PHIUS Mechanical Summit – Why?

mech summit sig_v1

About a year ago I met with Gabriela Martin for coffee (outdoors, socially distanced and masked up). Gabriela is the Zero-Energy program mastermind and manager at the Illinois Clean Energy Communities Foundation. Several school buildings used PHIUS standards to meet the ICECF zero-energy goal. The projects that receive ICECF funding only receive the full grant when the project actually meets the zero-energy goal, which requires detailed monitoring of actual performance. Gabriela tells me about her findings, sighs… says the envelope is next to perfect, doing its job but the systems…a whole other story. Almost all the awarded buildings have missed the target so far. The culprit: the performance of the mechanical systems.

Mechanical…what do we mean by that and why does this topic warrant an entire summit in and of itself? I think of mechanical as encompassing balanced ventilation, space conditioning, hot water and electrical…in short all active systems and their components needed in a building. In terms of achieving, mechanical systems are the weakest link.

This is due for two main reasons.

1. Claimed systems efficiencies often are optimistic.
2. Installation is often wanting, including distribution, significantly reducing whole systems efficiencies.

Neither of these are necessarily anybody’s fault. But it points out that existing mechanical systems design for inefficient buildings: Designers and installers over-compensate for inaccuracies and potentially bad installs by designing and installing oversized systems allowing for redundancy.

Belts and suspenders.

Passive building requirements are different. The tolerances for inaccurate assumptions are much smaller. Passive buildings fundamentally act differently and need differently calibrated components to account for comfort.

In absence of systems and equipment designed for low-load buildings, most design teams are left to improvise. They assemble components that might not typically be used in conjunction in conventional construction…they have to make do with what they can find on the market, improvising solutions that are not ideal for passive buildings.

We need and deserve better!

• We practioners need to keep pushing to build the market to help manufacturers justify new products that meet our needs. We need to be clear about what we need.

• We need manufacturers to hear us, to offer help creating solutions from existing products, and to eventually respond with new products for low-load buildings.

We want the PHIUS Mechanical Summit to accelerate our efforts; to advance the conversation between the designers, manufacturers and installers.

Policy makers are taking notice, and that’s great. But to fulfill the net Zero promise, it is clear, we need the larger HVAC and other manufacturers to enter the scene, and in short order!

Passive building, low load systems design can be the economic key to mainstreaming zero energy buidlings. Its mechanical systems can be minimized and designed in an integrated way, offering “plug-and-play,” it would yield a significant reduction in terms of first cost, operational cost and maintenance. This could dramatically change the economic feasibility of zero energy buildings and facilitate it going mainstream.

During the first CPHC classes in 2008, I used to describe how we conventionally build our houses. We build the same envelope in all climates (usually with scant attention to insulation and air sealing), and then we put a giant furnace into it to keep us comfortable. The size of that furnace is variable, depending on the climate, it comes in big or huge. Energy was not a prime concern.

In a passive building we turn that idea on its head. What if we made the shell of a building do most of the work instead of the furnace? We’d make its shell match the climate when insulating it and air-seal it. We then make sure it is right-sized so that the small “micro-load” system has no trouble keeping the space comfortable no matter where we build. The micro-load system of a predetermined size would also assure that we meet our carbon reduction goals and reduce our carbon footprint. It would act like cruise control to stay under the emissions speed limit.

What if the envelope is designed to do the heavy lifting, to fit the micro-load system instead of the other way around? That was the initial ground-breaking idea brought forward by the passive house pioneers in the 1970s in response to the oil embargo in an effort to reduce total energy consumption by about 70%, reducing the micro-load mechanicals to only about 15% capacity of a regular system! This idea is a BIG DEAL! 85% in reduction of systems size!

We on the building and design side have been hampered by the lack of low load systems on the market specifically designed for the changed dynamics in low load buildings. Mechanical engineers often are unfamiliar with passive building design. Manufacturers have not yet responded to the emerging passive building market’s unique demands—to now, the market wasn’t there. But that is changing.

Growth has been driven by creative design teams that often make do with components designed for conventional buildings. But in terms of maintenance and scaling, the status quo won’t do.

