A Passive House White House

What if the White House were a Passive House?
What if the White House were a Passive House?

David White, an architectural energy technical consultant at Transsolar, sent a letter to President Obama recommending the Passive House as a new energy efficiency standard:

I’d like to draw your attention to one approach to energy efficient building, which is called Passive House … the most stringent residential energy efficiency standard in the world.

White goes on to describe the Passive House approach in more detail, and ends with this call for a subsidy and/or mandate.

In considering how federal policy … one problem [with current mandates based on LEED, for example] is lack of assurance that the subsidies bring about real and cost-effective savings. Passive House certification offers a way through this: it ensures energy efficiency. … A subsidy of Passive House, or a US standard with the same level of quality assurance, would help defray added costs for early adoption and get a new industry on its feet.

This was recently reported on Danielle Sack’s Fast Company blog. Danielle went even further, suggesting that President Obama renovate the White House itself to Passive House standards!

I also found a link to a presentation David made at a conference covering some energy efficiency and solar power renovations he’s been involved with. The presentation also mentions the Passive House standard and shows some of the specific architectural details and mechanical systems used.

Thermal Bridges, Passive Houses in the UK, and Spray Foam

On the fence
Chain link fence (get it?) - (image by James Jordan, CC 2.0 licensed)

As I’ve been surfing green building sites and articles over the last week, I ran across these interesting items. I hope you find them useful.

Thermal bridging occurs wherever assembly components with low R-values relative to surrounding materials span from the inside to the outside of a building assembly.

  • What’s the UK doing about energy efficient building, you ask? They have a zero net energy homes initiative, where all new homes in the UK are supposed to be zero net energy by 2016. Probably not going to happen on schedule, according to an article from NewStart magazine, described on the Barefoot & Gilles site. (H/T to Sue Butcher for the link, via Twitter.)

Flaws in the government’s zero-carbon vision have forced ministers back to the drawing board. Is there a realistic way forward?

One wall design that is sure to become more popular utilizes 2×4 studs, 2″ foam board as a thermal break, 7/16 OSB or other structural sheeting using 3.5″ screws for fasteners. Then the 2×4 stud cavities are sprayed with 2″ of closed cell foam. The total wall thickness ends up to be 6-9/16″, standard for window and door jambs. The R-Value of this quiet and comfortable energy wall is 24!

There are still questions about the GHG impact of making and spraying the foam, although The Foam Man also points out that all insulation techniques involve tradeoffs, and some spray foams have a high quantity of soy-based content, which lessens their footprint vs. petrochemical-based foams.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Green Building Incentives – Arlington County’s Approach

Court House Plaza
Arlington's Courthouse Square (image by Helgas Lobster Stew, CC 2.0 licensed)

I posted last week about my project, along with some other Menlo Park residents, to get some [intlink id=”606″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]incentives for energy efficient buildings[/intlink] into the Menlo Park building code. I put out a tweet on Twitter the other day to see if any of my “tweeps” had suggestions for me. Chris Cheatham, of the Green Building Law Update blog, turned me on to the Arlington County (Virginia) incentives.

The Arlington criteria are based on LEED certification levels, which mean they’re not as focused on energy efficiency as I’d like. On the other hand, the nature of the incentives themselves are very interesting. Arlington County is rewarding builders who achieve LEED Silver rating or higher with FAR (floor area ratios) “bonuses” of .15 to .35. This represents an additional 1,500 square feet of building on a 10,000 square foot lot.

Chris’s most recent blog post is focused on an interview with Joan Kelsch, an environmental planner for Arlington County, about the next update of the county’s incentives. When asked “Why LEED as the criteria for the incentives?” Kelsch responded:

LEED is the most widely accepted and understood green building rating system.  Until building codes call for more energy efficient and water efficient buildings, I think LEED is a good tool to guide more environmentally responsible development.  LEED addresses issues broader than just building code – indoor air quality, materials choices, embedded energy issues, waste management, etc.  I think LEED has played a critical role in helping the market transformation toward greener materials and process and will continue to do so.

I recommend taking a look at Chris’s post for the whole story.

I’m not sure a FAR bonus would work in Menlo Park, but it’s interesting to see what types of incentives municipalities are considering to encourage green building.

Code Changes And Incentives Are Critical For Energy Independence

Our municipalities (and eventually the states) could reward people for deciding to build houses to meet the “initial 50% reduction target” of Architecture 2030 or to the Passive House standard.

Clovers at Blarney Castle Garden
Clovers at Blarney Castle

Patricia hit the nail on the head in her last post, No Blarney here! – Turning up the Heat:

Where are the codes and incentives?

Or rather, how do we get people to build and renovate houses to energy efficiency levels that are significantly above code?

The Architecture 2030 website has a great reference on how much beyond code you must build to achieve their interim and final energy efficiency goals. For example, in California’s we have a new 2008 version of the energy efficiency code, usually called “Title 24.” To meet the Architecture 2030 interim goal of buildings that use half as much energy as their conventional peers (the “initial 50% reduction target”), buildings in California need to be 10% more efficient than required by this new building code.

We all want this to happen, of course, and it’s relatively inexpensive to do so. But without incentives, it’s not going to happen. That’s why I’m working on the Menlo Park Climate Action Plan for example – we need the incentives.

And incentives will help. Have you ever wondered why so many Californians have bought Toyota Priuses, despite the fact that they are pretty expensive compared to regular cars, and you don’t save that money at the gas pump? It’s not because Californians are so green – although we are. It’s because there was an amazing incentive. If you bought a Prius or other hybrid, you could get a pass to drive in the carpool lane on California freeways – as a singleton! What does everyone in California really want? To get where they’re going faster! It didn’t cost the state much, and it got a lot of efficient cars on the road quickly. That’s the best kind of incentive.

Our municipalities (and eventually the states) can do the same kind of thing. For example, they could reward people for deciding to build houses to meet the “initial 50% reduction target” of Architecture 2030 by:

  • Expediting the building permit for free
  • Waiving some fees
  • Promising quick turnaround on inspections
  • Providing an automatic bump of 2% in their FAR requirements as a variance (floor area ratio – or how much of the lot can be covered by a house)
  • Bonding the builder’s house guarantee
  • Accepting Passive House PHPP modeling software results for certification
  • Providing a tax break for houses that are Passive House certified

Those are just some of the options that municipalities have. Even just stating, in their climate action plans for example, that they have a goal of meeting the Architecture 2030 targets, or supporting the building of Passive Houses, would go a long way.

People want to do the right thing. They’re even willing to pay extra to do the right thing. But they often don’t know what the right thing is. And if they don’t have an incentive, they might do the wrong thing, or just something else, with that extra money that they’d be willing to spend. Many people, if they had the right “nudge,” would happily put more insulation in their new house or their remodel, and forgo the most expensive marble countertops. They’ll get the same resale benefit, they’ll save money over the life of the house, they’ll feel better about themselves, and they’ll actually make a significant individual difference in our planet’s future.

Let me know your thoughts, and if you have examples of code changes or municipalities providing incentives for efficiency in buildings, especially significantly surpassing code requirements, I’d love to hear about them.

Slideshows About The Passive House Concept

Bronwyn Barry's Passive House Conference Report
Bronwyn Barry's Passive House Conference Report

I was contacted the other day by Bronwyn Barry, a designer and rater at Quantum Builders, and a member of the Passive House California organization up in Berkeley, so I did what any normal internet user would do – I Googled her. And I was excited to find, as one of the first results, a slideshow she’d made and put up on Slideshare. It’s a trip report from her visit to the 3rd Annual North American Passive House Conference held in Duluth last November. And, not only is Bronwyn’s presentation there, but there are several others, including one from Tim Eian, a German-born architect now working in Minnesota, and several others:

I also found, when rummaging around the network, this presentation from Katrin Klingenberg, the co-founder and director of the Passive House Institute US, made at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center – it includes a video as well as the PowerPoint presentation she used.

I find these presentations to be very helpful in understanding the Passive House concept better. Each time I review one of them I get additional nuggets of information to use as I work to get Californians to build passive houses and super-efficient houses instead of conventional ones.

Biohaus: First Certified PassivHaus in the U.S.

Front View of the Waldsee BioHaus
Front View of the Waldsee BioHaus

The other day I posted about one of the [intlink id=”565″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]first passive houses built in the U.S.[/intlink] I just ran across another passive house example – this one is the first U.S.-built home to be certified to the German Passivhaus standard. The house was built at the Concordia  Language Villages in Minnesota in 2006, partially funded by the first-ever grant to a U.S. recipient by the German environmental foundation Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU).

Under the guidance of architect Stephan Tanner of INTEP, LLC, a Minneapolis- and Munich-based consulting company for high performance and sustainable construction, Waldsee BioHaus is modeled on Germany’s Passivhaus standard: a highly-efficient building design (beyond that of the U.S. LEED standard which improves quality of life inside the building while using 85% less energy than comparable U.S. structures.

The building materials and mechanicals were primarily sourced from local suppliers, although a few components were imported from Germany. These were items that either were not available (at that time) in the States, or which were provided by sponsored by the funders. Here’s another link to Waldsee Biohaus information.

It’s fascinating to me that only a handful of these houses have been built here in the States so far. Each of the houses I’ve posted about uses 80-90% less energy than a comparable conventional house. Their build out costs are comparable to conventional houses in their area, and lifecycle costs are definitely less, based on actual measurements. The approach has been proven extensively in Europe, and has been shown to be effective in every country in Europe, not to mention multiple climate zones in the U.S. It’s simple and has just three key components. The European Community is moving to make passive house the EU standard.

But despite this, here in the U.S., where buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy usage, where we have Architecture 2030, a Federal mandate for zero energy buildings, and efforts like the California Public Utilities Commission’s 2020 project, none of our codes – state building codes, LEED, Green Points, or local codes, call out the three key components of passive houses as desirable, much less required. I think this has to change.

Your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.

The First U.S. Passive House – Super-Efficient, Affordable

The Big Wall of Windows
The Big Wall of Windows

While the passive house concept is taking off in Europe, where over 10,000 passive houses have been built, there are still very few in the States. I have posted before about [intlink id=”393″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Nabih Taleb’s passive house remodel[/intlink] in Berkeley, and I’ve heard about a few more which I’ll be posting soon. But this month the Taunton Press’s Green Building Advisor website is featuring an article on America’s first “passive house.”

Built by Katrin Klingenberg, a European-trained architect who is co-director of the Passive House Institute U.S., the house uses massive amounts of insulation – including 14″ inches below the slab, as well as up to 16″ in the walls. Klingenberg also took care to site the house for maximum solar gain in the winter, as well as many other details to increase the house’s energy efficiency.

The results have been excellent – although not without some learning opportunities. Those windows that allowed the sun’s heat to warm the house in the winter overheated it in summer. Klingenberg installed a grape arbor over the windows, and now its bare branches in winter let in the sun, and its leafs provide effective shading for the windows in summer, while also giving a beatiful view.

Klingenberg was not just after efficiency, but also affordability in this house. And the results on both sides were very good:

At $94 per square foot, the house topped the highest averages for new construction in the region, although not by much. With Katrin’s modest budget and her goal of using the home as a model for affordable housing, however, the cost was more than she would have liked. But she points out that this was a prototype that would likely cost less on a production scale. Besides, in her opinion, the successes in the area of sustainability, efficiency, and comfort were well worth the investment.

Introducing New Silicon Valley Passive Homes Website

Silicon Valley From Space
Silicon Valley From Space

Over the weekend I put up what I hope will be an important resource in the goal of achieving 100% zero-net energy homes in California by 2018 – a new website for the Silicon Valley Passive House Coalition.

From the site:

SVPH is helping local municipalities to set challenging but practical goals for maximizing energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction in the local communities of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California.

In particular, many communities are creating “climate action plans” which include incentives for the use of design options that promote energy efficiency and carbon savings. SVPH promotes including an incentive related to the use of extremely energy-efficient design and building approaches such as super insulation, zero-net energy, and the “Passive House” concept.

Please take a quick look and let me know via the comments what you think about the new baby (both the site and the organization)!

First Shot, or Swan Song?

