Buildings contribute around 40% of total carbon emissions in the US. We can reduce the energy use of buildings by 80% or more through good design and construction techniques. Energy efficient buildings can cost a bit more to build, but they don’t necessary have to, and their operating costs are much lower than conventional buildings, built to code-minimum standards (aka the worst buildings you can legally build).
I am an accepting, accommodating person by nature, but I changed the course of my career to address the issue of climate change through the built environment, and I am no longer interested in projects that contribute to climate change. When 97% of the world’s scientists say it’s a problem, it’s a problem. If you are building to code minimum (or worse) levels of energy performance, you are personally contributing to mass extinction of species, extreme weather, rising sea levels and ocean acidification.
Other aspects of efficiency are also important to me. I strive to minimize material use, incorporating advanced framing techniques, salvaged materials when appropriate, and considering the cradle-to-cradle life cycle of the materials we use. As a former builder, I keep in mind efficient order of operations and long-term durability for the construction phase. To keep design costs to a minimum, I work as efficiently as I can, and am always looking for ways to streamline the design process, including being regimented about design reviews and using digital technology whenever appropriate
A globally accepted standard for low-energy buildings, one that people in many climates and cultures agree upon, the Passive House building energy standard provides a path for efficient use of energy (http://www.passivehouse-international.org/). Developed over the last twenty years in Germany, following research completed (but largely ignored) in North America, Passive House--Passivhaus in German--is well accepted in Europe and is gaining traction elsewhere around the globe, including the United States. I worked for over a year for one of the premier designers and builders of Passive Houses in the US, who brought many new ideas that were well vetted in Europe but virtually unknown in the US. I also completed intensive training in Passive House principles and techniques, including learning to use the centerpiece of Passive House design, an extremely detailed and accurate energy modeling program called PHPP. PHPP is the most comprehensive energy modeling program available, and allows us to adjust various inputs to optimize energy use, while also taking into account comfort, resilience and material use.
A related program in the US, which started as a branch of the International Passive House Association but who essentially went rogue, is known as PHIUS. They actually developed some interesting ideas, which evolved into their own, excellent energy program. I would be a fan, except for one thing: they insist on keeping the name “Passive House.” As someone who takes intellectual property rights seriously—at the end of the day, all designers and artists have is the work they do—I cannot support an organization that, as I see it, stole an established name from someone else, so I support the original, International Passive House Association.
PRETTY GOOD HOUSE
Although I am a proponent and practitioner of Passive House, the most rigorous building energy standard on the planet, and would be thrilled if every new home and renovation could meet the standard, I realize that it is simply too big a leap for many people. Rather than leave code minimum as the only guide, I promote an alternative standard called the Pretty Good House. The standard developed through a monthly get-together in Portland where builders, architects and other interested people meet to discuss topics in building science. (The Building Science Discussion Group is hosted by Performance Building Supply; email them to join their mailing list: http://performancebuildingsupply.com/contact-us/.)
The group’s moderator, Dan Kolbert, a Portland-based builder, found Passive House and other standards too stringent, too complicated, to material-intensive, and just plain too much. Rather than building one-hit wonders in the middle of the woods, or sticking with code minimum requirements (the worst house you can legally build), he wondered what the group’s consensus would be for a voluntary standard that made sense from a cost/benefit point of view and that could have broad appeal. The name was debated, and for better or worse the one that stuck was Pretty Good House. (My submission was Wicked Good House but it was, rightfully, considered too New England-centric for a concept we thought could have a larger impact.)
At the time I was blogging for a website called GreenBuildingAdvisor.com, and I wrote a couple of pieces about the standard. They generated a lot of interest, including being mentioned in the New York Times! (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/15/garden/the-passive-house-sealed-for-freshness.html?_r=0.) That was four years ago and “PGH,” as it’s often known, has grown as a concept and is often discussed in the green building world. You can read more about it here: http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/guest-blogs/pretty-good-house. Briefly, think of it as a Pretty Damn Good House, or Really Good House, or almost-Passive House. There are no mandatory requirements and nobody makes money certifying a PGH; it’s simply a way to describe a home that is designed and built mindfully, to the “sweet spot” between expenditures and gains. A new Department of Energy program is exciting, and very similar to the PGH standard, the Zero Energy Ready Home: http://energy.gov/eere/buildings/zero-energy-ready-home.
Your home is likely the most expensive and most complicated thing you own. Every part is affected by many other parts and conditions within and outside your home. The name for the study of how all these factors interact, and ways to solve the problems often caused when the parts don’t work together properly, is called Building Science. A broad term, it also includes the study of energy efficiency techniques, structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, mechanical engineering, material science, chemistry and biology, among other fields. I put a lot of effort into staying on top of all the relevant research in Building Science, and continually revise my standard practices to keep the buildings I design performing at the highest levels