Corvallis Goes Passive for Sustainable Houses

Correction: In our original article, it was stated that Wendy Woods is the chair of the Sustainability Coalition. She is actually the chair of the Coalition’s Sustainable Housing Work Group of the Housing Action Team. This has been corrected. Additionally, if it was implied by our headline that perhaps the Coalition is passive about their work, please know that it is evident that they are rigorous and dedicated to creating passive housing, and this play on words was perhaps poorly thought out. Our apologies.

In February, The Sustainability Coalition introduced a new project to support sustainable housing. The focus of the project was clinics to retrofit existing houses to become more energy efficient.  

In their press release, the Coalition said: “Making homes and other buildings more energy efficient and producing more of our electricity locally are essential for a sustainable future. According to the US Green Building Council, energy used in buildings accounts for approximately 40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. Solar photovoltaics are a key component of sustainable housing, as they allow homes to become energy sources rather than energy sinks. In addition, conversion from natural gas heating to ductless heat pump electric heating and heat pump water heating can cut heating bills significantly.”  

There are several retrofit houses in Corvallis. Some can be identified with lawn signs reading, “Solar Powered All Electric Home. Save Money! Save the Planet!”  

Successful Local Experiments 

Mike Beilstein has been a member of the Sustainable Housing Work Group for two years. He retrofit his home a decade ago, and his experience is the basis of the Coalition’s press release.  

“Several years ago, Beilstein invested about $30,000 in energy upgrades, including insulation, double pane windows, replacement of a gas furnace with a ductless heat pump, and installation of roof top solar panels,” the press release reads. “After $10,000 in offsets from rebates and tax incentives that were available at the time, the final cost to Beilstein was around $20,000.”  

With such great savings, what does Beilstein pay now?   

“The photovoltaic generation completely substituted both electric and natural gas use. Beilstein disconnected from natural gas and now pays only the hook-up charge for electricity, about $10 per month.  Savings are about $1200 per year, equivalent to a 6 % annual return on the investment of $20,000.”  

While the tax and rebate incentives vary from year to year, meaning your costs may differ, Beilstein’s investment into his house will pay for itself in less than 17 years.  

Beilstein reported reduced need for energy due to insulation improvements; and the heat pump providing cooling or heating is quieter than the forced air gas furnace. His photovoltaic system produces a surplus of about 500 Kilowatt-hours annually which amounts to $50 and is going back to the grid for someone else to use it.  

Wendy Woods, who chairs the Coalition’s Sustainable Housing Work Group of the Housing Action Team spent the past three years studying “Passive House” building methods and experimenting with retrofitting her own home to become a passive house.    

“I am collecting data on the reduction in KWHs used by my house after the retrofit compared with before,” she said. “So far, I have reduced KWHs used by 75% compared with before, and more retrofit projects are in the works for this summer that ought to further decrease the KWHs used.  It is, I believe, the housing of the future and an important part of the solution to Climate driven warming.”   

Passive House Principles (PHP)  

The Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) is a non-profit organization promoting energy conservation. On their website, one can find a wealth of information on “passive building principles that offer the best path to Net Zero and Net Positive building by minimizing the load that renewables are required to provide.”    

Designing or retrofitting a house to optimize the energy losses and gains is the main idea. A house built according to these principles provides resilience to the elements, “unmatched air quality,” and “unmatched comfort” for the occupants.  

“Enveloping” the house is providing adequate insulation in walls, floors, and attics. It employs high-performance windows and doors to utilize solar energy during cold periods and overhangs to prevent direct heating in the summer. The design also balances the heat through the building and removes excess moisture. Location of the house, that is topography and climate, play a crucial role in selecting the features that will best serve the house and placing the photovoltaic panels for best results.   

Local Building Resource  

Carl Christianson, the owner of G. Christianson Construction in Corvallis, has expertise in the matter. The Company takes on full conversion or partial conversion projects.  

“Our passion lies in the Passive House concepts to maximize your home’s comfort,” Christianson said. “We engineer and model your home to use 70% less energy than a code built home.”   

Christianson’s father built houses in Alaska, where passive building was a worthwhile investment – both for thermal comfort, air quality, fuel costs, and the environment. Since 1986, the company has been in Corvallis building amazing homes that can be Net-Zero, where we can reduce the energy use to the point where we can provide the annual power the home and your (future) electric vehicles need with solar panels on the roof.”  

Christianson said, “I feel like our climate crisis demands a big response, and our homes have been one of our biggest sources of carbon pollution.”  

Where to Begin  

A great place to begin converting is with a clinic by Nancy Evenson, a retired architect who fell in love with the idea of sustainable housing. After having studied the topic, and now armed with expertise in the field, she convenes workshops for individuals and groups.   

To make a point, Everson begins with asking the homeowners to account for their current expenses of gas/electric. During the course, homeowners learn about enveloping the house, choosing efficient heating/cooling equipment such as a heat pump, selecting appliances, and controlling ways of generating one’s own energy.   

One of the most surprising and important details Evenson presents is data from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It explains why generating fossil-fuel based energy, is extremely inefficient. Her presentation is tailored to customers of local electric and gas providers.  

You can email her to set up a FREE clinic at or contact her via, where you can also request a yard sign advertising your houses’ energy efficiency.  

 By Joanna Rosinska 

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