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Passive is the New Active in Building Green

The new approach to home energy conservation has its moment in the sun

By Kimberlie Birks, Superscript August 6, 2013

When it comes to building green, perhaps branding is everything. La Plate-forme Maison Passive, a Belgian organization supporting the sustainable approach to architecture known as “Passive House,” recently released a mildly risqué video that makes passive seem quite active indeed. While the more buttoned-up LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) has been the standard reference point in the U.S since the early ‘90s, the Passive House movement—started at virtually the same time in Germany but targeting the residential sector—has lagged behind in wide-scale adoption stateside. But that may be about to change.

The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design by Julie Torres Moskovitz, 2013 (Princeton Architectural Press). “I'm waiting for the idea to hit that tipping point,” said Torres Moskovitz of the growing Passive House movement in the U.S.

LEED certification is based largely on a preemptive checklist of eco bells and whistles and is scaled up for commercial and institutional projects, but a passive structure must demonstrate measurable performance results that prove its efficiency at producing nearly as much energy as it consumes—something much more achievable at the residential scale.

Passive Houses concentrate on reducing their ecological footprint by capitalizing on natural resources—solar energy, airtight building shells, triple-glazed windows, and high-performance insulation—to create a building that runs on one-twentieth of the energy of a conventional house while only costing between five and ten percent more to build. To the untrained eye, a Passive house looks like any other.

The Book

The Greenest Home Julie Torres Moskovitz

So why is North America still so cool on the concept? Though there are some 40,000 passive houses worldwide, currently fewer than 50 are found in the United States. "Unless you can show the public the projects under construction, then stand in it when it's finished, I think it's hard to understand the passive house," said Julie Torres Moskovitz, founding principal at Brooklyn’s award-winning design firm Fabrica718. As the project manager of Tighthouse, the 2012 retrofit of an 1899 brownstone that became the first certified Passive House in New York City, the architect has been working for years to give Passive some needed panache.

The kid-friendly Textile House by BLAF Architecten, from the book The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design

Her new book, The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design (Princeton Architectural Press) is a low-flying tour of 18 of the world’s most noteworthy Passive Houses by architects such as ARO (the 2011 National Design Award winners), Della Valle Bernheimer and Olson Kundig Architects.The Seattle-based company Dwell Development has just launched a five-part video series on Passive House building techniques. Meanwhile, eye-catching projects by the likes of Daniel Libeskind in Chris van Uffelen’s 2012 publication, Passive Houses, prove that—regardless of its unassuming name—our eco-antennae ought to be better attuned to the movement. 

The Hudson Passive Project by Dennis Wedlick Architect, from the book The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design

While the Passive House Institute US remains largely focused on communicating the technique’s nuts and bolts, Torres Moskovitz’s more design-driven marketing approach might help a broader audience to see the beauty of Passive science and engineering. “I'm waiting for the idea to hit that tipping point,” said Torres Moskovitz. 

The Tighthouse by Fabrica718, from the book The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design. Thanks to new energy-monitoring systems, the owner realized that a malfunctioning cooktop was using 15 percent of the home’s overall energy.

Meanwhile, back in Belgium green promotional efforts may be working all too well: government incentives for use of residential solar panels have been so effective that widespread adoption resulted in a mass exodus from the grid—which, in turn, caused energy prices to escalate.

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