We need solutions that account for balanced ventilation, loads, load relationships and distribution requirements in passive buildings. Such packaged solutions are emerging, driven by small companies, that can make progress only very slowly but it is a positive sign. What about joint ventures?

That’s the kind of question we’d like to address at the summit, in addition to sharing lessons learned about how existing equipment has been used to solve the passive mechanical puzzle.

We’ve come a long, long way since I built my own passive home back in 2003. But to get where we want to go: mainstream passive building to achieve Zero, we need to tackle the mechanical issue.

Let’s do it like we always have, together.

Please join us during Earth Week for the PHIUS Mechanical Summit.

Each day of the Summit will cover one of four main topics in an effort to bring further awareness to what components and practices can help create a solid mechanical system across different climates:

Day 1, 4/19: Design Principles / Best Practices
Day 2, 4/20: Gap Solutions / Tools
Day 3, 4/21: Products / Systems Designs
Day 4, 4/22: Earth day: Zero Energy and Carbon / Electrification

PHIUS will offer both pre-recorded, on-demand content and a live panel Q&A discussion for each day of the Summit. The experts featured in both mediums will cover a large segment of passive building practice areas. Attendees will hear from those involved in product development, systems design, energy modeling, HVAC installation, and quality assurance.

See you there!


When Sam-I-Am Met Kat in the Hat

Sam is sorely missed.

Sam is sorely missed.

PHIUS co-founder and Executive Director Katrin Klingenberg reflects on the one-and-only Sam Hagerman. 

It was 2008 when PHIUS launched the CPHC® training in Urbana, Illinois—it was so successful that we took it on the road in 2009. First stop was Boston in the East, then a West Coast swing through San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

Back then, we delivered all training in-person. All students attended three segments with a few weeks in between each—it required a serious commitment. Though the passive movement was nascent, a cadre of forward-thinkers filled all our dates and locations. One of them was Sam Hagerman.

I was fortunate to meet Sam during the second segment of our West Coast swing.
The Integrated Design Lab in Seattle had graciously agreed to host the training. The class room was full except a seat in row two in the middle. Sam was fashionably late and made an entrance, stopped the class in its tracks, scootched past people on the right, charmingly smiling and cracking a joke, all eyes on him, including mine.

Sam could command a room.

He wore a casual plaid jacket, casual to a point of laissez faire, he had pizzazz, a combination of vitality and elan that stuck with me. I wasn’t sure he had staying power to last through serious calculations and building science but he did. This, in spite of having to step out frequently to make calls; he clearly had a bustling business.

I learned later at a class social event that Sam was a builder from Portland, owner and founder of Hammer and Hand. Eventually Sam offered me a ride, and we stopped at the grocery store getting a bottle of wine and a giant bag of cherries.

These are my most valuable memories of Sam, first impressions count and I remember every second of it. It was a good one.

Soon thereafter we held the Third Annual North American Passive House Conference in Urbana, when we founded and launched the Passive House Alliance. I asked Sam if he was interested in chairing it. He clearly had construction, business and political acumen, people skills and plenty valuable connections up the food chain. He graciously accepted the invitation and the rest is history.

Sam Hagerman became the driving force and the bedrock, took us all patiently by the hand, mentored us and me in countless phone calls, advice on industry politics, and strategy. Sam was determined to make passive building mainstream, and to save the planet. We were on a mission together.

Sam had an endearing frontier kind of charisma, combined with big-city business acumen. Most of all, he loved people and his friends and they loved him. He was wont to generously throw parties for them at a nearby restaurant. He brought everyone together and was just a hell of a lot of fun to be around.

He also saw talent and attracted talent. At the training in Seattle he met Skylar Swinford and took him under his wing at Hammer and Hand. What Skylar and countless others learned was that working together with Sam always also meant being friends, having fun and exploring.

I was lucky enough to experience him and Zack Semke, two peas in a pod at the time, on our trip to Innsbruck for the international Passive House Conference in 2011. We ran into them coincidentally on a mountain hike, sat in the sunshine at a small restaurant up there with Graham Irwin and Mike Kernagis…good times! (I hope you’ll view Zack’s tribute to Sam.)

He weathered some early storms within the passive house community as the chair of a rambunctious bunch, including some personal attacks, but nothing seemed to faze him. He kept his eyes on the prize nonchalantly and brushed off slights and difficulties like they were nothing. And in the big picture they weren’t; another valuable lesson learned for all of us.

