Urban development in Latin America is focused on cheap and fast building, with no attention to climate-specific needs. Income inequality and the cost of quality building materials combined with the typical architect’s ego, the developer’s fixation on short-term profit, and an overall culture of greed has diminished access to ethically built, resilient, and comfortable housing amid the looming shadow of the global climate crisis.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in early 2020, online communication and networking became the de-facto way to collaborate across the world. Through these strange times, we learned how to interact with each other via online meetings, presentations, conferences, trade shows, and hangouts. Hours that were once spent commuting were now free for us to explore more ideas, read more news, and find new trends within our profession and interests.
This increase in networking sparked growth in the Passive House community around the world, and specifically in Latin America (LATAM). However, such growth was not immediate. In April 2020, the Global Passive House Happy Hour connected the international community, and I couldn’t help but notice a lack of Latin Americans present. Just a year and a handful of months later, the number of professionals in LATAM has surged, largely due to the efforts of the Latin-American Passive House Institute (ILAPH in Spanish), in collaboration with partners in Europe and North America, catalyzing a boom in Passive House professionals throughout the region. Forty Passive House consultants have recently been certified and more than 70 professionals are currently taking Passive House training courses.
This Passive House expansion is not limited to one or two nations. While Argentina and Chile have seen more growth, perhaps due to their larger population sizes or the similarity of their climates to those in Europe and North America, Passive House is now in over 17 countries throughout LATAM’s Spanish-speaking region and Brazil (where Portuguese is the official language).
An unexpected journey
For the last six years I have worked with and supported some of the leading professionals in the worldwide Passive House community. This is not a role that I thought I would play when I moved to the United States. Like many professionals in the building sector, I had no knowledge of Passive House at that time.
I first learned about Passive House when I came to New York City to get my master’s degree in sustainability at the City College of New York. The interdisciplinary nature of the program allowed me the opportunity to explore classes in engineering, architecture, and science. I discovered Passive House through a course called “Low Energy Buildings'' taught by Cramer Silkworth and Floris Buisman. I would later learn they were leading professionals within the Passive House community in New York.
When I got certified as a Passive House consultant (CPHC) in 2018, I was very excited to learn more about how to scale and implement the standard in my home country of Panama. However, I quickly realized that the undertaking of growing the network, raising awareness, and creating connections with companies and professionals would be very difficult while I lived in New York. Most professionals I knew in LATAM did not have familiarity with such basic concepts as airtightness, moisture control, and thermal bridges. Very few LATAM countries even have energy codes. In Colombia, very basic energy codes were implemented in 2015, but they are not strictly enforced. In Panama, an energy code was presented in 2019, and LEED and Edge Energy Modeling have been applied to increase the quality and performance of buildings. The brightest spot is most certainly Chile, which implemented energy codes in 2001. At the time, these codes assessed only the roof, but have slowly evolved to assess the whole building envelope. Chile is also home to Marcelo Huenchuñir, the first CPHC and architect to build a Passive House building in South America in 2011—Banco Bci. Huenchuñir is pushing the envelope and advocating for better building codes in Chile, as well as throughout LATAM.
As part of his efforts, Huenchuñir founded the Latin American Passivhaus Institute (ILAPH) in 2019 with Juan Manuel Vazquez of Argentina and the support of Micheel Wassouf of Energiehaus Arquitectos in Barcelona, Spain and Pedro Reyna of Córdoba, Argentina. Later that year they contacted me to see if I wanted to join the organization and said they had been contacting the existing certified Passive House practitioners from Latin America, hoping to expand their network. After I joined, there were still less than 10 of us.
Jairo Posada, architect and CPHD in Colombia, is working to bring Prana E/HRV systems to Latin America, as well as working toward the use of natural materials in his Passive House practice.
In Chile, Marcelo Huenchuñir is now representing Proclima and Helios, as well as facilitating connections with blower door testing equipment through such Chilean universities in Chile like Universidad Catolica in Santiago, Bio Bio in Concepcion, and de la Frontera in Temuco.
