Interview with Graham Irwin Of Essential Habit Architecture

We’ve been saving this interview with Graham Irwin, founder and principal of Passive House design firm Essential Habitat Architecture in Northern California, in our pre-Covid-19 vaults. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Graham in December at the PHIUS conference in Washington, DC to talk about his approach to Passive House communication and Passive House design. Today, with Graham’s upcoming appearance as guest presenter at the May 20 Global Passive House Happy Hour, we’re very pleased to share it.

Zack Semke: So Graham, you presented in the (14th annual North American Passive House) conference yesterday. What were some of the highlights from that presentation?

Graham Irwin: The audience interaction was great, but the highlight for me was the sequence of slides talking about communicating as an architect. For a long time, there’s been a trap that we in Passive House fall into. We get really excited about the possibility of Passive House and the geeky people among us—I insinuate there may be one or two—really get excited about the specifics of the technology, and project that that is enough to share with clients. I think that’s a mistake.

We assume that good architecture will prove itself as self-evident, but in many cases it’s just inferred by Passive House designers right now. If you come to a website about Passive House or a Passive House architect, there may be examples of things designed, but the upfront statement, the mission statement, is in the weeds with the technology. There’s not enough of an overarching architectural vision, even if that’s your primary product—or service, if you will.

In any case, to make this point, I had a slide of an Audi electric car—granted, cars are problematic in many ways, but it was an analogy for this point—and I said, “Well, suppose you want to sell this high-design electric vehicle.” You need to build a vision of it, show people what it looks like, express to them how it feels, let them imagine how it feels to drive; you also want to describe how safe it is, how healthy it is, how good it is for the environment. All of those things. But it has to be experiential.

I said, “Or you could do this,” and the next slide was just the chassis of the Audi—four wheels and the chassis—and I found this wonderful graphic that even had German and English labels of all the components. So, with this method, it turns into: “This thing has a that, and it has a this and it’s got that,” and, you can get very animated about it. However, the problem is that if this is all you talk about, you’re going to lose the client.

Don’t sell the drivetrain, sell the car.

Not to dismiss any of the benefits of Passive House, but we need to recognize that people need more than that. I’m determined to see Passive House, or my architecture, just be enviable. And I have had a few clients now come to me and sasy, “We want to work with you, but we’re not sure if we want Passive House.” And I’ve been able to say, “Here are some past clients. Why don’t you reach out to them, why don’t you visit their projects, and see how you feel about Passive House? If you’re interested in doing Passive House, I’m interested in working with you.” They came back and said, “Yes.”

I think it was empowering for them to feel like they had that agency. I mean, I think all of us here know this is a superior way to build, but it’s a matter of communicating to clients who really don’t know. The architecture process is a vast sea of unknowns for them already.

Don’t sell the drivetrain, sell the car.

Zack: Right. We know WUFI Passive is the drivetrain, for example.

Graham: Or even an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator). You could be like, “It has an ERV and we’ve reduced the air infiltration to save energy,” or whatever. Instead, put it in more visceral terms that everyone can understand and appreciate and, if they make the right decision without knowing the right reasons, that’s still the right decision, so it’s fine. I think that holding the expectation that every one of your clients needs to be a diehard Passive House enthusiast is really limiting. Not only of your own work, but of the adoption of this.

Zack: Absolutely. So, your brand statement is: “Architecture for the future of California.” What does that mean for you?

Graham: The spirit that that expresses to me is, on one side, there’s an imperative that there is a future, and that we need to do something differently to have a livable future. But on the other side, there’s a forward thinking, optimistic, creative kind of point-of-view about, not only finding a way to guarantee a future, but a better way to live.

Zack: And how do you see that translating into your work? For example, with a current project or some of the concepts I know that you’ve been working on?

Graham: I feel like the architecture I do needs to captivate people’s imagination, and to me that means kind of a bold, modernist—again I know these terms are really hard to use—but an innovative, kind of bold thinking. It leans away from excessive ornamentation. I talk about elemental geometry rather than “simple”, which has a negative connotation. But “elemental geometry”: a lot of indoor/outdoor connection there that, again, is popular everywhere, particularly in California, but still environmentally responsive and healthy and safe and quiet. Another tagline we use is, “A sanctuary for the modern world.” That’s generally the idea.

The presentation I did yesterday talked a lot about renewal, which is another way of saying retrofit. We have another number of projects underway now, a couple midcentury homes in the Silicon Valley. Both of them have wonderful “before” pictures because they just look so awful. One of them in particular; the rear façade had no windows or doors to the backyard at all—none. Just an electrical box on the back. We can compare that with the rendering of our design, which is, you know, generous and expansive to the back, connected to nature. It’s an irony perhaps that this seemingly technological approach is actually more connected to nature than the old junky house with no windows on the back, right? You interact with the sun and the seasons and all of those things, and I find that delightful. Almost druidic.

Zack: So that’s a great segue to my next question, which is about Passive House in California. You’re a pioneer of Passive House in that state, a leading practitioner. How is Passive House different in California than it is elsewhere in the country?

Graham: A lot of ways. I think maybe I’ll start with how I view my Passive House community, the national Passive House community, how I sense they view Passive House in California and how I differ with that. So, I think that people think that it’s very easy to do in California because the climate is mild, and in some ways that’s true. You’re certainly far less constrained by form factor and glazing and all those things, though you still need the air tightness and you still need Passive House details, so I think there’s less of a delta than there might be in that way. On the other side of it, I think the general public in California feels less of an imperative around energy savings. I mean, the utility bills to heat an uninsulated house in the Bay Area are just not high enough to feel like that’s a problem. I mean, sure, it’s not pleasant, but it’s not a problem that is aching to be solved. On the other side of that, though, the state is moving really aggressively and laudably toward some carbon negative goals that will be a platform for Passive House-level buildings. It has to be. There’s just no other way. So, its time has yet to come fully, but people are reaching out for this now, and I think that’s pretty inspiring and terrific. I feel good about it.

Zack: Definitely. Anything you want to add?

Graham: I’m honored to be part of this, and just looking forward to doing more Passive House work. Thank you.

Zack: Thank you!

Author: Zachary Semke