Opening Doors to Passive House in Wisconsin

Phius Alliance - Wisconsin partnered with Doors Open Milwaukee on a glorious sun-filled Saturday in October to showcase the only certified passive house in Eastern Wisconsin.

It was the first time a passive home was featured during Doors Open, a popular annual weekend event during which more than 170 buildings in and around Milwaukee open their doors to the public.

Tickets to tour the 1,950-square-foot passive home in Shorewood sold out weeks in advance, prompting tour organizers to increase initial attendance caps and demonstrating that interest in ultra-energy efficient home design is alive and well in metro Milwaukee.

The event also helped draw attention to the new Wisconsin chapter of PHAUS, which launched in early 2019 with hubs in Milwaukee and Madison and now hopes to build on that momentum — both literally and figuratively.

“We were surprised and thrilled to see that much interest in passive house design here,” says Sean Meyers, an architect and certified passive house consultant who heads up the new chapter. “We want to be a resource for passive home builders and homeowners in Wisconsin, but we can only do that if people know we exist.”

Domus Matris, which means “Mother’s House,” is one of only two certified PHIUS+ homes in Wisconsin; the other is located in the western part of the state.

Despite harsh Wisconsin winters, the home has no furnace. Aided by a mechanical heat pump, Domus Matris maximizes heat from the sun, interior appliances and even its occupants, and retains it through a super-tight building envelope that includes 24-inch-thick walls, triple-pane windows and an energy-recovery ventilator with a ground loop that supplies pre-tempered, clean air and manages humidity. Building materials for the home are non-toxic and recyclable, and the landscaping was designed to minimize rainwater runoff, all making Domus Matris a model of superior craftsmanship and sustainable living in suburban Milwaukee.

The well-crafted, meticulously air-sealed universal design and ADA-accessible home was built on a narrow urban lot, reclaimed after the original home on the site was destroyed by fire.

The project began as the vision of builder Tim Linn, architects Bruce Zahn and Tom Bassett-Dilley, and Linn’s mother, Jean, who owns Domus Matris (hence its name). Jean wanted to downsize from a larger family home to a more sustainable home and lifestyle, yet still have enough space to host gatherings for her large, extended family.

Juanita Ellias was brought in as the energy rater to ensure Domus Matris met the rigorous energy performance standards required for passive house certification, which it achieved in November 2017. The home rates a 4 on the federal HERS (Home Energy Rating System) index — a strikingly low number when compared with a standard new home’s rating of 100.

The team welcomes opportunities to share what they’ve learned from the project with other builders and students, and thereby encourage others to take on their own passive home-building projects.

Ellias, a PHAUS-WI board member, hopes Domus Matris also serves as an inspiration to those who may not be ready to go all in for passive house design, but want to take steps toward making their homes more sustainable and energy efficient.

“Our homes comprise one of the greatest sources of our individual energy usage, and about 40 percent of our carbon emissions,” she says. “It just makes sense that efforts to create sustainable communities and a sustainable environment start there.”

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— Susan Campbell, REALTOR® and PHAUS-WI member