Fourth New Gravity Housing Conference Places Philly and Chicago in the Spotlight

August 11, 2020


The New Gravity Housing Conference came together over four years ago as Tim McDonald of Onion Flats, David Salamon of Re:Vision Architecture, and members of Green Building Unitedrealized that there needed to be a space where architects, designers, affordable housing developers, policymakers, and others could come together to discuss how affordable housing policies should be adapted in a manner that also promoted burgeoning and sustainable trends within the North American high-performance building industry, particularly Passive House. The effects of climate change, they believed, were not something that could be ignored any longer, especially not for the sake of a status quo that has perpetuated so many of the problems that we have now been tasked with solving. To emphasize the imperative nature of the endeavor and the fact that they understood that climate change will continue to impact the built world almost like another fundamental force of nature, they decided to call it the New Gravity conference.

It’s a grave and yet hopeful take on climate change, and it was fitting that the event’s organizers chose Ed Mazria (Architecture 2030) to provide the welcome address and keynote at the fourth and most recent iteration of the conference, which ran August 5–7. While Mazria did remind everyone in virtual attendance that we are short on time and in the midst of a climate emergency that is being exacerbated by a host of factors including deforestation, myopic urban planning, income inequality, and destructive agricultural practices, he also focused a great deal of attention on the fact that the rate at which building practice is becoming less wasteful and more sophisticated is unprecedented and positively deviates from models created even twenty years ago. In other words, we have the technology to solve some of these problems and we’re even starting to see implementation without witnessing energy use and costs rise. Our goals now include making sure these newfound abilities are actually put to use by erecting extremely efficient new buildings, properly retrofitting existing buildings, and using materials that realy are sustainable. This means changing practices to better reuse, reduce, and sequester—something that everyone can learn more about by attending Mazria’s free Carbon Positive RESET! Global Teach-In on September 8.

Apart from being the first online iteration of the conference and Mazria’s optimism, this year’s event also saw the first joint effort between Green Building United and Illinois Green. The result was that attendees came away with a greater appreciation of how frequently overlooked states and municipalities are creating programs that incorporate the Passive House methodology to resolve systemic issues that are unique to their regions. Cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and New York often consume the oxygen in the room, thereby making it difficult for people in other states or cities to describe what initiatives they’ve been pursuing. At this year’s New Gravity conference, the spotlight was more focused on Chicago and Philadelphia and some of the important lessons that housing activists in those cities have learned with respect to accelerating the inclusion of Passive House elements into building and energy codes, pursuing new policies to improve the health of all occupants, and providing more energy security to low-income households.

For example, presentations like “Reenvisioning Public Housing Retrofits Under HUD’s RAD Program,” which was led by four members of the Chicago Housing Authority (Kevin Hall, Edmund Steele, Thurston Stimage, and Jewell Walton), described how the CHA, the third-largest public housing agency in the nation, is changing its funding structure to make efficiency improvements across its portfolio. The keynote the second day, meanwhile, was given by Angela Hurlock, the Chairperson of the Board of the Chicago Housing Authority. She provided a detailed look at how her upbringing in Chicago and nearby Oak Park helped shape her commitment to providing not merely housing, but a sense of home to low-income residents throughout the city.

Similarly, representatives from groups operating in Philadelphia discussed how they are working to provide support and combat energy insecurity among the city’s poorer residents. Unlike some other large, American cities, homeownership is relatively common among low-income communities in Philadelphia. Though a large percentage of families enjoy intergenerational homeownership, they are also battling entrenched poverty, gentrification, and an aging housing stock. Of the roughly 330,000 row homes in Philadelphia, upwards of 60,000 are owned by low-income and working-class families in Philadelphia, and many are in danger of becoming uninhabitable because owners cannot make the necessary repairs. Very few of these homeowners can improve their homes’ efficiency, let alone “go solar.”

In the session “Long-Term Affordable Housing through Holistic Interventions,” Alon Abramson (Philadelphia Energy Authority/Built to Last), Steven Luxton (Energy Coordinating Agency), Alexandra McFadden (Centennial Parkside CDC), and Laura Rigell (Philadelphia Energy Authority/Solarize Philly) each spoke about these challenges, as well as how community groups are working to ensure that low-income Philadelphians can maintain or even upgrade their homes and eventually enjoy improved energy security by investing in renewable systems.

Other sessions focused more exclusively on Passive House. “Scaling Up: Pursuing PHIUS and net-zero in different building types,” with presenters Lindsey Elton (Eco Achievers), Scott Farbman (DataBased+), Matthew McGrane (Farr Associates), and Kelly Moynihan (Farr Associates), looked at the specific obstacles and solutions that teams face when building to the Passive House standard in different circumstances. The first example involved a two-unit building in Granite City, IL, that had aesthetic limitations set by the Granite City Housing Authority. The second was a retrofit of a single-family detached home with owners who had very specific demands and city (in this case Chicago) that had codes that made adding insulation very difficult. The third example was an affordable and multifamily building in Gary, IN, that, when completed, will be net-zero.