Juan Pablo Cardenas, professor of engineering for Universidad de la Frontera in Chile, has been researching and implementing combining Passive House standard construction methods with the use of local materials and building on vernacular wall construction, in addition to representing SIGA.
Martin Comas, CPHD in Uruguay, is implementing compressed straw-bale construction to reduce costs, while using Passive House principles to produce better house prototypes that can fit his client’s budget. Comas is also combining organic and local materials with uPVC windows to allow for affordability and performance.
Alejandro Moreno Rangel, CPHD and research associate at Lancaster University, in collaboration with ILAPH, successfully helped fund and train a select number of Mexican architects and construction professionals to become Passive House certified through the LATAMHAUS program.
Paolo Massacesi, architect and CPHC in Argentina, and part owner of window company Aluminio Dobuti, is building one of the first passive house projects in Argentina and also trained his workforce to achieve a successful envelope construction.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, ILAPH’s membership has ballooned and awareness of the Passive House standard throughout LATAM has surged. Moreover, grassroots and volunteer efforts have helped ILAPH understand the larger context and the level of interest from many different countries in Central and South America.
In the spring of 2021, we achieved a milestone with the first Passive House Conference of the Americas, during which we were able to broadcast presentations about the Passive House standard across the American continent in English and Spanish, with support from the Passive House Network and Passive House Canada. The conference was the culmination of more than two years of work toward getting the standard recognized as a new way to build and develop in a region whose population is projected to grow exponentially. It is expected that Latin America will need to create 5 billion m2 (54 billion ft2) of building floor area to accommodate its population growth by 2030. If this projection holds true, Passive House standard education and its application will be key to helping achieve energy efficiency and comfort in a region where building energy codes are either in their infancy or nonexistent and urban construction methods largely deviate from a climate-appropriate approach.
The event also highlighted some of the common struggles facing nations throughout LATAM: poor governance, old and outdated building codes, and new or poorly enforced energy conservation codes that are often overlooked and not implemented. On the plus side, we also recognized a need for a fresh outlook, one that features the implementation of natural materials to overcome emissions and supply chain roadblocks and which can be used to bridge local knowledge and the new concepts associated with Passive House construction. This approach has proven to be a good combination to break that first barrier of adoption.
This insight is a crucial lesson and explains why the ILAPH advocates for the use of natural materials and vernacular construction to achieve Passive House-level construction while reducing construction costs and the learning curve of the workforce. We hope that these practices can help reduce negative impacts by encouraging and creating better building practices that are readily available locally and can excite designers, developers, and building owners, while increasing the value of the buildings.
Blending new and old
As a young architect, it is my belief that design practices are rooted in the formative years of higher education and professional practice. We need more holistic and robust curriculums so that future professionals can integrate beautiful designs with energy efficiency and bio-climatic techniques and phase out global trends that use construction methods not suited for the local climate and encourage the use of vernacular construction practices.
In addition to the new methodologies and techniques, we will also need better access to high-performance building components and materials like tapes, weather barriers, and E/HRV mechanical systems. Once they become more widely available, we will also need resources to train members of the industry on how to use them.
As mentioned previously, Chile is one of the countries leading the way on the adoption of Passive House techniques. In 2011 it was difficult to find any of the products to build passive, but as Huenchuñir says, “It is easier now to find tapes and other materials in Chile, as well as mechanical systems, even uPVC windows, with some being PHI-certified components. However, the most difficult component to find is a general contractor or builder that can properly interpret the detailed drawings and execute the project.” Most recently, during the COP26 event, Huenchuñir with ILAPH successfully staged South America’s first Ice Box Challenge in Santiago, Chile, achieving a milestone in showing Passive House to the general public.
