Interview with Tomas O'Leary, Ireland: Enough Talk, Time for Action

Tomas O’Leary is a global Passive House champion. Many of us in North America know him in his capacity as (mercifully entertaining) Passive House trainer and CPHD/CPHC test-prepper. He’s also a leading Passive House exponent, building in 2004 one of the first Passive Houses outside the German-speaking world. And he’s a tireless advocate for Passive House policy progress. I caught up with Tomas this week on speakerphone as he headed onto the expressway in Ireland during a busy week of preparations for the World nZEB Forum 2019 in Dún Laoghaire.

Zack: Hi Tomas. Can you start by introducing yourself and your work today?

Tomas O’Leary: Thanks, Zack. Tomas O’Leary is my name. I am Managing Director of two companies that are very involved in the high-performance building sphere. People in North America will know me best for Passive House Academy, and Passive House Academy has been active in North America since 2011, but the Passive House Academy is a subsidiary of a company I set up in 1993 called MosArt, and the MosArt comes from my college nickname, which was Mossy, and my partner’s name, which is Art. We’ve been in business continuously for 26 years and operating in the high-performance building space.

Zack: Great. So, I met you when you trained me during the CPHC/CPHD [Certified Passive House Consultant/Certified Passive House Designer] training, and I know you’ve trained Passive House professionals and advocated for Passive House policy all around the world. What’s your assessment of where we’re at in terms of market transformation and the shift that we need to make?

I genuinely feel that the 2020s will be regarded as the era when we finally copped on to the necessity of building better buildings.

Tomas: I was doing a count recently, actually, because I was presenting at the U.K. Passive House conference in Manchester, and it was a presentation on training. I did a quick talk on all the people we’ve trained, and I was kind of surprised. Between all the places we’ve trained, we’ve actually delivered two and a half thousand trained professionals, which is quite an incredible number. I couldn’t believe it myself! That’s between designers and tradespeople.

But I think, Zack, at times it feels like you’re plowing a lonely furrow. It feels like you’re shouting into kind of a deep, dark forest, and you’re wondering, “Is anybody listening?” But I feel, finally, even in the last twelve months, like we’ve been pulling back the catapult for forever, and now we’re basically about to release the catapult and go into propulsion forward, you know? You can’t turn on the radio or turn on the television or open a newspaper nowadays without reading articles about climate change and carbon emissions, so I think there’s a general level of public concern now for climate change. You also have the politicians in the likes of Ireland, Vancouver, and New York, who are really ratcheting up the pressure in terms of the energy performance of buildings. So, I genuinely feel that the 2020s will be regarded as the era when we finally copped on to the necessity of building better buildings.

Zack: It definitely feels like in the last few years that something fundamental has shifted, and people’s awareness of the problem has grown.

Tomas: I finally feel we’re in propulsion mode. We’re no longer pulling back the catapult. We’ve finally released now, and it’s a matter of how far, and how fast, and how deep we go.

Zack: Yeah. Absolutely. I know that there are some really exciting developments in Ireland’s governmental adoption of Passive House or Passive House concepts in rulemaking. Can you share the highlights of what’s going on in Ireland?

Tomas: Basically, the difference between Ireland and the US is that Ireland, as being part of the European Union, has signed up to an interesting thing called EBPD, which is the European Building Performance Directive. Ten years ago, the 27 members of the European Union signed up to deliver nZEB, which stands for Nearly Zero Energy Buildings, by the end of 2020. It’s not Passive House, but it’s similar in spirit insofar as it’s envelope focused, and it’s looking at all the things we know and love in Passive House: insulation, air tightness, thermal bridges, good windows, and ventilation systems first and foremost. Every country in Europe, Zack, has to deliver nZEB by the end of 2020, and Ireland is really in pole position across the European Union. As far as I know, we’re the first to actually roll it out in terms of delivery, so from the first of January 2019 all commercial buildings in Ireland have to meet the nZEB standards.

Zack: Wow.

Tomas: And from the first of November, which was just last Friday, all domestic buildings in Ireland must meet the nZEB standard. It’s really quite an incredible achievement and it’s been ten years in the making. For us, last week was a big celebration because we finally arrived at nZEB Day.