“LIHTC: The gateway to multifamily Passive House projects,” looked at neither Chicago nor Philadelphia, and instead focused on the city of Meriden, a city of around 60,000 between Hartford and New Haven. As many from the Passive House Accelerator community learned at last week’s Global Passive House Happy Hour with guest Sangeetha Sambandam of WRT LLC, the downtown area of this Connecticut city is in the midst of a renaissance thanks in part to the River Park project. More than just replacing the former Khrushchev-style apartment blocks with Passive House buildings that are both mixed-use and mixed-income, the project also reimagined the landscape of the downtown by improving access to mass transportation and making the area more friendly to pedestrians. Perhaps most importantly, a centrally located shopping center that regularly flooded following even moderate rains was demolished and replaced with a greenspace, Meriden Green. At the heart of Meriden Green was a daylighted and restored stream that had long been buried and was the source of the flooding at the shopping center.

Apart from detailing how the Meriden has been given new life, Sambandam, as well as Charlie Adams (Penrose, LLC), Adam Blackburn (Innova Services), and Adam Kinkel (Haynes Construction Company), also described how they used to Passive House design to obtain more points through the Connecticut Housing Finance Agency, which improved their chances of winning the contract to build approximately 150 units as part of Phase 2 of the River Park project.

Connecticut is not the only state that offers these kinds of figurative carrots to developers, nor was it the first. According to the lore of Passive House proselytizers young and old, the policy was first adopted in Pennsylvania. As the New Gravity site relays:

In the Spring of 2014, a group of approximately 25 stakeholders gathered in Harrisburg, PA to propose to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA), the organization responsible for all Low Income Housing Tax Credit — LIHTC — Federal funding for affordable housing in the state, that they initiate a project which would have all affordable housing in Pennsylvania be designed and constructed to a Net-Zero-Energy-Capable standard by 2030.

PHFA was already looking to “raise the bar” with respect to energy efficiency as developers had been surpassing their standards for years. PHFA welcomed the challenge and within four months put the project in motion by introducing language into their 2015 Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) which incentivizes developers interested in 9% Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funding to design/construct their projects to meet the rigorous Passive House Standard.

A Panel Discussion on the third day of the conference, which included Tim McDonald, Adam Cohen (Passive Buildings Canada), Hank Keating (Passive House Massachusetts), and the recently retired Stan Salwocki of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, told this origin story. McDonald was among the 25 stakeholders mentioned above, while Salwocki was tasked with figuring out how to actually implement the policy. Keating, meanwhile, was instrumental in taking a similar initiative to Massachusetts, and advised anyone listening who might want to push for a similar policy in their state to marry utility rebate programs with code. Via the Mass Save program, Massachusetts is currently offering rebates of $3,000 for each unit of Passive House built, which is attracting a lot of developer attention. “Taking Passive House to Scale in Massachusetts,” with presenters Keating, Beverly Craig (Massachusetts CEC), and Mark Pignatelli (ICF), builds upon how these policy changes are accelerating the adoption of Passive House throughout the Boston area.

A chart depicting the growth in the number of Passive House units in Boston.

A chart depicting the growth in the number of Passive House units in Boston.

Not every session was about policy or specific projects. Many examined the more technical problems associated with designing a Passive House building. For those who are still new to the principles of the Passive House design standard, the virtual workshop with Lisa White examines the goals of Passive House (comfort, health, and efficiency) and the methodology that allows these goals to be achieved (continuous insulation, eliminating thermal bridging, orienting the house in a way to best utilize solar gains, finding balance between heating and cooling loads, and using mechanical ventilation systems to more efficiently regulate air quality and temperature). White, a Certified Passive House Consultant with Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), also described how source energy is considered for different PHIUS standards like PHIUS+ Core, PHIUS+ 2018, and PHIUS+ Source Zero.

For those who are a bit more experienced, “How Not to Fail at Passive House,” a session with Prudence Ferreira (Morrison Hershfield) and David Salamon, is most certainly worth a watch. During the session, the two Passive House veterans include a lot of practical advice for project managers, tradespeople, contractors, and designers.

One of the more universal pieces of advice Ferreira and Salamon offered is that communication is key. Everyone on the project needs to be on the same page when it comes to scheduling, sequencing, and Passive House design principle (as Prudence said a few times, “No cowboys”). This means checklists.

While this may get an eyeroll out of anyone reading this, a similar observation was made by Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author of The Checklist Manifesto. Though construction and surgery may seem worlds apart, they are both extremely complicated and they both require teams to remain aware of hundreds of smaller tasks that need to be completed in the correct order to avoid catastrophic failure. By using a checklist to ensure that every t is crossed and every i is dotted before moving on, this ensures proper sequencing and the most efficient use of time and resources. As Gawande pointed out, abiding by one of the most basic items from his Surgical Safety Checklist—making sure everyone on the surgical team introduced themselves before the procedure and knew one another by name and position—produced a 35 percent decline in the number of complications and deaths.

“Making sure everybody knew each other’s name produced what they called an activation phenomenon,” Gawande told NPR in an interview. “The person, having gotten a chance to voice their name, let speak in the room—were much more likely to speak up later if they saw a problem.”

Though many lament the absence of conferences that allow us all be in the same room together or to meet up for dinner and drinks once the last session has ended, holding virtual conferences and virtual happy hours do have their benefits. On the one hand, they allow far more people to attend. Perhaps more importantly, they also democratize how dialogues are conducted and give everyone a chance to voice their name.


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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