Start with Passive House
Developed by German physicist Dr. Wolfgang Feist and Swedish professor Bo Adamson, the Passive House construction methodology has become a foundation for my architectural approach to sustainability. Radically energy efficient, economically advantageous, results-driven, and comfortable, it represents a proven bridge between our current climate crisis and a potentially sustainable future.
The essence of the method is this: an unusually high investment is made in the thermal performance of the building envelope – its exterior – top, bottom, and sides. That investment results in the corresponding reduction one would expect in energy used to heat and cool the building. However, if the thermal performance of the envelope is improved in a systematic manner and to a sufficient level, far beyond industry standard, one reaches a counter-intuitive and surprising intersection of both reduced construction cost and radically diminished long-term energy use. This is because the building becomes so good at trapping heat very little input is needed. The size and complexity of the mechanical equipment needed to provide conditioning and distribute it comfortably around the building is dramatically reduced. In some cases even eliminated. Which costs less. The lower equipment costs offset much of the added investment in the envelope. The result is is a high-performance building whose first costs are reasonable, but which uses an order of magnitude less energy to operate, for the lifetime of the building.
The benefits are proven, tangible, and hard to ignore. Operating costs and global warming footprint are slashed for the lifetime of the structure. Energy needs are brought down to levels that can be met by reasonably-sized and currently-available renewable sources like rooftop solar and bio-fuels, today. No waiting for technological silver bullets required. Nor is it dependent upon site or access to south sun. Interior comfort is increased. No more uncomfortable cold spots next to windows. The indoor environment is quiet and acoustically separated from the city outside. Fresh air is supplied throughout the building even when closed up during heating or cooling seasons. Energy used by ever-multiplying electronics is captured and transformed into a meaningful heat source. No more argument about going without. Even body heat becomes a valuable heat source. And aesthetically, the small size of the mechanical system is no longer an imposition the on the architecture of the building. Architecture is once again free to be an expression of structure and space rather than a cover for mechanical ducts and soffits.
Passive House is applicable to all building types. In addition to single-family homes and apartment buildings, there are now proven Passive House schools, high-rises, and office buildings. I have completed a passive house sound studio and am working on the renovation of a historic townhouse. There are nearly as many retrofits to existing buildings as new builds. It is not just for single family homes. The larger the building the better the surface-to-volume ratio of the exterior and the easier the physics get, to the point where investment in the building envelope is little different than for conventional construction.
In a time of ever-increasing environmental salesmanship and green-washing, Passive House stands nearly alone. There is no hiding behind life-cycle guesstimates or unconfirmed performance projections enabled by oversized mechanical systems that make sure nobody complains if those projections prove to be wrong. Passive Houses simply do not work if they don’t perform, and there are now tens of thousands of built, proven Passive Houses around the world with a demonstrated track record of benefit and success. I believe it is the most sensible platform from which to update traditional climate-aware building techniques, and the most compelling underpinning for a new, sustainable, modern architecture.
I discussed Passivehouse construction with Curtis Wayne over the course of two episodes of his radio show Burning Down the House:
Burning Down the House: Episode 59 – Passivhaus Continued.
Burning Down the House: Episode 58 – Passivhaus.