Interview with Eric Corey Freed, Keynote at Passive House Canada Conference

Next week’s Passive House Canada conference (October 17 and 18) features one of my favorite speakers in the sustainable design and construction world, Eric Corey Freed. I first met Eric five or six years ago after witnessing his hilarious emceeing contributions at an International Living Future Institute conference. No one combines stand up comedy with architectural insight and decarbonizing zeal like Eric Corey Freed. He’s the author of more books on sustainable design innovation than I can count. He’s a community builder, green cajoler, and all-around brilliant systems thinker. He now serves as Sustainability Disruptor at Morrison Hershfield. It was a pleasure to have the excuse to interview him yesterday as a preview to his keynote address in Toronto for Passive House Canada.

Zachary Semke: The title of your talk next week at Passive House Canada is provocative: “Building as a Conscious Act: Finding Opportunity in Health, Resilience, and Community.” Give us a quick flyover version of what that means to you?

Eric Corey Freed: Well, I should probably tell you that, you know, every year I’m asked to give a title and every year I make a new talk; that’s kind of my talk for the year. So, to me the title has always been a placeholder. Oftentimes I’ve created the title months ago but then tend to talk about whatever I’m most obsessed with. So, you know, it’s a good title. But for many years I used to just give everybody the same title over and over again, which was, “Club Sandwiches, not Seals.” That was kind of a placeholder title but then people started to catch on to that: “Well you’ve given that talk before.” And I’m like “No, I haven’t, ’cause every talk I give is different. But just use that title.” And then they started getting mad. So now I have to come up with a title.

ZS: So, what are you most obsessed about right now then?

ECF: I’m obsessed with embodied carbon, the time value of carbon, the urgency of how we need to address carbon. So much so that I can’t focus on some of my other passions, such as indoor air quality and health or water which are also very important subjects. But I feel like, given that the world is on fire, we don’t have the luxury of doing anything until we deal with the fire.

But in answer to your question, I’ll be sharing things that I’ve learned over the past six months. I found that being on the road and working on projects all across North America gives me this wonderful, very fortunate advantage to getting exposed to lots of ideas, lots of systems, lots of products, lots of teams, lots of problems, and therefore lots of solutions. And so I’m very excited to share a bunch of those, especially the ones that I feel really affected me and affected the projects, ultimately.

How do we cut five gigatons of CO2 out of the air? We do it by upgrading every building, especially the existing ones. And Passive House gives us a roadmap on how to do that in a very clear, best practices approach.

ZS: And what is your role at Morrison Herschfield?

ECF: I have a very unique, special role there that they were nice enough to create for me. I’m called Sustainability Disruptor.

ZS: Yeah, I’ve seen that.

ECF: Again, it’s just like the title of the talk. It doesn’t officially mean anything. It’s not like I’m candy corn inspector and then you would know exactly what I do. “So, he clearly inspects all the candy corn.” My role there is to really push MH’s sustainability efforts in any way that I can. There’s a lot that the firm already did before I came along, obviously. But there’s a lot more that we can get into. So, to that end, I led them through their first corporate social responsibility report and helped them and the board set some clear goals for where the company needs to head for the next 20 years. It’s a 70 year-old company and they’re very good about thinking about, “Where do we want to take this and where do we want to go with this?” I’m very fortunate to work with people that are much smarter than me. I get to ask them childlike questions about sustainability and facilitate them through that process

ZS: That’s exciting. So, when you’re on the road at one of these projects, are you bringing together teams? How does that look in terms of how you integrating yourself with the effort?

ECF: I find that my real gift is that of a facilitator. So whether I’m in Toronto and facilitating a group of six suburban cities through their climate action planning process, whether I’m talking to a company that manufactures products and wants to see if they can get to carbon neutrality, or whether I’m just facilitating a developer who wants to build projects in a better way, the action that I’m creating a still that one of facilitation. I’m raising issues they might not have considered. I’m suggesting solutions. But I find ultimately, at the end of the day, I have to be somewhat agnostic to it.

