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How one housing project in Newton may change the way we think about building green

Massive apartment complex along Needham Street would be the largest so-called passive house residential project in the country

Part of an 800-unit apartment complex that's starting construction in Newton.Northland

An 800-unit apartment complex getting underway in Newton Upper Falls will be one of a kind.

The project on 22 acres along Needham Street, known as Northland Newton Development, will be a 13-building, all-electric housing project built under the “passive house” building standard — using construction methods to maximize energy efficiency to the point where tenants pay no heating or cooling bills.

Experts say passive house represents a massive step forward in green building. And according to the developers, there is no other passive house project this big in the country.

“We wanted this to be a legacy project to set a lot of standards,” said Northland vice president Kent Gonzales. “Once we learned about passive house and the benefits of it, we really felt like we needed to learn more about it and incorporate it.”

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Here’s what that looks like: sophisticated insulation mechanisms to make sure the indoor space stays cool when it’s hot outside, and warm when it’s cold outside — without a traditional HVAC system. And specific types of windows and ventilation systems to make sure indoor spaces maintain good air quality and don’t heat up from the sun.

It’s complicated work, requiring strong technical knowledge and advanced understanding of energy-efficient designs; developers, architects, and contractors need to work together closely. Meanwhile, it’s a relatively new approach to building, with few projects undertaken yet at this scale. There aren’t many contractors who understand it all, said Beverly Craig from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

“Any time you make huge changes, you need to bring a lot of people along in education,” she said. “That’s true for building green as well.”

Part of the Northland Newton DevelopmentNorthland

Which is why Northland Newton is a big deal. It will be a big, long-running project that will help show people how it’s done.

“The biggest obstacle to building like this is the inertia of the industry,” said Ken Levenson from the Passive House Network, an education advocacy group. “Even if they may intellectually understand this is a better way to go, it’s hard to change. Projects like this demonstrate what the possibilities are and will help the build the momentum we need desperately to get past this inertia.”

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It’ll also provide a test case for the economics of building passive house projects at scale.

A report published by the Passive House Network this week states that the Northland building will cut energy utility costs by 50 to 70 percent compared with the average cost of utilities for new residents. In fact, tenants will most likely not have any heating or cooling bills at all. The project will also include 140 units of affordable housing, as required by Newton mandates for affordable units in new buildings.

What’s interesting is that the massive project wasn’t initially supposed to be a passive house development. Community members from Green Newton, a local environmental group, approached Northland during its planning stage to propose that the new buildings be built under passive house energy efficient standards.

Dan Ruben, chair of Green Newton and a member of the Building Standards Committee recalls proposing the passive house standard to the developers.

“I didn’t imagine that developers would listen,” Ruben said. “It’s to the credit of Northland that we made a proposal to them in a way they’ve never built before.”

Part of an 800-unit apartment complex being developed in Newton.Northland

Indeed, Northland — a Newton-based developer that operates 26,000 apartments nationwide — had never worked on a passive house project before the Newton development.

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To convince Northland, Green Newton showed the developers where state incentives to build passive house could be found, introduced them to other passive house buildings in Massachusetts, and told them where trainings were available to help workers learn how to build under passive house standards. Green Newton also showed Northland that the cost differential wasn’t so big — adding maybe 3 to 4 percent to the overall project costs, money that will be recouped in lower utility costs.

Some of those extra costs go toward training construction workers and architects on the new standards, said Peter Standish, senior vice president of development at Northland. The more projects they do, the lower those costs will get.

“Some of the premium that you incur building the passive house standard is the learning curve and having contractors and subcontractors really understanding the process,” Standish said. “As it gets to scale, you will realize the efficiencies that will then contain the premium costs.”

The development, which is expected to cost roughly $1 billion, was approved by the Newton City Council in 2020. From there, Northland completed the design for all 13 buildings and demolished the existing buildings in the area over the next two years. It began construction last year and is currently installing utilities and excavating a foundation. Rents haven’t yet been set, but a Northland spokesperson said the units that are not set aside as affordable housing would be leased at market rates.

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“The many green friendly elements of this project can serve as a template here and across our Commonwealth,” Ruthanne Fuller, mayor of Newton, wrote in an email to the Globe. “As we approve new buildings that will serve Newtonians for decades to come, we are working to embrace climate friendly practices to protect the future for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.”

Ruben, from Green Newton, said that Newton hopes to be a trendsetter for green building.

“This is big, this is certainly amongst the biggest in the world,” he said. “There is a green building movement and we want to set a great example.”

The housing development will replace old warehouses on a 22-acre site in Newton Upper Falls.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Aruni Soni can be reached at aruni.soni@globe.com. Follow her @AruniSoni.