Laura Nettleton
Laura Nettleton

When Laura Nettleton found a mouse nest while cleaning out her tool shed, she didn’t freak out. Instead, she reflected on how analogous it was to her work at Thoughtful Balance, a Pittsburgh-based architectural firm she co-founded in 2006 with Michael Whartnaby.

“It’s a super-insulated small space heated by its occupants,” she says, relating the nest to the firm’s focus on sustainable projects. “When it gets too hot, they cut a hole in it to vent it with fresh air, then close it back up. It’s not that different from what we’re doing.”

What she’s doing right now is putting the finishing touches on western Pennsylvania’s first Passive House, a model she scaled back from a 2,300-square-foot model originally proposed for a local affordable housing project to a 1,700-square-foot version with the same three bedroom/two bathroom plan, but with a far higher level of finish and built-in energy efficiencies.

“Our goal was to show how to provide a smaller space that’s better quality,” she says, noting the hardwood floors, ceramic-tiled showers, and wood windows and doors she specified for the same cost as the larger, less-appointed option—upgrades afforded mostly by clipping 600 square feet (or about $9,000 in built costs) off the footprint. “These finishes are more durable and cost less to maintain.”

Meanwhile, the home’s passive energy-saving design and construction will drive down the heating and cooling load to about $20 a month—further helping ensure sustainable affordability for the community’s low-income households.

In fact, the great thing about Passive House, she says, is what the name implies: A relatively low-tech, hands-off approach to a high level of energy efficiency. “Saving energy does require some level of education, but if [the owners] understand the principles, they’ll be fine,” she says. “I think everyone is going to have to become more aware of how our environment works as a prerequisite for living in the next decade and century.”

Nettleton hopes that the Passive House prototype not only serves its eventual owners and others in the enclave, but also provides a model to the housing industry that sustainability doesn’t have to come at a high cost. “It raises the bar of expectations of what people can have at what price,” she says. “The bar isn’t being established only by projects that have money.”

For more information about the Pittsburgh Passive House, go to: