And then to open the Homes section of the NYT today and see a builder/developer whom I have met and have my own views about featured in one of two articles on Passive Housing, I thought this is another sign it is time to go. The other was the shooting which I witnessed on Monday and I have yet feel compelled to blog about what I heard and saw only to say that the Seattle Police once again went to dangerous and excessive measures that make me wonder who we are saving ourselves from exactly.
But as always I digress.... I met this developer when he was just starting another phase to his many phases as a "Green" Builder does. He was going through his all things LEED then. He was one of the two at the time who built a LEED home down to all the requisite bells and whistles that does little to nothing for a homeowner than inflate costs, the other was far more interesting. This gentleman was way more interesting as he literally was a crook. I admit I loved his place over the Alley House. But I am very over Dwell designs. And I am not the only one who thinks LEED at times sells itself well just sells itself over logic to get the numbers up. Gee one would think the USGBC are bankers.
I was surprised then to see him at the Passive House presentation that came about a year later and at the training sessions that followed. I decided to elect out of becoming a "certified" tech believing that it was a niche build. I am still, however, very pro Net Zero as embraced by the Energy Department and the Living Building Institute that also has a similar program. Not that we haven't had that fad here as well, literally using those Government entitlements to build a "test" model house for a wealthy contractor (who ironically and of course built the project) in which to live in and demonstrate how the overly excessive bells and whistles added to the project and in turn costs work. I have never heard a word about it since.
There were others that also had dalliances with the Green washing that still exists when it comes to building. We have plenty more projects that house wealthy individuals who used every tax incentive to design and build their green dream home. My favorite was another Green at the Beach house that David Johnston and early proponent of Green Build and the creator of another Green Certification program (that he of course sold) Green Advantage, toured and found that the owners did not know how to use half of the devices in the home, finding problems with in ground heat pumps and their overall performance.
And we have the Queen of Green, a developer, whose prototypes of Green Build projects have run the gamut of green build spectrum and now of course is embracing the micro "cottages" that are the new fad of supposed affordable housing. Nothing says affordable more than paying more per square foot for less as long as it has the "green" label. Nice woman and a gal has to make a living so green on there Martha.
This is another big issue and debate that I discussed after going to the last Energy Star seminars in Denver last year about what works and if it does who is responsible and trained to install, upkeep and maintain performance and operations. There was a heated discussion about Passive house as well and John Straub (who spoke at the recent Passive House conference) and Joe Lstiburek (who is mentioned in the below article) along with other Green professionals aka Building Scientists about how much is too much. Another gentleman is mentioned in the article and a well known curmudgeon (self proclaimed although never met him he was not at the Conference) Martin Holladay is also quoted and he too makes pertinent points about what is "pretty good build."
It was right after that conference I decided to bail out on all of it. Still and advocate of Sustainability and what it means to be so, I moved back towards Education and want to find a place to have a school that incorporates the trades and the mission of what it means to be sustainable in all aspects of living and working. I am still big on housing and wish to work more exploring the idea of co-munal homes and living as an alternative to old peoples homes or multi family units. And still I wait for a Partner to help with that project. The last one like many divas (down to three names) of his profession disappeared to Facebook updates about his birthday. Riveting. Maybe I will find one Architect who actually practices what they preach.
Which brings me back to the two articles on Passive House. Again fad, niche and cool. Like pre-fab, Living Buildings, Green, Net Zero, we have not found a voice or middle ground to embrace and include all voices and budgets as we look towards what defines sustainable. Like all the rest of the issues in this Country if you ask me the voices are increasingly too white and too male. Time for a new shade of green. And maybe that is why there is resistance to Katrin Klingenberg, and the resulting fractions in the Passive House movement. Again, my issues are costs. I was in that Seattle Public Library packed meeting room a few years ago and was an enthusiastic believer in her and her mission. Still am. My resistance is about money and costs and that it cannot be a one size fits all mission. But I believe that it will be one that does work for those who want it to and that is not about money earned but money saved.
The article on the one more interesting Passive project is here. I like that they took their time and found their shade of green and maintained a clarity that also must be addressed when finding a shade of green that looks good on you and in your community. The other is below and there is also a link to the photos that show how basically that one design seems to be this builder/developers concept regardless of the type of build.
