Sheroes of Passive House: Chris Benedict, "Singing Into Darkness"

December 13, 2019

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[Editor’s Note: A highlight of PHIUS’ 14th North American Passive House Conference last week was the “PH Divas” panel session, featuring pecha kucha-style presentations by seven trailblazers in Passive House architecture. We’re excited to be publishing each presentation in article form on the PH Accelerator, starting with this one by NYC-based architect Chris Benedict. Chris’ portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.]

SINGING INTO DARKNESS

Press play below to listen to Ayleen Jovita Romero sing “The right to live in peace” in Santiago, Chile. Then hear her neighbors respond.

I don’t pretend to be the diva that Ayleen Romero is, singing during a curfew in Santiago, Chile, but I am inspired by her.

I like to sing into the darkness.

I don’t know what will happen next.

It has taken me to many interesting places, created deep relationships, inspired invention and given a rich poetic life full of surprise and delight.

25 years ago, I couldn’t have known that my portfolio would become incremental steps in high performance apartment buildings for many construction types and sizes.

But I sang into the darkness and was rewarded by opportunity, and gigantic amounts of support.

25 years ago—what the heck is a heat load calculation? I had to teach myself and create my own spread sheets. It became one of the more revealing experiences of my career.

Heat is always moving, but it moves at different rates. And of course, the profound poetry of Passive House is grounded in this.

How do we make it so that no one can say “no”?

Bring the job in for same cost as typical construction.

Analyze carefully what would normally be done.

Put in the new stuff working with your budget.

Sing into the darkness and invent, invent, invent.

And don’t take subsidies!

This worked for 803 Knickerbocker and it changed New York City government’s perceptions of Passive House.

It changed my client’s brand, it changed my career, and it brought immense happiness.

Who knew a building could do so much?

Also, the Enterprise Foundation, the tax credit vendor for the job, became comfortable adding Passive House to their Green Communities scoring system.

And the lender for the job found new justification for their underwriting and started to teach other bankers how to underwrite Passive House jobs.

Building Science. Systems approach. It got deeper and more profound at every turn. Not only does the building behave like a body, but bodies are affected by the building, and bodies affect the building. The system is a large as you care to define it. It’s amazing.

How can these interrelationships be exploited for economy and elegance? You can never know too much about a building you design. Probe, discover, manage, test…

But when you create something new, you may need to ask permission.

I think the energy code and compliance industry has become an overblown, self-serving, and misguided mess that limits creativity and designer freedom. If we can’t think out of the box, how can we innovate?

I think we need a perfect energy code…

In 2011 I wanted to change the code to allow for exterior insulation on existing buildings, to create a new hybrid type of renovation.

My requests were rejected for several years until Mayor Bloomberg created a task force for greening the code and I was able to add two measures.

Once this was accomplished, I used every opportunity I had to find clients, by describing the possibilities for less maintenance, more comfort, lower energy bills and rebranding.

I have one top-secret job that will be revealed soon…

And I hit the motherlode: 12 buildings in Brooklyn to be renovated to the PHIUS standard with tenants in place. Riseboro Community Partners and I invented this job. These buildings vary in age and construction type. None of technologies are new, but they are orchestrated differently.

The mechanical systems are mounted on the exterior of the building and poke through to the interior. Windows are replaced outboard of the existing windows. And, finally, new insulative cladding is installed. When everything is ready the interior work is completed with minimal tenant disruption.

I think insulation IS activism.

We made “liberty squares” for occupy wall street to give comfort to people sitting on the cold ground.

We were almost arrested trying to bring them into Zucotti Park. However, the occupiers immediately understood, came out of the park, and smuggled some in. Some even personalized them.

Finally, the next darkness to sing into…nuclear power in sheep’s clothing.

I think 100% electrification = nuclear power.

I think renewables will not do the whole job for our future cities.

I know that we can cut enormous amounts of waste and burn fossil fuel responsibly.

I’ve done it!

“Inventions of the unknown demand new forms.”

This has been the joy of my life. I’m sure many of you feel exactly the same way.

Sing into the darkness and invent, invent, invent.

Author

Chris Benedict
Chris Benedict
The work of Chris Benedict R. A. (CBRA) is regarded internationally as the leading edge in the field of sustainable building design. While…

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Passive House Accelerator’s coverage of NAPHC2019 is made possible by support from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US.

Passive House Accelerator’s coverage of NAPHC2019 is made possible by support from Mitsubishi Electric Trane HVAC US.

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