Day 3 of PH2020: Choose Your Future RoundUp


The third installment of the North American Passive House Network’s virtual conference, PH2020: Choose Your Future, was a reminder of the importance of working together to create quality and healthy buildings. This is true in the sense that we need a unified front to tackle the challenges posed by decarbonizing our economy, but also at the individual project scale, where buildings are far more likely to be completed on time and within budget when everyone is on the same page—from subcontractors to developers.

Once again, the program ran from 1–4 ET and the sessions were divided up to include two pairs of 1‑hour presentations held simultaneously and a plenary presentation to close out the day:

Own Your Passive House Development Process Too: Hitting Milestones and Budgets

  • Lois Arena, PE, CPHD – Director, Passive House Services with Steven Winter Associates
  • Monte Palusen, PHI-Accredited Building Certifier – Passive House Specialist, RDH Building Science

Is Your Materials Palette Ready for the Growing Focus on Embodied Carbon

Keep Your Students Healthy & Funders Happy: Passive House Matriculates

  • Lois Arena, PE, CPHD – Director, Passive House Services with Steven Winter Associates
  • Deborah Moelis, AIA, CPHD – Principal, Handel Architects
  • Jennifer Adams Peffer, AIA, RAIC – Campus Architect, University of Toronto Scarborough

What’s Your Building’s Carbon Debt? You Should Know.

  • Stacy Smedly – Executive Director, Building Transparency
  • Tim Martel – Freelancer and Chartered Architectural Technologist
  • Jason Quinn – Engineer, Sustainable Engineering Ltd.
  • Bronwyn Barry, RA, CPHD – Principal, Passive House BB and NAPHN

Owners Roundtable #2: How Owners Do It. Making Passive House Good Business.

  • Beth Eckenrode, RESET AP – Co-founder, Auros Group
  • Alex Bernstein, MBA – Executive VP, Bernstein Real Estate
  • Grant Ervin, MPIA, FRSA – Chief Resilience Officer, City of Pittsburgh
  • Emma Osmundsen, BSc (Hons), Pg Dip (Arch Conserv), MA, MRICS – Managing Director, Exeter City Living Ltd. (Exeter City Council)
  • Garrett Scott – Dealer Operator, Scott Subaru
  • Ed Kolic – Director, President – Eighth Avenue Development Group

All five of these sessions, as well as the five sessions from the previous two days, are available if you register for the event. There’s also three more sessions still to go, so register now!

Own Your Passive House Development Process Too: Hitting Milestones and Budgets

Lois Arena very quickly set the tone for the day. From her experience, the projects that are the most successful (in terms of hitting milestones and budgets) are those that set clear objectives from the beginning. Additionally, these objectives need to be understood by everyone on the project, the sooner the better.

This is true for all buildings, but it is especially the case with Passive House projects. Developers, architects, and structural engineers need to be at the same (virtual) table during the schematic design phase because the thermal modeling will inform things like wall thickness, cladding, and other features of the building envelope that become exponentially more costly to amend once the project is underway. Construction management needs to be involved in the earliest phases, too, so that they can contribute their insights on the budgetary viability of building features and materials.

In pre-construction, the GC and subcontractors need to be trained about the nuances of high-performance buildings and Passive House if they are not already familiar with how integral things like airtightness and eliminating thermal bridging are to the design. Arena recommends doing pre-construction kickoff meetings, providing the team with inspection checklists, and performing intermediate testing throughout the construction. Though most people are familiar with the adage, “An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure,” it has a bit more heft to it when the cost of the “cure” is in the six- or seven-figure range.

Monte Paulsen agreed on this point and specifically pointed to mechanical systems as an example. According to Paulsen, they frequently end up become a major source of tension and cost overruns if they are shoehorned into the building at the last minute. At the earliest stage of design, the team needs to determine if the building will have central or local ventilation, and then always factor them in when making a decision. No one should be figuring that they can always call an audible on the plumbing and ductwork as the building is beginning construction.

Paulsen went on to note that another reason for inflated expenses concerns surface area and façade functionality. When a building has a lot of corners, it will require more planning to account for thermal bridging. When a building has a lot of glazing, it will require more building science jiujitsu to account for the heat loss. Paulsen recommends setting a surface area target and a window-to-wall ratio (preferably 1:4), and then sticking to those numbers to keep the project on budget. “We can make anything Passive House,” he said, “but we can’t make everything affordable.” Finally, in line with the Passive House Accelerator’s ethos of sharing and collaboration, he made perhaps his most important point on cutting costs: “Repeat what works.”

Keep Your Students Healthy & Funders Happy: Passive House Matriculates

The next session focused on the 270,000-square-foot University of Toronto Scarborough dormitory that will be breaking ground in August. On top of providing 752 beds to students, the dorm will serve upwards of 1,700 meals each day and each student will have their own mini refrigerator. In addition, students tend to have higher plug loads than other occupants. According to Lois Arena (again), student energy use as measured per square foot tends to be close to double that of an occupant in a conventional multifamily residence.

Even for experienced firms like Handel Architects and Steven Winter Associates (the same team behind The House, Cornell Tech’s Passive House dorm), the one-two punch of the commercial kitchen and the 752 mini fridges humming in unison seemed like significant obstacles to Passive House certification. However, the team, which also includes CORE Architects, managed to design a building that will cost approximately 2% more than a code-built dorm, but will provide enough energy savings to give the university an 18-year payback. Moreover, the building will produce 25% less greenhouse gas emissions than the limit set by the school. The project is a manifestation of the principles Arena and Paulsen described in the first session and the presentation is definitely worth the watch.

Owners Roundtable #2: How Owners Do It. Making Passive House Good Business.

Finally, the owners roundtable, which was moderated by Beth Eckenrode, offered the same lessons about collaboration, finding the right team, and getting everyone on the same page from the get-go, but from a developer’s perspective. All parties involved stressed the importance of finding contractors with Passive House experience or, if they don’t have experience, a willingness to learn the underlying tents of the building methodology.

Emma Osmundsen was particularly adamant about this point and has found that the Passive House standard attracts a certain type of person who is committed to quality. More importantly, since building her first Passive House project in Exeter twelve years ago, she has found that the payback is relatively quick. More than just bringing utility bills down, renters in Passive House units tend to be in arrears far less frequently than renters in conventional apartment units, that there are far fewer vacancies, that there is less antisocial behavior (possibly because the apartments are quieter), and that there is a premium on the resale value of the building.

As the third day closed, Eckenrode summed up the roundtable and the themes of the day by saying, “Pioneering requires we all teach and train.”

We at the Accelerator could not agree more.


Jay Fox
Jay Fox
Jay Fox is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Crain's New York, Salon, Stay Thirsty Magazine, Aethlon, and…

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    Our coverage of PH2020 was made possible in part by generous support from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US.

    Our coverage of PH2020 was made possible in part by generous support from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US.

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