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Actively Passive

By: Richard C. Yancey

January 13, 2016

Passive House startled me. Despite working for the nonprofit Building Energy Exchange, preaching the virtues of energy efficiency to New York City's real estate community, my first experience of a Passive House was indelible. Heading home from a walk in Prospect Park on an August evening, tired and hot, I somewhat begrudgingly agreed to stop by my wife's recently completed green roof project. It was a new installation and the young plants needed water to take hold and thrive. Leaving behind the leafy green of the park, we made our way through the steaming streets of Park Slope to the recently renovated brownstone, and its magical interior. It was summer in the city: hot, gritty, sweaty, noisy, smelly. We passed the ripe, pungent garbage, at the curb, the roar of the garbage truck, and the hot, loud blasts from window air conditioners, like small jet engines. A muggy afternoon, the car horns and exhaust hung in the air malevolently.

The owners were out of town, and my wife had a maintenance contract to make sure her newly planted green roof took root. Upon arrival, I was instructed to remove my shoes, while she disappeared upstairs. As the door clicked shut, the street noise was silenced. Suddenly, I was in a serene, quiet space, filled with fresh, temperate air. Despite the occupants' absence, the house was neither hot nor stuffy. Nor was it the frigid, dry, icebox of a typical, over-air-conditioned New York apartment. The interior felt like an oasis; a refuge from the street noise and heat; a meditative place. Although elegant and simple, it was not the modern furniture, beautiful finishes, nor shiny appliances that fundamentally created this atmosphere. Truly, the indoor environment was the star. Walking from room to room, the exceptional air quality and quiet was consistent and absolute. No drafts or street noise. No humming compressors or fans. No heat radiating off the large glass windows. Arriving at the lush roof, which did not radiate the heat of the typical New York City black rooftop, Inger informed me that this was a certified Passive House. There was no big, expensive mechanical system, guzzling energy to create the cool, quiet, fresh air. Rather, effort had been spent to create an extraordinarily well-insulated, airtight enclosure, with high performance windows, and continuous, low-volume, filtered ventilation.

Visiting a building designed to passive house standards is a visceral experience. To be sure, the data is exceptional: such projects typically save more than 70% of heating and cooling costs compared to a conventional building; but to feel, listen, and breath in a passive project is an epiphany.

The Passive House standard is currently the subject of intense focus in New York State and City policy circles and has garnered growing interest from the New York real estate and design community. Mayor de Blasio's aggressive climate action goal of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 is forcing policy and industry stakeholders to focus on Passive House as one of the few energy performance standards capable of meeting the significant energy use reductions required by this target. As I experienced first hand that summer day, passive design is focused on providing the most comfortable buildings possible using the least amount of energy, and therefore produces projects of very high quality with massively reduced energy use. This has not gone unnoticed. The City Council is actively deliberating legislation to lead-by-example, requiring a very low-energy performance target for major city building projects; leading building advocates are pushing to move to a low-energy building code and a Passive House pathway, for all new construction; and we've presented the Brussels success story (more below) to several interested forums, showing how a low-energy building competition that rewards private sector actors for the development of Passive House buildings, can create a diverse body of successful, replicable projects.

To better understand Passive House's potential, I participated in a fact-finding trip to Brussels, in May 2015, where a passive standard for all new construction and substantial renovations was recently adopted as the energy code. In just ten years, Belgium's capital region, and seat of the European Union (EU), has experienced an energy revolution, transforming one of Europe's worst performing building stocks. This radical program was spurred on, in part, by the EU's 2008 20-20-20 climate action targets, which call for a 20% increase in energy efficiency, 20% reduction in carbon emissions, and 20% renewable energy, by 2020. As of 2014, over 10 million square feet of passive buildings have been built or retrofitted in Brussels.

Through major government initiatives and support, Brussels is demonstrating that passive house design can be affordable, practical, and efficient. The region has accomplished this by mobilizing a combination of extensive training and support to professionals and tradespeople; a leading-edge competition, to provide built examples of low-energy buildings; and the development of a robust supply chain. What we saw, in Belgium, provides a compelling template for how New York City could begin to aggressively transition to low energy buildings.

The Belgian capital has 1.1 million people. While its buildings consume 75% of all energy, there is very limited potential for obtaining renewable energy. Together, these facts make reducing building energy consumption the imperative to meeting its climate action goals. To stimulate change, the government spent more than $55 million, over seven-plus years, on this coordinated effort that included: six annual competitions, which rewarded 243 low-energy projects with subsidies, expertise and publicity, while providing built demonstration projects; over 15,000 hours of professional training, annually, alongside technical guides, websites and other resources; and working directly with building trades and companies to stimulate the supply of needed low energy building skills and materials. Additionally, the region led-by-example, requiring all public projects to be built to passive standards, starting in 2010. Having created a passive design context and capacity, the capital region formally adopted a slightly modified version of the Passive House Institutes' certified Passive Standard, in January 2015. We recently summarized our findings from Brussels, and the current state of passive development in New York, in the Building Energy Exchange's new briefing, Passive NYC; A Snapshot of Low Energy Building Opportunities, Barriers, Resources. Also, Joke Dockx, of the Brussels Environment agency and one of the architects of the region's transformation, presented the Belgian experience, at the 2013 New York Passive House conference: Sustainable and Nearly Zero Energy Building Strategy in Brussels.

Outside of policy circles, the New York private sector is showing significant interest in the Passive House standard, with new projects being announced every month. Most notably, a 26-story residential tower with 350+ units, being developed to passive standards by Related Companies and Hudson Companies, recently broke ground at the new Cornell Tech campus, on Roosevelt Island. Nevertheless, the large majority of Passive House projects to date have been small-scale residential properties, like the one I visited in Brooklyn. More work needs to be done to demystify the measures necessary to achieve Passive House certification for larger, more densely occupied and more complicated buildings.

As public and private sector activities heat-up, many questions remain about the applicability of Passive House to the highly diverse building types that make up the largest real estate market in North America. Answers to these critical questions and clear pathways for New York's buildings are needed to meet these new very low energy standards, and provide guidance to policy-makers, building owners, designers, and developers. But the fundamental building science that created that quiet, fresh and temperate oasis in Park Slope, demonstrates that New York's climate goals are achievable. We can create spaces that don't require us to sacrifice comfort for efficiency, and don't rely on expensive, technical, and mechanical solutions. Passive House buildings are resilient, low energy spaces that are exponentially better, cheaper to operate, and more self-sufficient. And quiet.


Richard C. Yancey, AIA, LEED AP, is the founding Executive Director of the Building Energy Exchange, Inc. (BEEx), an independent, nonprofit organization that connects the New York real estate and design communities to energy and lighting efficiency solutions through education, exhibitions, technology demonstrations, and research. BEEx identifies opportunities, navigates barriers to adoption, broker's relationships, and showcases best practices at their resource center in downtown Manhattan's Surrogate Courthouse.

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