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The JP Greenhouse: Looking Ahead from the Inside Out

Southside view of the newly renovated JP Greenhouse

Story by Aaron Devine, Photographs by Leise Jones

It’s been a long time coming, but the transformation of the abandoned Jack’s Store into a super-insulated, energy efficient home on the corner of Bourne and Catherine Streets in Jamaica Plain is complete. Earlier this month, Andrée Zaleska, Ken Ward, and their three children Kuba (age 11), Eli (9), and Simon (8) moved into the so-named ‘JP Greenhouse.’ But what really sets this home apart is that the family welcomes others to come by and learn about the ongoing experiment Zaleska calls “being an active witness to climate change.”

“We want to demonstrate a better way of living and be prepared for a world with fewer resources,” said Zaleska, who like Ward, has built environmental activism into both career and personal life. Zaleska is currently a community organizer with the Institute for Policy Studies in Boston; Ward is a climate activist, former Deputy Director of Greenpeace, and co-founder of GreenCorps and the National Environmental Law Center. When the couple wanted to build a sustainable, green home that was both affordable and aesthetically pleasing, they found few examples open to the public and none in New England. The JP Greenhouse will be—as it’s been since construction began—an inviting model for others to follow.

“The house will be an evolving demonstration of how we live,” said Zaleska. “We are constantly giving tours, showing the house to others who are interested in taking on similar projects of their own.”

The JP Greenhouse was built according to Passivhaus standards, meaning the interior temperature is maintained without heating or cooling systems; rather, its efficient design allows the house to heat itself with little more than the body energy of those inside or that of a few lightbulbs. The JP Greenhouse is the second such Passivhaus project undertaken by the Roxbury-based, design/build firm Placetailor, a company that specializes in creating super-insulated, sustainable homes.

Now that the family has moved in, the JP Greenhouse and its occupants begin the next phase: modeling sustainable living and providing a home for local organizing and education around green initiatives. The house will also serve as the unofficial hub for 350.org, a grassroots global movement dedicated to helping solve the climate crisis.

The JPGH sits on the corner of Catherine and Bourne Streets

To the older generation of neighbors, this welcoming corner locale was the site of Jack’s Store for most of their lives, a place to buy “Wonder bread and bologna,” said Zaleska, until it closed in mid-1970s. Years later, after the building had housed a family, a mysterious new owner took over the property and let it fall into disrepair.

“He owned many properties and rarely spent any time at the house,” said neighbor Peg Preble who has lived two doors down for the past 15 years. “One year, on a night when the temperature dropped to 20 below, a pipe broke and flooded the basement, spilling sheets of ice out the windows. The fire department came, shut off all the water and electricity, and boarded up the building. The next morning, I saw smoke coming from the chimney and thought, ‘Oh good, someone is there.’ Actually, the boiler had run dry and overheated. The firemen had to break back into the building. So the place wound up in pretty bad shape.”

Some neighbors hoped the ravaged building would be torn down, yet many stayed loyal to its history in the neighborhood. Despite the magnitude of their task when they purchased the property in July 2008, Zaleska and Ward knew the house still meant something to the community.

“We want to reclaim this area as a public space,” said Zaleska. “We will keep this front portion [site of the original storefront] open for the community as a public meeting place.”

“This is an interactive neighborhood with lots of sharing going on,” Preble said. “We have a community snow blower. I have keys to the neighbor’s house, in case I run out of milk. It’s a good place for the [JP Greenhouse].”

During the build, Zaleska and Ward kept the house open to visiting architects, activists, neighbors, students, and others curious to learn more about the work being done. As interest grew, so did a small army of volunteers eager to lend a hand. To date, over 600 people have signed up for the JP Greenhouse mailing list. During construction, the team was able to summon upwards of 30 to 40 volunteers when needed to help with tasks like clearing debris or putting up insulation.

Preble was drawn to the project, too, and provided her expertise as an electrician. To date, Preble has spent 80 hours rewiring the house “for cheap,” according to Zaleska.

“[As a Passivhaus], it was challenging to wire,” Preble said. “The walls are a foot thick, and you can’t put holes in them to run the wire through. [Placetailor] saves lumber in some places by making ‘toothpick walls,’ which are 2x4s sawed in half. But that’s too thin to run wire through, so we had to run it on the outside surface and protect it with pipe or wire mold. I’ve been an electrician for about 20 years and I learned a lot with this project.”