Under his leadership his firm went on to build one of the very first PHIUS certified passive houses: a ground-breaking positive energy project in the Northwest called Karuna House. The project was way ahead of its time, in a stunningly beautiful setting and the name deeply meaningful. Karuna in Sanskrit means compassion and self-compassion, it is part of the spiritual path of Buddhism. This is how I will remember Sam…the Karuna House spirit.

Life is fragile. He had demons as well, as all artists and deeply thinking and feeling people do, those who are not afraid of living and taking risks. And he was not. And he met his limits eventually, just way too early.

He was a celebrity in his own right, out there, building bridges where he could, creating, playing music (the sax), bringing joy. He was having it his own way. Always.

Sam, you will be so missed, the community is no longer the same without you.

A star has fallen.

Make a wish.

EPA Indoor airPLUS and Radon Resistant Construction

0Today’s guest blogger is Tony Lisanti, PHIUS+ QA/QC manager. 

One of the prerequisite programs required for PHIUS+ Certification is the EPA’s Indoor airPLUS Program.  Born out of a need to minimize indoor air pollutants, the EPA dove-tailed this program with the ENERGY STAR Labeled Homes Program, which is also a prerequisite for the home or dwelling unit to earn both Indoor airPLUS and PHIUS+.  This serves to ensure that the dwelling unit is relatively tight, insulation is properly installed, the HVAC systems are properly sized, and bulk moisture throughout the building assembly is properly controlled.

Indoor airPLUS then takes indoor air quality to the next level. Integrating the Construction Specifications and Checklist requirements into the design, homes/dwelling units can then be verified to ensure greater precautions are taken for moisture control and dehumidification, air intakes are protected from birds and rodents, HVAC systems are kept clean, better filter media is used, and potential sources of moisture and contaminants are vented to the outdoors. Additionally, HVAC systems and ducts are prohibited in garages, pollutants from combustion equipment are minimized, and low VOC products are used.

One of the unique and important aspects of Indoor airPLUS is the requirement for radon-resistant construction measures in EPA Radon Zone 1. If you are not familiar with the Radon Zone map, it can be found here:

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. In fact, the EPA estimates that 21,000 deaths each year in the U.S. are attributable to radon exposure. The EPA has very good resources to read up on the health risks of radon. Their site can be found here:

So why should PHIUS stakeholders be concerned with this? As mentioned above, PHIUS relies heavily on prerequisite programs such as ENERGY STAR and Indoor airPLUS. Since the airtightness standards for PHIUS Certified projects are up to 10 times more stringent than a typical code-built home, dilution of the indoor air cannot occur as readily. PHIUS ventilation requirements go well beyond those of systems found in typical Code built or even Energy Star Labeled homes. Good ventilation design, whether for code or for PHIUS starts with source control, i.e. minimizing the source of contaminants along with proper ventilation.

An example of a passive radon system.

An example of a passive radon system.

In high risk areas such as Radon Zone 1, EPA Indoor airPLUS requires installation of a passive radon system, at minimum. EPA also recommends utilizing active radon systems to further reduce radon concentrations in the home, although this is not yet an Indoor airPLUS requirement. The most modern radon standards are developed through an ANSI-accredited consensus process by the AARST Consortium (American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists). EPA recommends following the ANSI/AARST CCAH Standard for 1-2 family dwellings and townhouses (max. total foundation area of 2500 sq. ft.) or the ANSI/AARST CC-1000 Standard for larger foundations, which often apply in multifamily buildings. However, the key components of a passive radon system for the purposes of Indoor airPLUS verification are succinctly outlined in Item 2.1 of their Construction Specifications.

ANSI/AARST will soon publish updated standards to provide guidance for the design and installation of two radon system options in new low-rise residential buildings. These systems, passive and powered, are designed to reduce elevated indoor radon levels by inducing a negative pressure in the soil below the building. The practice provides design and installation methods through soil depressurization systems that can be installed in in any geographic area.