In contrast with Chile, the rest of LATAM is several steps behind, especially when compared to the U.S. market. In most countries with warm climates, double-pane windows are not standard—most catalogs don’t even offer them as an option. Other materials like vapor variable tapes and E/HRV systems are also difficult to find, and sourcing them is possible but only at a high premium. Conversely, some products like liquid-applied membranes are available through big manufacturers, like STO, in most countries.
There are more examples of individuals throughout the region making strides to create better buildings (see Figure 3), but these efforts are siloed and up against decades-old construction practices, aversion to new techniques by builders, and the already high cost of construction. As high-performance products continue to be sold at significant premiums throughout LATAM, most of these products remain viable options for only select projects.
All the above constraints heavily affect the perception, adoption, and implementation of the Passive House standard in LATAM. In the region, Passive House is thought of as a construction standard that is too expensive, difficult to achieve in warmer and more humid climates (even if South America also has colder climates, especially farther south and up in the Andes region), and not even needed for warm-humid climates.
The fact that Passive House is a European-developed standard, and the target metrics are so rigid, has made the specifications and targets very hard to achieve and even alienating to newcomers excited about the thought of applying it in their area. On top of these hurdles, the lack of access to educational materials on the subject, combined with the very different construction practices in Latin America, exacerbates the problems surrounding Passive House uptake. More support from outside is required, and this support is welcome from everyone that is willing to collaborate with us.
ILAPH is grateful for the support it has received from Spain, where the Passive House standard is well established, and particularly from two very experienced Passive House designers, Juan Manuel Castaño in Sevilla and Micheel Wassouf in Barcelona. However, educational materials in Castilian Spanish still present a language barrier for the LATAM region. Our hope is that we can adapt their lectures and online courses to our Latin American Spanish and building typologies and that a more accessible online culture will flourish, leading to more and more professionals and students taking courses and becoming certified. The same is true for the workforce.
The need for implementation of the Passive House standard in LATAM is critical in helping us do our part in the fight against climate change and tackle housing inequality. The resources, materials, knowledge, and experience are available to all, but the push to make it a more accessible and less restrictive-looking standard is still missing from the international picture. What is also largely missing is support from politicians and commercial leaders for the adoption of these standards so that architects and engineers see the value in investing in educating themselves and designing resilient and efficient buildings. It is critical that politicians get involved and push for better construction, but this will be hard to do without proving that there can be economic benefits for all stakeholders—especially real estate investors, landlords, builders, and developers.
Europe, Canada, and some progressive parts of the United States are taking steps towards mass adoption through organizations like Passive House Canada, New York Passive House, the Passive House Network, Phius Alliance chapters, and of course our friends at the Passive House
Accelerator—and even still it is a struggle to make the standard popular in the mainstream ecosystem of high-performance construction.
Passive House is at its first steps in LATAM. With efforts from organizations like ILAPH, and private practitioners like me and other colleagues around the region, the standard can grow exponentially. But, we need to come together and take lessons from other areas to understand what is needed to supercharge the adoption of Passive House, and to enable other professionals to learn and implement the standard.
It is my belief that to speed up adoption, we will require inclusion of key players like developers and real estate professionals. We need to start engaging the private and financial sectors to find partners that can help put projects out there, especially if these projects can be accessed by all, not just a few. It could be my personal experience, but at any given Passive House event—either in the United States or worldwide—the majority of attendees will be Passive House nerds and professionals interested in energy efficiency and new technologies. To increase adoption, we need to think outside the trade and make Passive House something that people want to have and invest in for their buildings and homes. We are at the point that marketing is the missing link to make Passive House sexy, and a standard that says, “I am high-quality but affordable; I can save you money and I can make you money; I am resilient and will take care of you and your loved ones.”
If we manage to do this in North America, the adoption in developing markets such as in LATAM will be far easier and way more scalable. The culture in my region is usually open to the trends that are big in the United States. Like everything that is borrowed from North America, Latin Americans will find a way to make it their own.