Passive House Multi-Family: Orchards at Orenco

Constructing A Model for Ultra Energy Efficient, Affordable Housing in the Pacific Northwest

Orchards Blog 1

In Portland’s western suburbs, a structure is on the rise that could change the face of affordable housing in America. The Orchards at Orenco will provide 57 units of workforce housing, situated adjacent to the Orenco Station light rail transit stop in Hillsboro, Oregon. The Orchards project has been conceived by its sponsor – REACH Community Development – to achieve Passive House certification, a highly rigorous energy efficiency standard. When complete in Spring 2015, Orchards at Orenco is slated to be the largest Passive House certified building in North America.


Image courtesy of William Wilson Architects

REACH’s Vision for The Orchards

The Passive House certified building stock in the United States is no longer limited to single family housing. With a drive to provide housing that is affordable in the deepest sense of the word, non-profit housing developers have recently started to pursue the benefits of ultra low energy building strategies in multi-unit residential buildings. REACH Community Development, based in Portland, Oregon, is among a network of non-profit developers dedicated to lowering overall living costs for the residents in their housing. In REACH’s view, delivering truly affordable housing means delivering housing with low monthly rents, but it also means the housing should place a minimal burden on the finances of low income families by keeping utility costs as low as possible. Additionally, housing should ideally be located in close proximity to regional transit lines to provide residents with accessible, low cost travel options. This combination of increased mobility, low rents, and minimal utility costs has the potential to provide low income families with more practical access to school and work opportunities while helping to keep monthly expenses manageable.

In 2010, REACH began an update of the 5 Year Strategic Plan that guides their organization’s work. When finalized, the plan included a goal to achieve Passive House certification on a new development by 2015. The first phase of The Orchards was selected to target Passive House certification. The fully realized Orchards at Orenco development is envisioned to provide 150 units of workforce and family housing, built in three phases.

The Orchards at Orenco will be built in three phases in Hillsboro, Oregon. Image courtesy of Ankrom Moisan Architects

Why Passive House?

For more than a decade, REACH has been at the leading edge of energy efficient housing development, incorporating a wide variety of efficiency measures into projects, both new construction and rehabilitation. Energy efficiency delivers an additional level of affordability to low income families, by helping to reduce their utility costs. REACH has continued to seek out the best design and construction methods to create ever more efficient housing. As the most energy efficient standard in the world, Passive House represents the highest level of design and construction that can be applied to dramatically reduce the energy use of buildings. REACH committed to pursue Passive House certification on the first phase of the Orchards in order to fully explore the benefits and challenges of applying this rigorous standard to affordable housing development. When construction is complete and the building is operational, it will provide a living example of the benefits of utility cost reduction while also shedding light on the qualitative improvements to the interior environment that are an integral to the Passive House concept.

Image courtesy of William Wilson Architects

WALSH’s Role

Walsh Construction Co. was selected by REACH as general contractor for the Orchards in 2011. We’ve been at the table with REACH and the design team from project inception, working together in a highly collaborative effort to help put the project together. We owe REACH a huge thanks for allowing our team to be involved in this truly visionary endeavor. We’ve given a lot of energy to the team and, in turn, we’ve learned a great deal about high performance housing and the Passive House standard. And we’ve had a lot of fun along the way.

Construction began this past June, and a great deal has happened at the site since then. More is soon to occur before the project’s scheduled completion in May of next year. Over the next six months, we plan to share stories of the construction process, including successes, and some of the significant challenges we’ve encountered along the way. Even failures, because they do happen! We hope this information sharing is helpful for other owners, designers and builders who are interested to bring Passive House and/or other ultra low energy concepts to multi-unit residential buildings in the future. Please check back for more information on our website (