Each of the two options consists of soil gas collection and a pipe distribution system to exhaust these gases. The first standard is for the design of passive radon reduction systems, sometimes referred to as a “radon rough-in” (ANSI/AARST RRNC). The second newly updated standard (anticipated in early 2020) includes details for a fan-powered radon reduction system, as well as radon testing (ANSI/AARST CCAH). Passive systems can result in reduced radon levels of up to 50%. These standards suggest that when radon test results for a building with a passive system are not acceptable, the system be converted to fan-powered operation. Typically, the action level is 4 pCi/L (Picocuries per liter). If the tested radon level exceeds 4pCI/L, then a fan is added to further depressurize the soil and positively vent the gas to the outside.

Recently, the EPA Indoor airPLUS team sent out this Technical Bulletin. The Technical Bulletin provides simple guidance on the installation of passive and active radon systems. Please pay particular attention to the drawings in the Bulletin, and note that the active system depicted has the fan located in a vented attic. This is outside the pressure/thermal boundary of the home. This has special significance with homes/buildings constructed to PHIUS Standards, because often, the attic space is WITHIN the pressure/thermal boundary of the home. Therefore, the fan cannot be located in the attic and must be outside the pressure/thermal boundary. The reason for this is, should there be a failure on the discharge or pressurized side of the fan, the building can actually be filled with radon gas.

Some other precautions that include a tight seal at the slab and vapor barrier to the vertical riser. Additionally, ensuring the riser is clearly labeled as “RADON” to minimize the chance that a plumbing waste line will be accidentally connected to it in the future is also important.

Tony Lisanti CEM, CPHC
PHIUS+ QA/QC Manager

With thanks to Nicholas Hurst from the EPA Indoor airPLUS Team

Policy Update: New York State—Two Steps forward, One Step back

isaac picIsaac Elnecave, a member of the PHIUS certification team, has written this update on the New York State stretch cove.

Over the last year, the state of New York has made significant progress towards making the PHIUS+ standard an integral part of its energy code. It points the way to the end goal of creating a cost-effective net-zero energy code.

Besides its statewide base code, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) promulgates a “stretch” energy code (NYStretch-2020). The base energy code governs the energy requirements in buildings throughout the state. The requirements include such items as: the amount of insulation required in ceilings, walls and foundations, window performance, the level of air tightness, ventilation requirements, the efficacy of lighting and the efficiency of HVAC equipment. It is often described as the worst possible home that can legally be built.

A stretch energy code incorporates energy efficiency requirements that are more stringent than the base code (NYStretch-2020 is roughly 11% more energy efficient than the base code). While the base energy code is the default requirement across jurisdictions in the state, the stretch energy code must be affirmatively adopted by local municipalities (authorities having jurisdiction) that want to enforce it—at which point, it overrides the state code in that jurisdiction).

Besides providing energy savings beyond the base energy code, NYStretch-2020 was developed with the following goals in mind:

• Technically sound
• Thoroughly reviewed by stakeholders
• Written in code enforceable language
• Fully consistent with the 2018 IECC, ASHRAE 90.1-2016, and uniform codes

Moreover, NYSERDA strongly encourages, but does not require, that a jurisdiction adopting the NYStretch-2020 do so without making amendments.

In NYStretch-2020, there is a section for alternative compliance strategies (R-408), which specifically names passive house; a single-family home or low-rise multi-family certified under PHIUS+ would automatically meet code. The stretch code specifies that the specific space heat demand and (sensible only) cooling demand, as modeled and field-verified by a CPHC (Certified Passive House Consultant), must be less than or equal to 9 kBTU/ft2/year. A dwelling unit shall also be tested with a blower door and found to exhibit no more than 0.05 CFM50/ft² or 0.08 CFM75/ft² of air leakage. Ultimately, to provide a Certificate of Occupancy, a code official must submit a form that must indicate that the finished building achieves a CPHC verified specific space heat demand of less than or equal to 9 kBTU/ft2/year.

It is important to note that the PHIUS standard is even more energy efficient than the requirements in NYStretch-2020. Here is a link to NYStretch-2020: file:///C:/Users/phius/Downloads/NYStretch-Energy-Code-2020%20(7).pdf.

