Every Passive House Needs an Active Team

In March 2017, FXCollaborative (previously FXFOWLE) released a study that investigated whether it’s feasible to design high-rise residential buildings in NYC to the Passive House Standard. Spoiler alert—it is! But despite the many demonstrable benefits of Passive House, and the relative ease of buildings in NYC to be designed this way, we are still not witnessing an uptick in adoption of the building standard.

Are Passive House projects more challenging? And in which ways? What needs to be done to encourage the adoption of Passive House? On March 29th, Urban Green Council’s panel discussion—moderated by Ken Levenson of 475 High Performance Building Supply—shifted the spotlight away from design feasibility and toward the barriers hindering implementation.

But first, let’s get back to basics. What is Passive House?

Developed in the 1990s by the Passive House Institute of Darmstadt Germany, this international building standard applies the following five basic fundamentals: a thermal-bridge-free design, an airtight enclosure, thermal insulation, high-performance windows and ventilation with heat recovery. When these five principles work in concert, post-occupancy studies have shown that buildings have much lower energy demand, high indoor air quality, thermal comfort and better acoustics. The building standard can be applied worldwide; there are existing projects in China, Japan, Australia, Belgium, Austria, Mexico, and even Antarctica!

Next stop, New York City.

The city has some noteworthy Passive House buildings, the latest being The House at Cornell Tech—the world’s tallest Passive House. The building has 350 units that will be used by both students and faculty at the university. If you think all Passive House buildings are new, shiny and modern, you are in for a surprise. Some of the Passive House retrofits in NYC include brownstones and a landmark building; these important projects serve as examples of how the standard can be achieved in existing buildings.

Panelist Ryan Cassidy, RiseBoro’s Director of Properties, thoughtfully shared why his department builds to passive—passive building allows the organization to meet its triple bottom line for affordable projects. Decreased operating expenses and improvement in public health outcomes are just a few of the key advantages of Passive House that cater to Riseboro’s model.

However, these benefits are not without initial challenges. Cassidy noted the extensive amount of work performed by the architect to ensure that details were executed accurately by the contractors and to provide guidance where necessary on-site. His comments were echoed by the other panelists (Ilana Judah of FXCollaborative Architects and James Hannah of Bright Power), who stressed the importance of communication and education among project team members. On some projects, the contractors go to great lengths, conducting training on and off-site, to ensure that the building is airtight and the integrity of the vapor barrier is maintained.

The adoption of Passive House at scale will definitely require greater knowledge and skills across the entire industry. And building to the Passive House standard demands quality assurance beyond typical construction. As noted by the panelists, the design and construction team should be trained in the fundamentals of passive house building and design. They must actively participate in knowledge-sharing within the community and encourage project teams to make “new mistakes.” Only then will we see a higher rate of adoption of the building standard.

About the authors

Alia’a Harun
Alia’a Harun is a manager at NYPH, organizing professional development and other education opportunities in New York on high performance building/passive house development. She is currently also a LEED Analyst at e4, inc, a green building consulting firm in NYC.