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Granite Geek: Is carbon-negative housing possible?

  • Jacobson Farm plan TransFarmation—Courtesy

Granite Geek
Published: 7/22/2019 3:36:16 PM

The world is facing a whole host of environmental problems and tackling them one at a time might not work. So let’s tackle all of them at once.

That’s a slight exaggeration – but only slight – of the thinking behind a housing development being proposed down in Amherst. It’s an environmentally oriented project that contains so many interconnected ideas it’s in a category without a real name yet, although there are some ponderous possibilities.

“There’s a ‘regenerative neighborhood’ that has been permitted in Peterborough, and an ‘agri-hood’ in South Burlington, Vt.,” said R. Carter Scott, president of a development firm in Brookline called TransFarmation. “I think we can do it here.”

Roughly, the plan is this: Buy 130 acres of land long farmed by the Jacobson family and on part of it build as many as three dozen housing units, a mix of standalone homes and condos and apartments, most of reasonable size so they’re not too expensive. Make them so energy-efficient that a community solar farm and individual solar systems can cover all their needs. That includes heating via electric heat pumps, meaning no heating oil or propane gets burned, with enough left over to power electric vehicles so no gasoline need be used. Maybe even have a little extra electricity for the grid.

Also, make sure to build the houses in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from construction, such as cutting back or eliminating concrete – a huge emitter of carbon dioxide – in foundations.

Then wrap a farm around the whole thing, since we’re dealing with property that has been farmed for more than a century. Connect them via nonprofit or other financial systems so the farm creates a level of food security for the community while the community creates a level of financing security for the farm, perhaps via a transfer fee whenever any of the housing is sold. And don’t make it just any farm, but one that uses methods which sink carbon into the soil, combating the greenhouse effect.

The net result could be a carbon-neutral, or even carbon-negative if you squint, agri-passive-regenerative-net-zero thingmajig. Which would be very neat, and valuable.

It sounds almost too good to be true, and it certainly faces big obstacles. Some of them are financial, some technical and some societal. News reports, for example, say some nearby folks in this well-off town are expressing concern, including fears that it might erode the resale value of houses in the area that have already been built. And even if an argument can be made that these homes will save money in the long term because of lower energy costs, they could cost more per square-foot than traditional construction. If history is any guide, that could turn away a lot of buyers.

But Scott, who has been building net-zero homes – habitable buildings that create as much energy as they consume – in Massachusetts for years, thinks it is worth trying.

“It’s no different from taking a house down to net-zero. That was cutting edge (in 2012),” he said. “In 2005, saving 50% of a home’s energy was cutting edge. Fourteen years later, we’ve got a much higher bar, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”

The incentive, of course, is the climate emergency, an over-the-top term that, unfortunately, has become valid. Modern industrial society isn’t going to stop so if we want a livable planet we need to figure out better ways for it to exist. Not just slightly better ways, like switching your long commute to a Prius, but radically better ways, like working remotely from home.

We aren’t doing enough of these radical improvements. I, for example, rarely work from home even when it’s feasible because it doesn’t fit a lifetime of habit: Being in a newsroom is fun. Shame on me.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Jacobson Farm project is that vague term “resiliency,” the idea that the people living there will be able to cope with the increasing number and strength of weather problems coming our way. Passive house construction, which reduces the amount of energy that is needed to cool or heat a building, is important because it makes it easier to ride out periods when the electricity is out, said Scott. Batteries will help, too. And most importantly, those very difficult lifestyle changes must be part of the mix. Technology alone isn’t going to save us without sacrifice, alas.

Scott says a couple of factors make this development more likely. One is the landowners: The property has been in the Jacobson family for a century, and the late Robert Jacobson set up a trust to handle it. His daughter, Laurie Stevens, is the trustee.

“Her dad wanted to preserve open space and preserve the farmland – Laurie wants to follow his wishes,” Scott said. There will be a purchase-and-sale if the project can go through, but the financial details are not being released.

The other factor, Scott said, are the rules that say what can, and cannot, be built in this area.

“The zoning in Amherst encourages this,” Scott said. “It’s very good, I’m very impressed.”

Zoning rules are created by communities over time to shape how they look and function, and they can have unintended consequences. The common two-acre minimums, for example, spread housing out, creating car-dependent sprawl, and discourage affordable housing because the only way to recoup all that land cost is to build a McMansion. Many towns are starting to look at alternatives, allowing more flexible approaches for denser development.

Even if the Jacobson Farm does everything that Scott hopes, it will be hard to duplicate in other new developments and exponentially harder to duplicate by refits to existing developments. But there’s no time to waste; we’ve got to start doing everything we can, now.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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