NORTHAMPTON — When Bryn Baker was teaching English in Japan during the 1980s, he heard a story about a colleague who witnessed a student buying an 8-ounce can of soda from a vending machine, even though a 12-ounce soda cost the same price. When the colleague asked him, in confusion, why he did not want to get an additional 50% for his money, the student replied: “Well, I am not that thirsty.”
Now an architect with Simple City Studio in Amherst, Baker has taken the same philosophical approach to help design and build three new affordable homes for Habitat for Humanity at 781 Burts Pit Road, all of which feature an innovative new water heating system that only has about Thousands of other homes across the country.
“It’s the idea of how thirsty do we get? How much space do we really need? How much energy do we really need to heat us up? That’s where it all started,” Baker said.
Habitat for Humanity, in partnership with the sustainability group Local Energy Advocates of Western Mass., recently held an open house at a home to showcase the homes’ solar heat pump system for hot water. All-electric homes range from 800 to 1,000 square feet in size, are one story, and have no basement, making a traditional electric water heater impractical.
“Hot water heaters are annoying, and for high-efficiency homes or homes without a basement or cooling space, they can be very harmful,” said Bruce Dyke, owner of New England Solar Hot Water, which provided the heat pumps. “I’m certainly not here to discredit this technology or say it’s a magic cure that replaces everything, everywhere. But it does it here.”
According to Dyke’s website, solar-powered heat pumps work in a similar way to refrigerators. But while a refrigerator uses a circulation plate to keep things cool, heat pumps use a plate to extract heat and keep things warm. The panels are also placed outside the house to absorb sunlight, which means they take up less space inside the house.
The homes at 781 Burts Pit Road were the result of Northampton’s “Just Big Enough” competition in 2018, in which the city challenged teams of architects to design housing that is both affordable and sustainable in how it consumes energy, a competition that Simple City Studio won. Home construction began in 2021 and construction finished this fall.
Originally, homes would have used the more common electric water heaters. But a local energy advocacy group felt there had to be a better way, and after doing some research suggested using solar heat pumps.
“We formed this organization nearly two years ago, and our goal is to help our municipalities reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Adele Franks, who serves as the group’s treasurer and spoke at the town hall meeting. “We had some really big ideas, and we still do, but we decided to start with some small projects. This is one of them.”
The homes are just one example of efforts being made across Northampton to create more sustainable living environments as the city looks to achieve net zero carbon emissions. In September, the City Council became the first in the state to approve a new specialized building code, called for by the state, with stricter sustainability requirements for future building development.
Habitat for Humanity has found residents for the three homes who are expected to move in before the end of November, according to Executive Director Megan McDonough. The organization is also building three additional homes down the street at 278 Burts Pit Road that are expected to be completed next spring or summer.
These larger homes will use more traditional water heaters, McDonough said, but she added that the organization may use a solar heat pump system in future projects.
“We’ll see how the homeowners like them,” she said.
Alexander MacDougall can be reached at email@example.com.