Passive Resistance: America’s Passive House Problem, And Mine

Europe has thousands of passive houses. But, like health care systems that actually work and mopeds, this continental trend hasn’t really caught on in the U.S.

For the most part, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good is a problem for legislators, not bloggers. And here at gbNYC, we don’t need to worry about setting policy — which doesn’t mean we won’t periodically work the advocacy thing, when the time is right — and thus can afford to be as idealistic as possible. Theoretically, that is. While I can’t speak for Stephen on this, I have found that I have a mild but marked disdain for utopianism when it comes to green building. Which is weird, I know.

It’s weird because I’m not developing or designing or even buying a studio in green buildings in New York City, and so could presumably critique the goings on in Manhattan green real estate as harshly as I wish through this static-distorted, moderately sized megaphone of mine. But what I’ve learned in my year or so writing for gbNYC is that the good is so rare — and that every instance of it is so welcome relative to the vast brownfield of dull design and who-cares inefficiency that makes up much of the NYC skyline — that even earnest attempts at the perfect starts to seem frivolous. The latter is not the enemy of the former, of course, but in terms of their presence in the (broader, dumber) discourse about green building, the well-meaning frivolousness and defiantly non-mainstream aspects of net zero building make green building look far more pie-in-the-sky than it is. And given the urgency of the present moment, and given how important it is (to gbNYC and, we could argue, in general) that green building become accepted as simply better and more contemporary building, rather than a luxury good for the green-minded… well, given those and a bunch of other things, there’s an impulse on my part to look at things like net zero construction as something of a stunt. A well-meaning and praiseworthy and generally admirable and ethically blameless stunt, to be sure, but something very much like a stunt all the same.

Which isn’t to say that we’re above advocating for the odd net zero construction project at gbNYC. We’re big fans of the sadly stalled net zero project that’s hopefully still known as Red Hook Green and Southampton’s net zero Dubin House, and I also admire the ingenuity and understated aesthetic grace of the net zero Hudson Passive House in Claverack, New York. But each of those projects are intensely personal projects — praiseworthy ones, obviously, but not projects designed to be replicated in such a way or at such a scale as to change the built environment anywhere but on the parcels of property on which they themselves sit. That, though, is as much a function of the context of the American green building scene as it is of anything inherent to those projects themselves.

That’s because, in part due to our own discursive problems — by which I mean the idea that striving for energy efficiency is, from certain angles, somehow seen as un-patriotic or otherwise criminally of the left — green building has been sadly slow to catch on as it should in the United States. This, despite the fact that building green costs essentially as much as building brown, despite the fact (and it’s a fact) that intelligently designed green buildings outperform their non-green peers. Some notably non-idealistic organizations have recognized this as fact and responded to it, but in a country that still can’t seem to agree one way or the other on anything having to do with the environment, the conversation is not unfolding as it should. From our (overly sensitive) perspective, any attention lavished on some ultra-efficient yurt nestled amid virgin forest distracts from the fact that a few simple and commonsense changes to the way we build could reduce emissions and improve living conditions in cities ranging from New York to, um, any and every other city. And anyway, Inhabitat kind of has the Check Out This Amazing Crazy House beat on lock. (Which is good! We love those pieces!)

Which is kind of a long way of saying that if you were wondering why there hasn’t been more on the Passivhaus Institut and passive building here at gbNYC, that would be why. But Tom Zeller Jr.’s Sunday feature the New York Times about passive building’s slow going in the U.S. is eminently worthy of mention. To the extent that we feel obliged to mention net zero construction projects at gbNYC, it’s because of their rarity — there are only a very few of them in existence nationwide. But as Zeller notes, there is a small but thriving passive building movement in Europe — which means that net zero structures are both easier to find and less expensive to build over there than they are over here.

And Zeller’s piece, which focuses on the struggles of Vermont couple Barbara and Steven Landau to build a purely passive structure, does a good job both of humanizing the true believers pursuing passive building and of the more basic and vexing problems currently preventing passive building from catching on in the states as it has in, say, Germany. It’s not that we lack the tools — Zeller mentions the very cool Passive House Planning Package Software suite, which sounds pretty astonishing in the depth and breadth of its predictive abilities. That’s not really the problem in any facet of green building. Instead, Zeller touches on the small irks — the difficulty of getting PassivHaus-certified building materials in the United States — and larger challenges inherent in working so far outside even the green building mainstream.

“In Europe, this design-and-construction balancing act has an established manufacturing base to feed it; in the United States, not so much,” Zeller writes. “‘If we were in Europe, most of the materials and equipment would be off-the-shelf and readily available from local suppliers,” says Tedd Benson, owner of Bensonwood Homes, a high-efficiency timber frame builder based in Walpole, N.H., that is constructing the Landau house. ‘Here, we have to invent the systems and try to find the materials, products and equipment that will help us meet the passive-house standards.’”

It’s a good piece, and eminently worth a read, but I was struck — and maybe a little disappointed — by how little it changed my perspective on net zero building. Living simply, cleanly and responsibly is a beautiful idea, and one worth pursuing by any and all means. But the amount of money and — to a strikingly greater extent — time required to make a passive building a reality, and the degree to which that pursuit runs up against the constraints of a market that is not yet built for it, seems to doom passive building as an admirable but hopelessly utopian pursuit, at least in New York City circa now. Until the market has a reason to respond to it, it seems likely to remain that — a beautiful footnote but one that, like green roofs and other green building grace notes, seems destined to remain a luxury for the well-meaning and well-heeled. The rest of us hoping for a way to deepen and broaden the impact of green building on America’s built landscape will, sadly, have to look elsewhere. Which doesn’t mean we won’t be there popping champagne if and when Red Hook Green finally becomes a reality. It just means that we can’t afford to sit around pining for projects like that when there’s a very important battle still to be won in the here and now.