New York City
New York City provides an example of the importance of the stretch energy code. Local law 32 requires the city council to adopt the New York State Stretch code (allowing the inclusion of amendments). The language of the law is fairly clear:

Submit to the city council proposed amendments to this code to bring this code up to date with the most recent model stretch code published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, provided that such model stretch code is more stringent than the New York State Energy Code in effect when such proposed amendments are submitted and provided further that such model stretch code was first published no more than three years before such proposed amendments are submitted;

As noted in the previous section, NYStretch-2020 is significantly more energy efficient than the base state code. Consequently, the city council is about to adopt NYStretch-2020 with one very important and unfortunate exception. R408, the section of NYStretch-2020 which allows for an alternate compliance path using PHIUS+, has been deleted. Here is a link to the proposed energy code  (Click on Int. No. 816 for the text of the code).

It is unclear as to why section R408 was deleted but it removes an important alternate compliance option for designers and builders. PHIUS+ incorporates both rigorous design standards with robust quality control protocols to ensure that the building is both energy efficient and well-constructed.

As the PHIUS standard is more energy efficient than the provisions of the NYStretch-2020, it also provides a target for future code improvements while giving designers and builders the time to develop expertise in building energy efficient dwellings; ultimately leading to the establishment of a net-zero energy code.

A Climate Action Turning Point!

That's friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

That’s friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

On October 29th I was fortunate to attend the NYSERDA low carbon and zero energy Buildings of Excellence Awards at the Building Energy Exchange in New York City. What a terrific time for projects that are about to and that have employed PHIUS+ passive building standards as baseline to get to zero energy ready! I counted at least 10 PHIUS+ project teams in NYSERDA’s three categories, Early Design Stage, Substantial Completion and Completed, that were awarded up to 1 million dollars for their projects!The awards were announced on the 7th anniversary of super storm Sandy, not a coincidence, as a reminder for urgent climate action. Seven years later, NYC is leading by action and is putting itself firmly on the path of global leadership in building energy and resilience. Thank you to an amazingly dedicated NYSERDA team for making this happen!

The week before the event, I keynoted the Boston Passive House Massachusetts Symposium to talk about the evolution of the PHIUS+ certification suite for passive buildings, and why they provide such great value on the path to ZERO. Here as well, political action was taken to combat climate change: MassSave staff announced significant incentives for low carbon and zero energy buildings and significant additional incentives if project teams go for passive building certification for their hi-rise residential projects. Certification requests from Mass have increased manifold as a result. Massachusetts in not far behind NY State in political will, turns out.

And just a few weeks before the Boston event, it was gratifying to find that at the Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland, California, passive building was simply understood as the logical starting point on the path to ZERO, no questions asked. During one of the plenaries the ASHRAE speaker proudly introduced the new ASHRAE standards committee: 227p Passive Building Design Standard. That was great news and evidence that ASHRAE is moving on the topic.

During the lunch plenary on day one the National Renewable Energy Laboratory featured PHIUS board member Mary Rogero’s students presenting their Solar Decathlon winning PHIUS+ Source Zero energy school design. For the closing plenary, California’s Commissioner Andrew McAllister presented on his recently completed and only recently occupied zero energy passive house in Berkeley and the benefit of energy independence. He had electricity while PG&E had shut off power supply to prevent fires, a consequence of climate change, to most of Berkeley including the entire Berkeley Campus. He was followed by Greg Hale, from NYSERDA, who spoke about applying the Energiesprong passive plus zero energy retrofit approach that he is spearheading in NYS and other zero carbon measures taken by the city.

And while most of the building action seems to be happening on the East Coast, quietly behind the scenes advocates have been working hard to get passive building into codes all over the country. When PHIUS was first established our lofty mission was to make passive building code by 2020. As ambitious a goal that was then in 2007, we have made significant progress toward it, and have paved the path for national success. NY State has included passive building as an alternative compliance path into the next stretch code and Washington State is on a similar path. Massachusetts has included an alternative compliance path for passive buildings and verification tools (no double modeling required) and Washington, D.C. also has included an alternate compliance path for passive buildings in their about to be launched ZERO Energy Code.

Most significant of all those developments is the establishment of the ASHRAE 227p standards committee. If successful they’ll created a passive building design standard that takes the best pathways from all existing programs and develop an even better, easily adopted design standard globally. That committee has now started its so very important work. The ball is rolling! Stay tuned for more!

Exciting times, indeed!