The “n” currently stands for “nearly,” but in five years’ time the “n” is going to graduate from the word “nearly” to the word “net.” We haven’t arrived at our final destination yet. We’ve just arrived at the next station on our journey. And while the precise timings have yet to be hammered out, probably by 2025 we’ll go from “nearly zero” to “net zero.”

Zack: Very cool. I know you’re deep in preparations for next week’s World nZEB Forum, and I know you’ve already mentioned how that’s closely related to the Passive House movement. What’s going to be on offer at the Forum?

Tomas: It’s a two-day event. The first day has site visits and hands-on workshops, so you can get to visit projects and you can also get to see things like heat recovery ventilators and heat pumps dismantled, and then explained to you in pidgin English. So, the first day is very much hands-on. The second day, then, is more your normal conference format, and we have three parallel tracks with 25 presenters, seven of which are international. We have four presenters from North America and three from the rest of Continental Europe. It’s going to cover the whole gamut of high-performance buildings. We’ll deal with new build, with retrofit, with commercial, with residential. We also have Scott Foster, who we’ve been working very closely with, from the United Nations. He’s going to close out the conference. It’s going to be jam-packed full of really great content. With us, content is king, for our events, and we’ve built a reputation based on really excellent content, so we’re looking forward to that.

It’s time for action. Enough talk. We’ve got the science. We’ve got the methodology. We know what works. It’s now time for everybody to step up to the plate and start delivering on climate action.

Zack: You mentioned Scott Foster. I just had the chance to interview Scott about a number of things, including the UN network of the Centers of Excellence that is developing now, and I know that you’ve been a key leader in that work, particularly in Ireland. What’s in store for Ireland and a Center of Excellence?

Tomas: Looking at the network, first of all, what we’ve realized is that there are some lighthouse regions in the world that have a really good story to share, and, at the moment, they include such places as Vancouver, New York, and Pittsburgh, and we were centrally involved in working with the UN in getting this network going. We’re taking an aggressive position on training and education because most people don’t realize we have a problem, but even those who do realize that we have a problem don’t always have the technical skills or the design skills to be able to deliver high-performance buildings.

To address that issue, we’ve partnered with WWETB—that stands for Waterford & Wexford Education and Training Board—to deliver a world-class training and education center, mostly for contractors, but professional designers can come along and take training there, too. In the first year of operation we will have trained 500 contractors in nZEB. The course combines theory and practice, so it’s very much a hands-on experience. We’re teaching the theory of why-to and the practical skills of how-to, so that’s one kind of example of what we’re doing in Ireland.

The other thing we’re doing, Zack, is that we’ve built a lot of high-performance houses, including certified Passive Houses, and we’re monitoring those houses in terms of energy and in terms of comfort. They’re built in different regions and with different materials, and we’re monitoring the performance of those houses. What’s really been extraordinary is how well they’re performing in terms of energy and indoor comfort. The performance of those buildings proves, I suppose, to the policymakers that they’re worthy investments.

Zack: Got it. This is really great. Is there anything else that you want to add or that you’d like to share with the readers?

Tomas: I started this journey in 2004. In 2004, I moved into my certified Passive House in Ireland. It was one of the first certified Passive Houses outside of the German-speaking region, and, in the blink of an eye, those 15 years have passed. On the one hand, I suppose, the time has gone fast. On the other hand, it has been 15 years and I finally feel, you know, at the end of 2019, the beginning of 2020, I really believe we’re moving into an era now where high-performance buildings are having a moment. 40% of carbon emissions globally are from buildings. So, for anybody involved in the buildings environment, it’s incumbent on us all, morally and ethically, to step up to the plate. It’s time for action. Enough talk. We’ve got the science. We’ve got the methodology. We know what works. It’s now time for everybody to step up to the plate and start delivering on climate action.

What I always say to people is: The local postman or the local policeman or the local teacher or the local delivery guy…you know, there’s very little that they can do in terms of carbon emissions. But building designers, building contractors, building products manufacturers, we can all contribute enormously to curbing carbon emissions. So, I really feel the weight of that. I don’t feel it as a stress point. I feel it as a great opportunity for me to make a real difference in the world. So, I suppose I’m putting a shout out, Zack, to anybody involved in the building environment. You know, the world needs you. The world needs people now to step up, and “good enough” is not good enough anymore.

Zack: Hear, hear!

Author: Zachary Semke
Categories: Leader, Affordable Housing