If you want to use Passive House as a way to get to net zero—very smart idea. I’ll certainly push you on it. But if instead you want to look at using LEED or Living Building Challenge as a way to get there too? Great. I almost don’t care, as long as we’re moving in the right direction. And for me that’s around the urgency of carbon. So, I wouldn’t say that every project that I do is a Passive House project by any means. But certainly we talk about Passive House on every project. If at the end of the day we don’t go for Passive House-certified, but instead do LEED, that’s fine too, as long as the larger end goal is a conversation around slashing our carbon.

ZS: On this question of carbon and embodied carbon and what you’re seeing on the ground, is there an exciting example that you’ve been working on or helping to support? A project that’s engaging effectively around embodied carbon or even carbon sequestration?

ECF: Yeah, there are two that are top of mind because I’m working on them every day. The first one is for a developer who wants to build missing middle housing. Not affordable housing. Not high-end, boutique housing. But missing middle housing. That’s already kind of a great sign that the developer even knows what that is. And they want to do this in 12 cities all at once. They had pushed for prefab but didn’t know how to do it or where to start. They didn’t know how prefab would affect the design but certainly thought it could save them some money or at least construction speed. We then pushed them to look at it in terms of a carbon neutral approach: you know, really looking at envelope, thermal bridging and all the other things that would come up very heavily for prefab. With prefab you get redundant surfaces; if I stack two shoe boxes on top of each other, I’ve got a lid touching another lid. So how can we take advantage of that for something like insulation?

Then the conversation evolved into, “Well, if we’re talking about the carbon story, maybe we prefab them out of out of mass-timber CLT.” That way the upfront carbon that it takes to make it goes way down. So we’ve got the CLT boxes that come to the site almost fully formed. They connect together and stack up five high and we can do this in 12 cities and then kind of play with the envelope based on the climate zone that they’re in. So that’s one project, hopefully one that will save a lot of money and a lot of time for the developer, so they’re happy.

Project number two is kind of the other side of that. It’s a large acreage in Southern California that was a toxic oil field. How do we build essentially zero carbon buildings on that but also then restore the oil fields to something that nature would approve of? There’s a whole regeneration component to it, a lot of which we’re inventing as we go. We’re playing with micro remediation using mushrooms to clean up oil fields. Luckily, it’s such a big site that we have the luxury of trying different things and then measuring what works and what doesn’t. And the client is a nonprofit so their entire mission is around really looking at conserving the site. It’s a combination of a great client with a great vision that’s open to any ideas and we’re just kind of bringing together the people in the team that can do it.

ZS: On the embodied carbon front, what are the most acute challenges that you’re finding in terms of reaching the goal of low-embodied carbon? And is there something out there that is particularly exciting to you about how this new embodied carbon-mindful movement is developing?

ECF: Well, the challenge has always been, “How do we measure it in a way that’s somewhat easy to quantify?” If I order Lafarge cement, for example, depending on the plant that it comes from, it tells a totally different carbon story. I can’t just make a blanket statement that this many cubic yards of Lafarge cement is going to translate to this much CO2. It starts to get very complex when you get into it. And when you’re surrounded by a team of engineers who love numbers and love accuracy, it’s hard to say to them,“Listen, I just need it good enough so that way we can calculate it. I don’t need it down to the parts per billion.” Even just getting anecdotal data about the carbon story is hard.

The good news is that now the Pacific Northwest, where you and I live, has been a bit of a leader in this. And then of course across North America we have the Embodied Carbon Network. We have new tools like EC3, the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, that they’re going to release very shortly to everybody [this November]. It’s already changed the conversation.

And then you also have books like Project Drawdown from Paul Hawken, and the nonprofit that supports it. They have single-handedly changed the conversation around embodied carbon, and even refrigerants. We weren’t talking about the global warming potential of refrigerants at all before that book came out. Now we’re selecting refrigerants based on their global warming potential and talking about going back to ammonia from the 1970s, which by the way was problematic back then. But still we’re talking about going back simply because its global warming potential is so much lower than some of the CFCs that we’ve been using.