The Passive House: Sealed for Freshness
By SANDY KEENAN
Published: August 14, 2013
SEATTLE — When you visit Sloan and Jennifer Ritchie’s new passive house in the Madison Park neighborhood here, it takes a while to notice all the things you’re not hearing. Look out the living room windows and you can see a gardener wielding one of those ear-piercing leaf blowers in the yard, but you would never know it inside. There is no furnace or air-conditioner clicking on or off, no whir of forced air, and yet the climate is a perfect 72 degrees, despite the chilly air outside. Then there are the things you’re not feeling.
In one of the most humid cities in the country, you aren’t sticky or irritable, and the joints that sometimes bother you are mysteriously pain-free. The air inside the house feels so fresh, you can almost taste its sweetness. On paper, at least, the Ritchies’ home sounds too good to be true: an environmentally responsible house without traditional heating and air-conditioning systems that will be an airy 70 to 74 degrees on the coldest day of winter and the hottest day of summer, but use only a fraction of the energy consumed by a typical house.
And yet it’s not some experiment or futuristic dream. Nearly 30,000 of these houses have already been built in Europe. In Germany, an entire neighborhood with 5,000 of these super-insulated, low-energy homes is under construction, and the City of Brussels is rewriting its building code to reflect passive standards. But in the United States, since the first passive house went up 10 years ago, in Urbana, Ill., only about 90 have been certified. Why aren’t they catching on here? Part of the problem is the cost. Higher fuel prices and energy taxes in Europe provide a major incentive to embrace passive standards, which are complicated and make construction more expensive.
In this country, it could be a decade or more before the energy savings someone like Don Freas enjoys in his 1,150-square-foot passive house in Olympia, Wash., offsets the extra $30,000 or so it cost to build. “But those are such non-sexy ideas,” said Mr. Freas, 61, who is a sculptor and poet. “What matters is that I have never lived in such a comfortable house.” Proponents of passive building argue that the additional cost (which is estimated at 5 to 20 percent) will come down once construction reaches critical mass and more American manufacturers are on board. And there are a few signs that day may be coming.
More than 1,000 architects, builders and consultants have received passive-house training in this country; at least 60 houses or multifamily projects are in the works; and Marvin Windows, a mainstream manufacturer based in Minnesota, recently began making windows that meet passive certification standards. For all that, there are plenty of people who aren’t buying it — even some of those who support passive principles.
Martin Holladay, 58, a respected voice within the building industry, writes the Musings of an Energy Nerd blog for greenbuildingadvisor.com and lives off the grid in Vermont. He doesn’t believe passive houses are right for the American market. “What I’m worried about,” he said, “is that the current halo around the passive-house standard will result in its being incorporated into the building code. That would be unfortunate because they are unnecessarily expensive houses, from $300,000 to $500,000 on average, that cost more than will ever be justified by lifetime energy savings or carbon reductions.”
Stale indoor air is exchanged for fresh outdoor air without altering the internal temperature by mechanical systems you would not find in a conventional house: things like heat-recovery ventilators, which draw the heat from outgoing air and mix it with incoming air from outside in the winter, and do the opposite in the summer. (In high-humidity climates, an energy-recovery ventilator is used instead to strip moisture from incoming air.)
Vents that look like small, round audio speakers are placed throughout the house to exchange fresh air. These devices have prevented the formation of mold, which plagued the passive-solar movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
This system is based on a complex formula devised in the early 1990s by the German physicist Wolfgang Feist, which has been used for residential and commercial projects of various sizes, including a college dormitory recently completed in Virginia.
To be certified, a project must meet three crucial benchmarks. The first is a certain level of airtightness, as determined by a “blower door test.” The other two are measures of energy use: the annual energy consumed by heating and cooling the space cannot exceed a certain amount, and neither can the energy consumed by a range of other things, like heating water and powering electronic devices. Failure to properly meet these three markers (while also paying attention to variables like climate and orientation to the sun) means a building may not achieve optimum performance. Nor will it receive approval from either of the passive certifying bodies operating in the United States, which can charge thousands of dollars in fees.
To make things more complicated, no two passive houses are likely to be built to exactly the same specifications. Thousands of variables, including the architectural design, the size of the house, how many people will live there, and longitude and latitude, are taken into consideration by the sophisticated software created by Dr. Feist and his Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt, Germany.