“I did it because I wanted to see the building rescued,” Preble said. “I knew [JP Greenhouse] was a gamble considering the history of the property. It may not have worked. But if people don’t take a chance, then nothing changes.”

What’s the impact of such widespread participation? As volunteers lend a hand, concepts like green building and sustainable living are quickly demystified. Zaleska and Ward hope the JP Greenhouse will inspire others to believe that they, too, can adopt green choices into their lifestyles. As Zaleska said: “This isn’t anything radical… We’re just super-insulating a home. Volunteers come here and see how it can be done.”

Nor is the Passivhaus building standard particularly revolutionary, despite being little known. Declan Keefe is one of the dually talented designer-builders on the Placetailor crew that began renovation of the house in May 2009. At age 21, he’s now helped produce two Passivhaus buildings in Boston: the JP Greenhouse and another home in Roxbury.

“The truth is, any construction crew can do this,” said Keefe. “With respect to the technical skills, there’s nothing new here. [The other Placetailor builders and I] didn’t even realize Passivhaus was so innovative because energy efficient homes just make sense.”

The walls of the JP Greenhouse are insulated with eleven inches of cellulose (shredded newspaper) and another two inches of recycled foam board donated by a Western Massachusetts school. Insulated walls in a standard home are typically only five inches thick.

Sunlight pouring in from the south-facing windows

A continuous air seal throughout the house keeps heat from escaping and cold air from entering, though fresh air does circulate through an HRV (heat recovery ventilator), which pulls heat from the outside air—even on days as cold as 4° Fahrenheit—and circulates it through the house. In warm weather, the windows can be opened at any time.

Since the JP Greenhouse gets maximum sunlight from the south, airtight, triple-glazed windows cover the southern walls, spilling natural light into the first-floor community gathering space and family room. Placetailor builders were resistant to install any windows on the north side, but Zaleska and Ward insisted on proving that green can be aesthetically pleasing, too. There are five north side windows, significantly smaller than their southern counterparts.

“The strict requirements of Passivhaus can turn people off,” Zaleska said. “I think it’s great to shoot for [Passivhaus certification], but it’s also just a label. Passivhaus doesn’t mean anything to most people, whereas not having to heat a home is impressive.”

What also impresses is that Zaleska and Ward managed to build the JP Greenhouse on a modest budget and with surprisingly little difficulty.

“We hardly had any problems meeting standards or regulations at a state level,” Zaleska said. “The builders think our public image helped us get things through. We did, however, expect state funding and some of that green money stimulus. We tried to get it, but we haven’t been able to thus far. It makes me wonder if that money is really as available as they say, although perhaps our activist past is a barrier.”

After renting a house just a short walk away during the long construction process, Zaleska and her family are glad to finally be home. The children are especially glad to have their own rooms. For Zaleska, the completed house speaks to the quality of her relationship with Ward.

Kuba Zalesky, Andrée Collier Zaleska, Simon Zalesky, Ken Ward, Eli Ward, and Lucas Wikstrom-Ward (L to R)

“In most relationships it’s hard to get both partners to agree,” said Zaleska. “But Ken and I have the same view of where the world is going. We put most of our savings into that house. Even as the economy fell, we didn’t give up, because honestly, we could think of no better investment. We’ve gone to the extreme [with Passivhaus]. But anyone can insulate from the outside. It’s amazing what can be done.”

At last, Zaleska and her family are looking ahead from the inside out. Envisioning an ideal day in the future life of the JP Greenhouse, Zaleska said:

“I would love to spend half my time at a job and the other half visible at the house, either puttering around in the garden or doing home-schooling, leading tours or workshops, working with volunteers. We’ll have community composting where neighbors can bring scraps and get soil. I’d like for the place to be bustling.”

Learn more about Andrée Zaleska, Ken Ward, and the JP Greenhouse at their website: JPGreenHouse.org.

Aaron Devine is a freelance writer and NPi contributor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Visit his website at www.aarondevine.net.

Photographs by Leise Jones. View more of her work on her website at www.leisejones.com.

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