Skyscraper
A commercial real estate development (image by MK Media Productions, CC 2.0 licensed)

The NAIOP, also known as the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, released a report last week “showing” that building green is not a winner in terms of payback. Apparently timed to coincide with a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on improving building energy code standards, the report found, according to a New York Times/ClimateWire article, that:

A 50 percent energy improvement beyond federal standards is technically impossible. A 30 percent target is achievable, but only by adding a million-dollar solar system that could take up to 100 years to pay for itself

In the same article, several energy efficiency experts raised questions:

Jeffrey Harris, a vice president at the pro-efficiency group Alliance to Save Energy, said these claims have a sturdy foundation in laboratories and in the real world. He pointed to the Energy Department’s data on high-performance buildings, as well as other databases containing information on existing buildings. Engineers and green-building leaders, he said, “are not breaking a huge amount of sweat in getting beyond 30 percent in code.”

Throughout the green building blogosphere numerous rebuttals started flying. On the news site for Costar, a commercial real estate information site, Andrew Burr wrote:

The study overlooked a number of highly cost-effective energy efficiency measures that are common in new buildings, such as light occupancy sensors and louvers that affect shading and heat gain, several people in the industry said, while integrated design strategies were not implemented in the models at all.

On the Yudelson blog, Jerry wrote:

In what is currently the world’s largest LEED Platinum building, the Center for Health and Healing in Portland, Oregon, engineers and architects were able to find savings measures that led to a 60% decrease in energy costs while spending 10% less overall money; this is not some computer-based study, it’s a realized project that was occupied in 2006.

Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030 was particiularly scathing:

In other words, NAIOP intentionally kept out of the analysis all the readily available low-cost, no-cost and cost-saving options to reduce a building’s energy consumption. This deliberate omission is glaringly apparent in their press release and in the NY Times article. In fact, they take so many inexpensive, energy-saving options off the table that it is impossible for the imaginary building to reach commonly achievable energy-consumption-reduction targets.

In one regard, you could say the NAIOP’s conclusions, when interpreted narrowly, are meaningful – if you build an energy hog building without considering the site, without performing integrated design, and using simplistic efficiency measures, you’re not going to get a good payback. What’s amazing about this, though, is that there are so many real-world counterexamples to the claims this report makes. It’s surprising NAIOP was willing to go public with it. And you have to ask “Why?” – in what way is this report in the long-term interest of NAIOP? Given the Federal, state and local juggernaut of energy efficiency regulations, isn’t it in their interest to figure out how to achieve on a mass scale what individual builders are achieving on a smaller scale? That’s the approach that keeps their constituents competitive, that creates jobs, and creates wealth.

Middle Class Task Force Meeting in Philly Focuses on Green Jobs

One of the Middle Class Task Force panels at the Philly meeting
One of the Middle Class Task Force panels at the Philly meeting

If you’re not reading the new whitehouse.gov blog, you’re missing out.

This liveblog about the “Middle Class Task Force” meeting in Philly last week from whitehouse.gov was great. Speakers included John Podesta, former Clinton staffer and now with the Center for American Progress; Van Jones from Green for All (based in the Bay Area), Fred Krupp from the Environmental Defense Fund, a bunch of cabinet and administration appointees, and representatives from labor like Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers of America.

Some highlights:

“when I see less carbon, I also see more jobs.” That’s from Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has invested a lot of time and energy into the details of how to make green jobs a reality.

Mark Edlen of Portland, OR-based architecture firm Gerding-Edlen — in a lot of ways created an industry and market for green city living. He believes they can go further — zero impact buildings. Gerding-Edlin just completed a 400-thousand square foot building that is off the sewer grid, and in fact puts water back into the system.

One of the key partners in making green jobs a reality has been Labor, in particular the United Steelworkers of America. USW President Leo Gerard has been a visionary on this issue, and has been building coalitions with enviro groups for years — he’s a founder of the Apollo Alliance and the Blue Green Alliance.

Who knew (not me, anyway) that the United Steelworkers has had such a green past. Check out the PowerPoint Gerard used at the meeting — it’s impressive!

There’s a lot more at http://www.whitehouse.gov/strongmiddleclass/, including their new whitepaper.

I’ve really been enjoying the openness of the White House blog – I hope it keeps up. And I hope this task force is a harbinger of a big change in how we build homes and businesses in the U.S. – better services at a much lower energy footprint!