About David Roth

Since September of 2009, David Roth has served as the Managing Editor of gbNYC. David lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife, and is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New Republic and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. You can contact David at droth11@gmail.com.

about gbNYC

gbNYC is a multi-disciplinary consulting and real estate services firm. In addition to representing office tenants and commercial buyers in leasing and acquisitions, we also provide innovative consulting solutions from a unique, green building perspective. We advise on green building financial incentives, comment on proposed green building marketing strategies, author white papers, treatises, and market analyses, organize seminars on the LEED process and professional accreditation, and provide advice and analysis on green building risk management and the overall state of green real estate, leasing, and construction, in New York City and beyond.

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8 Responses to Passive Resistance: America’s Passive House Problem, And Mine

  1. Steve Landau Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    David – It is not so hard anymore. We have the windows, the walls, the foundation all worked out. If the site has enough southern exposure, and the homeowner is willing to give up large windows on the north side. It can be done.

    It just needs a committed owner / builder.

    • Gary Veclotch Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 10:50 am #

      Steve, Working with a client on PR house, What type of glass / windows did you use?

  2. David Roth Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 10:17 pm #

    Well, if anyone has to set me straight on this particular topic — on this particular building — I can’t think of anyone better. Thanks for reading, and welcome.

    And good luck on the project, of course. But you see my point, I hope — for green building to be truly scalable, and to finally become so commonplace that churlish blogger types like me have to do something else, it will need to become simpler and demand less of people. I salute your commitment, of course, and wish everyone had it, but I know well that most people don’t. That’s my issue with the way this stuff is covered, and with the NYT piece — I’m glad I know about your project, and Zeller’s article was an interesting read, but I wish more people knew how far (boring, conventional) green building has come, and that just isn’t in the discourse as it should be. Yours is the better story, admittedly, and as a freelance journalist I appreciate that. But I think the latter is the story that more urgently needs to be told.

  3. Beth Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    David, we just built the first PH retrofit in the US. Yes, it was 15% over the cost of a traditionally well-built home, but those numbers will come down as US manufacturers and suppliers get on board. Green jobs are there ready to be created. It is sad to me that even you, who seem to be so optimistic, are ready to dismiss this as a passing fad. I assure you it is not. You mention a “small but thriving movement in Europe”. While the existing building stock is much greater than Passivhaus, as it is know in Europe, it will be the building standard in the EU going forward. Mandatory. There are over 20,000 PH buildings in Europe now (the NY Times I think mentioned a much lower number). They have gotten the costs down to about 5% over traditional building for single family dwellings but 0% for multi-family or commercial structures. The point: there is no reason why that can’t happen here. Think of the possibilities for schools, low-income housing, office buildings. They have had 20 years of experience and monitoring of this in Europe. It simply works.

    Here’s a link to our project, which, surprisingly, looks like a normal home:

    http://nedbonziproofs.com/gallery/oneill-passive-house-sonoma-ca-197431

    Cheers,
    Beth

  4. David Roth Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 11:38 pm #

    “It is sad to me that even you, who seem to be so optimistic, are ready to dismiss this as a passing fad.”

    I’m pleased to come off optimistic, Beth — mostly I think I come across as a dyspeptic insulation obsessive — but while I’m a little skeptical of PH’s potential in the near term, I feel obligated to mention that I don’t think it’s anything like a passing fad. I think it’s a pretty great idea, and I see no reason why it couldn’t eventually become a factor in the green building market — if the costs come into line. Less ambitious green building techniques are already there — paybacks are faster, cost differentials narrowed, the whole nine yards.

    I like reading about passive building, because I think it’s neat and because I hope someday it becomes standard-issue here as it has in parts of Europe. But I have to deal in the real, here, and right now passive building just doesn’t make market sense yet. A few governmental nudges might change that a bit, but relative to the boring stuff — insulation, caulk, whatever — it’s a footnote. A cool one, a promising one — yes. But, for now, that’s how I see it.

  5. Greg Duncan Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    David,

    You should look at some of the “boring” Passive House projects. For example, Chris Benedict’s Bushwick apartment building is completely conventional: block and plank construction, EIFS, window A/C units, central boilers. The air-tightness requirement is satisfied by the membrane that is required anyway for good water-managed EIFS. The heat recovery ventilators (HRV’s) are less conventional, but they are inexpensive and save money over the long term. The overall initial construction costs are estimated to be less than that of a typical multi-family building.

    Habitat for Humanity and other builders of affordable homes are now using the Passive House standard to reduce the operating costs for the end users. So, it’s not just the well heeled who can benefit from Passive House.

    Finally, you seem to be confusing Passive House and Net-Zero. Passive House buildings do use energy (about 90% less heating energy and 70% less total energy than a typical existing building). A Net-Zero building can use any amount of energy as long as it is offset by onsite renewable energy production, usually PV.

  6. Zach Schwanbeck Friday, December 31, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

    Love your blog but I can’t agree with this post. Passivehaus is a proven technology (with thousands of buildings in Europe), so it’s about as far from a pipe dream Utopian vision as you can get. The only issue is that in America we don’t yet have the expertise and products yet, but the premium is rapidly coming down as such things are imported here. A few people being willing to pay a little extra for the first U.S Passivehouse buildings (because they presumably believe energy efficiency is important), is absolutely necessary for such development to happen. Any technological progress needs a few “stunts” to lead the way (think building-sized computers) – the only difference here is the technology already exists.

  7. David Wright, Solar Environmental Architect Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Ken Ruck could certainally do better that building an Earthship as an example of responsible sustainable architecture. Any number of talented architects could come up with a more viable and acceptable stand alone residential or commercial design. This would be a wonderfull place to build a Solar Decathalon winner.

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