It’s a fun time to be in construction, I think, because we’re going back and saying, “Okay, you know all those assumptions that we had for the last 50 years? Well it turns out most of them are wrong and now we get to question all of them.” For me as an architect, that’s exciting. It’s a lot of fun to see all of that unfold and see these new tools come out every day. Even on the material side, I’m able to get into material transparency in a way I couldn’t even just three years ago.

ZS: What do you think about the potential for actual carbon sequestration, at least during the course of the life of the building? Are you seeing the kind of numbers that cause you to say “We think that if we choose the right materials, buildings can be net positive in embodied carbon impact?”

ECF: They absolutely can be net positive. In fact, Chris Magwood just finished a graduate thesis about this very topic. [See Passive House Accelerator’s article about Magwood’s findings.] But you know the sad truth of it? Yes, of course we can make carbon positive buildings. But we still have the realities of building code, economics, building inspectors, education, and fear of the unknown going on. At the end of the day, it’s still human beings building these things. So if, as much as I might push them to say, “Hey, let’s look at hempcrete as a really viable alternative.” I can’t look at it in and of itself. I also have to take into consideration questions like, will the building department be open to it? Are we using it in a load-bearing or fire resistive method? How would that be received? And on and on and on. It’s the same thing that we’re all struggling with.

The truth is that the only scalable technology that we have today to absorb carbon and sequester it is trees. Nature’s got 3.8 billion years of research and development ahead of us and they have this great tree device. So, part of me says, “Let’s just build wetlands and trees and surround the site with that and maybe that’s the best carbon sequestering we can get.”

ZS: That’s interesting. It’s analogous to net zero energy and questions around rooftop solar versus community solar versus utility scale solar. Okay, my last question is about the Passive House community and how we can contribute to this bigger, holistic movement of building decarbonization. First, what do we have to offer? Second, what do we need to learn?

ECF: Well the community obviously has a lot to offer simply on the technical front. I’ve certainly been to my share of Passive House conferences and worked with great people. At MH we have our own Passive House team with Prudence Ferreira and the gang that is just a wealth of knowledge and resources.

But on the other hand, going to a Passive House conference for a newbie can be pretty intimidating, right? You’re talking about blower door tests and CFMs and EUI and all these new languages they need to learn. And I think we all fall prey to making it into this hipster club of technocrats.

We should always be mindful of how to expand the circle. How do we widen it? How do we get more people to speak our language? How do we get to the place where the Passive House conference becomes the must-attend event of the year for people like developers or financial people or even end-users, so it’s not just this club of people that are comparing their numbers to each other. That’s great and you know I love it. I have a joke about it that I’m going to share at the conference. Hopefully it will do well with the audience. You never know.

ZS: Absolutely. Is there anything else that you want to communicate to the community before the conference?

ECF: It seems like every week as I’m learning new things it helps me evolve and see things in a clearer way. Just recently I got to see Ed Mazria [of Architecture 2030] speak. I’ve known Ed for 20-plus years. I imagine we’ve all heard him speak multiple times. But every time he speaks, I’ve learned something new. This most recent time there was something different about the way he presented the data. Ed always presents these beautifully drawn, very clear easy-to-read charts. But this time he presented it in a way that was almost like triage: We can’t get all the carbon. We can’t worry about everything. What are the things that we can do that are the quickest and most affordable and most impactful? Let’s do those first.

Just that slight tweak of mentality changed me and what I do in my work. Just hearing his latest expression of what’s become clear to him helps me gain clarity in what I do. And then I’ll probably pass that on in my talks and so forth.

The Passive House community is vital to all of this. How do we cut five gigatons of CO2 out of the air? We do it by upgrading every building, especially the existing ones. And Passive House gives us a roadmap on how to do that in a very clear, best practices approach.

Author: Zachary Semke
Categories: Leader