In reflecting on last week’s 14th North American Passive House Conference (NAPHC2019), I can’t help but think about where this movement was back when I first joined it ten years ago.
I had just been hired by Portland, Oregon builder Hammer & Hand, and the co-founder of the company, Sam Hagerman, was on fire about Passive House. He had just taken the training with Katrin Klingenberg up in Seattle (along with a bunch of now-luminaries in the North American Passive House movement) and his excitement about this new way of understanding buildings was infectious. Sam described Passive House as the “unified field theory” of construction, something that brought together the disparate and hard-won lessons and questions from the field—a mishmash of epiphanies, failures, theories, intuitions—explained it all with building science, organized it into a systems-based understanding, and laid out a crystal-clear pathway for praxis moving forward.
But in 2009 and 2010, opportunities to actually apply this new approach in the real world were few and far between. Thanks to a combination of luck and charisma, Sam won some of the first Passive House projects in Oregon and Washington—all single family homes. Numerically, the number of Passive House projects that Hammer & Hand did back then can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But given that the Passive House movement was in the pioneer stage at that point, Hammer & Hand’s project count—and its delivery of those projects—made it a leader.
I vividly remember in those days first learning about Reach CDC’s planned Orchards at Orenco project in Hillsboro, Oregon. The 59-unit Orchards project captivated the North American Passive House community for years, and for good reason. It was being constructed by the best (Mike Steffen and Walsh Construction). It was affordable housing. And it was the biggest Passive House project in North America to date, by far.
Orchards at Orenco, a 59-unit Passive House affordable housing project owned by Reach CDC. Built by Walsh Construction and designed by Ankrom Moisan.
Over the year we gobbled up any news we could get about the project: “Look at those renderings! What’s the wall assembly? Will the elevator be inside or outside the PH envelope? What do the tenants think of it? What was the cost premium?” The project was a fixture at NAPHCs for years.
Today, everything has changed. The volume of exciting Passive House projects is orders of magnitude larger now. The square footage of PHIUS-certified projects has basically doubled every year since 2009, driving an exponential curve of uptake. While Passive House construction still amounts to just a sliver of overall construction in North America, we now have scores of projects the size of Orchards at Orenco. A “big” Passive House project now means more like 590 units, not 59. And there are just too many exciting projects out there for any single one to capture more than its 15 minutes of fame.
But those first, pioneering projects laid the foundation for what we’re doing today. In fact, Orchards at Orenco sparked a journey of exploration and innovation for Mike Steffen that empowered him to achieve astonishing design efficiencies and cost compression in the multifamily buildings that Walsh Construction has built since the Orchards project. Mike’s findings—and the potential to take the cost savings he’s uncovering and apply them to “fund” Passive House performance in the building—were the subject of his compelling closing keynote at NAPHC2019.
Mike Steffen of Walsh Construction delivers the closing keynote address at NAPHC2019.
While the momentum of Passive House in the US is great to see, none of us pretend that we are where we need to be in terms of market transformation, yet. The full promise of Passive House—and net zero ready buildings generally—hasn’t been realized, not by a long shot. We’re still a tiny fraction of the construction picture.
That said, our trajectory is clear. A doubling of Passive House square footage each year is excitingly disruptive. And governments all over North America are adopting Passive House—or Passive House levels of performance—as a centerpiece of their climate action work in buildings. At NAPHC we learned about Washington, DC’s, Massachusetts’, and New York’s transformative policies that will drive Passive House adoption. I myself presented about Washington State’s mandate to achieve Passive House levels of building energy performance by 2031. These developments, and ones like them that will follow around the country, can bring Passive House to scale in the real world. While Passive House may be a sliver of design and construction in 2019, my money is on Passive House (and net zero carbon and other kindred-spirit approaches to über performance and decarbonization in buildings) by 2030.
This is particularly well-timed, given the message of headliner NAPHC2019 keynote speaker, Jeremy Rifkin. By 2028, Rifkin predicts the collapse of the “fossil fuel civilization”, a civilization fueled by extraction, centralized power and communication, and sobering environmental impacts. In its place Rifkin argues for an ecological civilization, one characterized by energy efficiency, laterally distributed power, energy, and communication, and a new concept of community that is defined by the biosphere. Passive House’s revolutionary efficiency, resiliency, and facilitation of positive energy generation uniquely situate it to support Rifkin’s vision for a “Green New Deal”.
A lot has changed over the course of Passive House’s history in North America. National politics are crazier. The impacts of climate change are obvious. The urgency of climate action is significantly more pressing. But so, too, is the relevance and power of the Passive House community to make a meaningful impact on it all. Thank you to PHIUS and to Passive House practitioners and advocates of all stripes for getting us to where we are today. NAPHC2019 was a reminder of the technical, manufacturing, design, psychological, and policy mountains that we have scaled together.
A big milestone: Passive House is becoming the assumed baseline for net zero energy and zero carbon buildings. In my interview with Kat at the conference, she shared her recent experience at the Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland. “It was the first conference that I’ve ever been to where it wasn’t even a question that passive building is the baseline for getting to zero,” she said. “And it was talked about in a way that it was not only the U.S.; it was the global view.” She had a similar experience at the NYSERDA Buildings of Excellence awards ceremony, where roughly half of the two dozen or so awards went to PHIUS projects. At least in the “shift to zero” world, Passive House has gone mainstream.
PHIUS Executive Director Katrin Klingenberg makes closing remarks at NAPHC2019.
One of the highlights of the conference for me happened during the public panel presentations at the recently retrofitted headquarters of the AGU (American Geophysical Union), a net zero, PHIUS+ retrofit of a mid-rise building in DC. Architect Michael Hindle shared his work reaching beyond Passive House in energy performance and creating net positive energy projects built with low embodied carbon materials: a regenerative architecture connected into local microgrid communities. I was especially moved by how he is teaching his young son to design and build these buildings, taking an important step at empowering the next generation, both in the mitigation of climate change as well as in the creation of human habitats embedded in durable, resilient communities.
Sample of Michael Hindle's work.
During his keynote, Jeremy Rifkin called on all of us to redouble our efforts. “Continue your efforts, because without you we will not get there,” he told us. “With you we may have a chance.”
I’d go a step further. In a sense, each Passive House project that we create “gets us there.” Each project propels us closer to our Paris climate goals, yes. But each project also creates a resilient haven where people can live and thrive, even in an uncertain world.
When I think about the collective energy, sacrifices, and triumphs embodied by the NAPHC2019 presentations, tradeshow exhibitors, and attendees, I feel deep gratitude. 2009 was a year of tentative first steps. In 2019, we’ve got the wind at our backs.
NAPHC2020 will be held in Tarrytown, NY. Stay tuned for details!
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