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At first glance a pair of side-by-side apartment buildings slated to be built on an industrial site in northeast Minneapolis look nearly identical. They are not.

One building will be built to conventional construction specifications. The other will be extra energy-efficient and equipped with a sophisticated ventilation system.

The 118-unit Hook & Ladder plan was conceived as a first-of-its-kind demonstration project that will showcase Passive House construction techniques in multifamily construction and target one of the most underserved segments of the market: renters who earn less than 60 percent of the area median income.

The project is aimed at reducing carbon emissions and showing lenders, property owners and underwriters that the additional cost of the Passive House approach can dramatically reduce operating costs and make rental apartments more appealing.

"When there's something new, lenders and investors want you to prove it," said Becky Landon, an affordable housing consultant based in the Twin Cities who formed a local joint venture with California-based Newport Partners to develop Hook & Ladder.

The Passive House standards being used on the project were inspired by techniques that were developed decades ago at the Passivhaus Institute in Germany and have been used all across the world. In the U.S., the standards have been established by the Passive House Institute U.S., a nonprofit association that supports a network of passive building communities and professionals.

While those standards have been applied to thousands of new houses and remodeling projects across North America, Hook & Ladder will be the first multifamily building in the state to employ such techniques.

Landon said there is growing interest in learning how to reduce the cost of operating rental houses and making the spaces healthier to occupy. Hook & Ladder will have a tighter building envelope and have more energy-efficient windows, and building scientists will conduct regular performance tests to compare the energy consumption in both buildings.

"We'll be able to track the energy use to show that Passive House does consume significantly less energy and that will be helpful for us and other developers who are making the case to lenders and investors who are underwriting these expenses," Landon said.

Such projects are also aimed at giving renters a housing option that is widely available to homeowners. A second Twin Cities Passive House apartment building is being planned by Sherman Associates at its West Side Flats project along the Mississippi River in downtown St. Paul.

That project is part of a broader effort by the company to offer renters the same kinds of energy-efficient options that homeowners get. The company is also developing its own solar garden, an array of solar panels to gather energy to offset the consumption at other apartments it owns.

"Determining how to reduce our carbon footprint is a priority for us," said George Sherman, principal at Sherman Associates. "It's part of our solar garden strategy."

Kim Bretheim of LHB Architects in Minneapolis is leading the Hook & Ladder design team. He said that because the overarching goal of the project is to reduce carbon emissions, the team is considering a broad range of ways to save energy.

He expects the Passive House building to use at least one-third less energy than the one being built to conventional Green Communities standards, but because the rents at Hook & Ladder are based on a government formula the renters in the conventional and Passive House buildings will pay about the same amount.

Because the project is being built in the heart of a working-class neighborhood just a few minutes from downtown Minneapolis, the conventional building will be located on the east side of the site and just three stories tall so as not to tower above the adjacent houses.

The five-story Passive House section will be on the west side of the lot, which is adjacent to a rail line. In addition to energy savings, the energy-efficient windows used in the Passive House component of the project offer another benefit: They will help eliminate some of the noise from the adjacent train tracks.

Community space is also a priority, so between the two buildings there will be shared amenities, including a courtyard and children's outdoor play areas. A public pathway through the development, which is along Jefferson Street, will connect 23rd and 24th avenues NE.

Hook & Ladder is still moving through the municipal approvals process, with construction expected to start next summer.

Landon said the idea for the project was completely grass roots. She had heard about the development site and knew that the Holland neighborhood group and the City Council member, Kevin Reich, who represents the area are already advocates of forward-thinking development.

The Hook & Ladder site, for example, is just a couple blocks from Edison High School, which has a cutting-edge stormwater management system and will also have a "solar canopy" that is capable of generating nearly half of the energy consumed by the school. The neighborhood is also getting a new Minneapolis Public Works storage and maintenance facility that will be built to LEED standards and include a stormwater capture systems, recycled building materials, solar panels, rain gardens and pollinator beds.

"There are people in the neighborhood who really understand Passive House," Landon said. "They really wanted a project that pushes the envelope in sustainability."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376