Scaling Passive House: Big Buildings, Small Details

If Dustin Hoffman’s young and confused character in 1967’s The Graduate had been an aspiring architect, the advice he so famously received (“One word: Plastics.”) would surely have been “Passive House.” The advanced building standard continues to capture the hearts and minds of the NYC green building community, with 200 people jostling to hear Günter Lang from Austria in a presentation jointly sponsored by Urban Green, AIANY, and New York Passive House.

Lang channeled another famously brief meme multiple times during his talk: “Just do it.” He presented slide after slide showing European Passive House examples from just about every building sector, including large housing projects, commercial offices, and schools. Both new and existing buildings have met the standard, and Lang says that in the Austrian province of Tyrol, over one quarter of next year’s housing starts will be Passive House.

One of the most inspirational examples was a Passive House retrofit to a secondary school. By attaching preassembled panels to existing columns on the outside of the building, designers were able to create a new façade. This technique meant that onsite assembly was completed in just four days, according to Lang.

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Lang said there are currently 542 million square feet of Passive House-certified buildings in Europe and he predicts six billion square feet by 2021—that’s more than the entire built area of New York City! If this kind of ramping up is possible, it’s encouraging for highly energy-efficient construction on this side of the Atlantic. But practice makes perfect, and we are still several years behind Austria in understanding what it takes to do Passive House as quickly and inexpensively as Lang describes. And there’s still little in the way of Passive House high rises, although we featured one of the more famous ones  at our conference last year. Urban Green’s ongoing event series about Passive House hopes to close this knowledge gap.

Singing a few bars of the classic Loesser tune that inspired the title of our Baby It’s Cold Inside report, Lang showed our research on what would happen to buildings in the event of a winter blackout. With temperatures dropping day after day, and a typical single-family home reaching freezing in less than a week, Passive House can do more than just save energy—it can keep homes habitable in an emergency.