Red Hook Passive House

Residing in Brooklyn’s decaying shipyard district, this modest renovation is to be the first mixed-use building in NYC to meet the most rigorous low-energy construction certification in the world – the Passive House Certification from the PHI in Darmstadt, Germany. Working within the significant constraints of re-using an existing NYC building, when complete it will use radically less energy – 90% less – than a new building built to code. This is accomplished through intensive air-sealing, with fresh air provided by a dedicated heat-exchanging ventilator, uninterrupted and thicker insulation than usual, and extremely high-performing windows and doors. In exchange, the building will be heated and cooled by a tiny air-to-air heat pump. The building’s energy use will be reduced enough to be met entirety by a rooftop solar array, making the project “net-zero” within a dense urban site. It will be quiet and comfortable, with fresh air year round, and will cost the owner almost nothing to use.

The building is being renovated to house a sound studio dedicated to electronic music and digital sound art, with a focus on vintage electronics from the 1980’s. As such, it is a place to make an essential human expression, electronically, in a new kind of harmony with nature. This music will literally be made from the sun. And it will have a place – it will be made and played and listened to here, in this building – whether or not the rest of the world has power.

More about Passive House:
Central to the Passive House construction method is the performance of the building envelope – any part of the building that separates the interior “conditioned” spaces from the exterior – typically including the walls, floors, and roof. Together, the way these elements are built is transformed to trap heat (or cool) far more effectively than conventional construction. Its like the difference between a paper coffee cup and a thermos. This is surprisingly easy and cost-effective to achieve, with first costs for additional work largely offset by a smaller and simpler heating system. Much of what is required is a change in habit, in particular with two critical areas: installation of the insulation without the usual interruptions, and the rigorous reduction of air leakage out of the building. Conventionally, both of these are treated cursorily at best, then concealed behind finish materials. The mechanical system is made large enough to compensate. Passive House reverses this priority.

Execution of these two elements cannot be shortcut, as the building will not function if they are. A collaborative process and careful work during construction are emblematic of a Passive House, using frequent testing to find and fix any gaps and to confirm performance before they are covered with expensive finishes.

This work is frequently the most unusual aspect of the method, but it is hidden in the finished project. Below are construction photographs of how we accomplished this for this project.