The first time Mr. Freas’s design team tried the computer modeling, it took them 100 hours. Now they have it down to 6.
And that’s before the real work begins. During construction, special fog machines and infrared cameras are often brought in to detect the smallest air leaks. Special tapes, gaskets and sealants are used on the wall seams to ensure they won’t break down over time and result in drafts.
And the more extreme the weather, the more insulation is needed. In a place as cold as Minnesota, a passive home’s walls would have to be 18 inches thick, but even in the more temperate Portland, Ore., 12 to 14 inches is typical.
This kind of meticulous construction results in big energy savings, but just how much is a matter of some dispute. Passive House advocates claim their buildings require 10 to 35 percent as much energy as standard buildings, while others, like Mr. Holladay, put that at closer to 50 percent.
Either way, getting it right is tricky, which is why 32 builders, architects and consultants recently gathered for a four-day training session in Seattle run by the Passive House Institute United States, which is based in Urbana. Many had beginners’ horror stories. One representative of Habitat for Humanity in Washington State introduced himself by saying, “I’m here because the passive house we built failed, and I need to understand what went wrong so it never happens again.”
Katrin Klingenberg, 44, the German-born architect who leads the institute, has been at the forefront of the American movement. As far as she is concerned, “Washington and Oregon are a piece of cake for passive house design,” she said. More than a third of the certified passive houses are in the Pacific Northwest, probably because the conditions are perfect, she said. “It doesn’t get too cold in the winter or too humid in the summer. It’s most similar to Europe.” Figuring out how to make the model work in the hot, humid Southeast is a bigger challenge, something the Europeans have not had to deal with. With this in mind, Ms. Klingenberg’s organization is working to develop American standards, taking into account variations in energy use and leakage rates from one climate zone to another; they are expected to be released this fall.
As Joseph Lstiburek, an engineer with the Building Science Corporation, a research facility in Boston, put it, “there’s a really big difference between Minneapolis and Miami.” The German model doesn’t take that into account, he said. “The Germans don’t know how to do air-conditioning or humidity.” Those differences have contributed to a two-year stalemate between the German and American passive house institutes, which have stopped collaborating on software, testing and certification. That puts designers here in an awkward position.
The Artisans Group, in Olympia, Wash., which designed and built Mr. Freas’s home, has decided to split its six new passive projects, collaborating with the Germans on some and the Americans on others, said Tessa Smith, a co-owner of the firm. “That way we will learn more,” she said. But for those who are hoping to push the industry forward in this country, the split is disheartening, said Sam Hagerman, president of the Passive House Alliance, an association of passive house professionals, and the owner of Hammer and Hand, a construction company in Portland. Particularly, he said, when “we’re still trying to show proof of concept.”
WHILE THEIR BLACK, fiber-cement-paneled house was going up in a neighborhood of traditional million-dollar homes, the Ritchies couldn’t help noticing the openly hostile stares. Mr. Ritchie, 42, a wireless engineer turned sustainable builder and developer, speculated, “They probably wanted something Craftsman here.”
Ms. Ritchie, 39, who owns a public relations firm, said: “We could have toned it down. Our architect came up with six color schemes for the exterior.” Instead, they went with the boldest option, black.
They also put out a sign explaining in simple terms how the house is so energy-efficient that it will run on the same amount of power it takes to operate a hand-held hair dryer. After that, Mr. Ritchie said, “the negative feedback went back to almost zero.” An elderly woman gave him a big thumbs-up. Others stopped to chat.
But not everyone was won over. One man walked up to Mr. Ritchie and said, “I really don’t like what you’re doing with your house.”
Later, Mr. Ritchie realized what his comeback should have been: “And I don’t like what you’re doing with your furnace.”
Early passive houses were boxy, with few windows and even less style, but as designers have grown more comfortable with the modeling software, homes have become more elegant and inventive. In the Ritchies’ house, everything feels textured and substantial, like the metal-framed windows from Lithuania, the skylights from Poland, and the touches of spruce throughout, which came from a tree on the long, thin lot that had to come down.
Building it has been a learning experience for Mr. Ritchie, one he intends to continue, he said. But now he plans to build passive houses to sell.
“To me, the saddest thing is taking apart a building from the 1950s and realizing, ‘Is this all we’ve done in 60 years: added an inch or two of insulation?’ ” he said. “We can do better.”