for better architectural design at the residential level," he says, noting that less than 10 percent of the single-family homes in America are designed by architects. We’d be redoing drawings we were given."
Kosmecki then took his business east, attending the University of North Carolina for a bachelor's degree in sculpture with a minor in urban design and planning. His travels continued, as he worked for a year to build an orphanage in Tanzania. "That was super fun," he says. "It was through the Open Architecture Network program started by Architecture for Humanity. I was looking in that region because my wife was starting a global health program though her residency program via Duke university. We got lucky to find a project in the same area for us both." He then returned to Oregon with his wife and enrolled at the University of Oregon to get a master's degree in architecture. But when he graduated, in 2012, "no one was hiring," Kosmecki remembers. Relocated to Portland, he spent the second half of the year making models for two firms, Architectural Prototypes and Hacker.
Eventually, Kosmecki found work at Aaron Faegre & Associates, but by this time he had developed an interest in passive house construction and become certified by the Passive House Institute US, prompting him to start Hinge Build Group, which could design and build passive houses for the Portland market. "There’s certainly a lot more projects happening and getting certified," he says. "I think they’re doubling every year. But I’m still surprised people don’t know about it. We had a lot of realtors come through that hadn’t heard of it before."
When an existing home in Northeast Portland became available, Kosmecki saw the opportunity to transform it. They decided to retain the foundation and carefully deconstruct most of the house so its materials could be re-used. "This house had been remodeled many times since it was first built," the designer-builder wrote in a blog post chronicling the construction. "Most of those times, not very well." But the raw materials, such as the Doug fir, were ideal.
As I write this post, today's forecast is for 100-degree temperatures. Kosmecki says the Phoenix Passive House has enough robust insulation, sealants and high-performance windows to keep the house cool inside, particularly if the exterior sun shades are engaged. But the house does include a mini-split heat pump with a heat recovery ventilator that provides heating and cooling.
"We definitely knew if any place would be receptive, Portland would be," Kosmecki says of the decision to build a passive house. "Rob Hawthorne [of PDX Living] had been doing this kind of energy-efficient home building for a few years so there was a market for it. I think it’s just the most ethical way to build in the 21st century. Without it, it doesn’t seem fitting for our times."
Kosmecki insists his passion for passive-house construction and the relative dearth of these houses coming to market drove him more than the chance to make a big profit. That said, he is happy with what the Phoenix Passive House sold for. "We got a sizable bump from the home being a Certified Passive House, more than if it was just built to typical code levels," he says. "It more than covered the cost difference and made for a far better building, which is really what we are always striving for."