On International Climate-Specific Passive Projects

Andres-vert3Phius Certification Team Member Andres Pinzon, PhD, explores the process of passive projects being built outside of the United States.

“Qué es una casa pasiva?” reads the cover of the drawing set of the Merlot House, a project submitted by CPHC Ignacio López pursuing PHIUS+ 2018 certification in Baja California-Mexico. This project — the first in this country — adds to the growing interest of Phius certification across latitudes.

During a regular week at Phius, we move between reviews on different climate zones, building functions and building types, assessing data from residential and non-residential, new construction, or retrofit. 

At first sight, the path toward certification may look intimidating, and we at Phius know that. Our team offers guidance and support for project submitters, especially when working on their first projects (overseas or not). The reviewers go above and beyond in helping project teams meet the specific, wide-ranged, and performance-driven goals of their buildings. This process offers achievable steps for certification within the context of each project.

How does Phius do it? The process includes: rounds of review, real-time feedback, conference calls, online open resources, etc. Phius tailors this process by providing solutions in compliance with certification, looking for red flags, and pointing out paths to avoid. This allows us to work with clients, architects, engineers, building scientists, etc. on the critical aspects of certifying a project in a particular part of the world.

Here are some remarks from our experience working with projects submitted to Phius outside of the mainstream of US and Canada.

The first step is generally custom climate data, followed by calculating the project-specific performance targets. Using the appropriate climate data and performance targets are essential to accurately modeling and reducing energy loads. Phius generates custom climate datasets for project teams that accurately represent their current project’s location. For most locations, we have not had trouble finding a TMY3 station within a (80-km) 50-mile range.  

In addition to climate data, marginal costs of electricity ($/kWh) at the regional/national level are needed to calculate the custom space conditioning targets they will use for certification. With this, teams can begin to work on comprehensive design and energy modeling; aware of the demands and loads that are expected for their buildings. 

Phius has projects in places such as Japan, Colombia, Nigeria and Mexico, where Phius certification represents a third-party verification on a desired performance for energy use and high-quality housing (see post on Housing Equity). The accumulated experience of different situations helps Phius come up with new solutions for diverse challenges and pass that knowledge to teams in subsequent projects.  

For example, approaches on cooling and dehumidification seen in Phius projects in southern states can guide us on how to tackle larger demands and peak loads in projects in tropical areas of South America or Africa. We see this potential in aspects such as: the enclosure’s insulation and airtightness, shading dimensioning and optimization to avoid overheating, and the proper selection and sizing of mechanical devices.  

Energy and carbon saving targets in buildings and operational budgets are a global concern. However, some information might be lost in translation when moving between countries, languages, cultures, or systems of measurement. In this sense, Phius is working on expanding the limits on a technical language that might hinder the domain of Phius projects.

Phius’ CPHC training is also offered and taught in SI units. In this way, professionals abroad who are interested in earning this credential can have access to material on building science principles, design exercises, and software tutorials prepared in the metric system. Furthermore, WUFI® Passive, the energy modeling software used for Phius certification, allows users to easily toggle between SI and IP units any time during the process.

More actions are in development within the idea of expanding the Phius community abroad. It is exciting to see creative and innovative approaches, integrating different sorts of information to make a high-performance building, such as the “bilingual” drawing set from the Merlot house. I cannot wait to attend the breakout session on international climate-specific passive projects at PhiusCon 2021 to continue the conversation.

Help Wanted: Identifying conditions that can complicate retrofits

32tev__gPhius Senior Scientist Graham Wright weighs in here with a guest post about some on-the-ground research he did regarding retrofits. Graham conducted a brief street-view survey of residential housing in Portland, Oregon (Glenfair, Glendoveer, Rockwood neighborhoods), and documented conditions that would complicate panelized retrofit solutions. He invites you to do the same in your neighborhood, and to submit what you find to advance research on panelized retrofit solutions.

It looks like I will be pivoting to concentrate my work on retrofit for a while. This is in connection with the Advanced Building Construction Initiative (ABC) of the U.S. Department of Energy. Under the program, RMI was funded to set up a collaborative and phius is a member. The vision shared at the recent summit is to figure out how to decarbonize ALL BUILDINGS by 2050. A study of the building typologies is underway, led by NREL.

It is already clear that single-family detached houses are the vast majority of buildings by number, they probably also dominate the aggregated “thermal loads” of heating, cooling, and hot water that comprise most of the energy/emissions savings opportunity.

The NREL data set does not have all the building properties that one would need to identify the technical barriers to deep energy retrofits. There is general awareness on the ABC team that the U.S. housing stock is very diverse and that this is a challenge to the concept of industrialized retrofit. So to get a better sense of this I spent a couple of hours looking at houses within walking distance of where I live in east Portland, Oregon. I looked for conditions that would complicate an exterior panelized envelope insulation retrofit, or that would complicate air-sealing. I looked at 33 houses and noted 30 separate conditions. These are assigned four-letter codes as shown in the table below. Some were much more common than others, such as attached garages, and some were so universal I did not even list them, such as gutters/downspouts.

My takeaway from this excursion was that the number of conditions that one would need to have a plan for is large but not endless. There are obviously some missing, such as balconies and widow’s walks. It’s not a large sample and I could only see one or two sides of the houses from the sidewalk. Many of the houses pictured are on crawl space foundations as indicated by vents, and that could also be considered an air-sealing complication, though I did not call it out here.

Here’s a slide show with problem conditions annotated:

 

Please send photos of houses near you! If possible, annotate conditions as I have in the gallery, using  the codes in the table below, or adding other conditions not listed, that also seem troublesome from the point of view of exterior retrofit and air-sealing.

Here are the problem conditions I classified, along with the number of cases I identified on my walking tour:

ACOD – air conditioner outdoor unit (3)
AGAR – attached garage (10)
CATV – cable tv line (1)
DISH – satellite dish (5)
DRYV – dryer vent (2)
E@RF – electrical mast through the roof (8)
EMTR – electrical meter (3)
EOUT – electrical outlet (1)
FENC – adjacent fence (13)
FCHM – fireplace chimney (17)
GCHM – gas appliance chimney (5)
GMTR – gas meter (3)
HOSE – hose bib / reel (3)
MLCA – mature landscaping close aboard (9)
MSXT – masonry extension from wall (5)
OV@R – overhang attached at roof (5)
OV@W – overhang attached at wall (5)
PBVT – roof plumbing vent (3)
PBCO – plumbing clean out (1)
RFVT – roof vent (4)
SKLT – skylight / sun tunnel (3)
SOFF – overhang with soffit (3)
STOV – wood/pellet stove chimney (1)
TCOM – telecom or mystery wall box (7)
THIC – change in cladding thickness (5)
TITE – can’t add wall thickness (20)
WART – wall art (1)
WBOX – window box (2)
WING – wing or fin wall (1)
XTLT – exterior light fixture (12)

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:  https://www.epa.gov/radon/epa-map-radon-zones.

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: https://www.epa.gov/radon/health-risk-radon#head.

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: The Massachusetts Stretch

isaac pic

Isaac Elnecave, a member of the PHIUS certification team, has written this update on the Massachusetts stretch cove, the latest installment of his policy updates.

Over the last 8 years, Massachusetts has made significant progress towards making the passive house (PHIUS+) standard an integral part of its building energy code. This effort points the way to the end goal of creating a cost-effective net-zero energy code.

Besides its statewide base energy code, which is an amended version of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) model code, the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) in Massachusetts has, since 2009, promulgated a “stretch” energy code. The base energy code governs the minimum energy saving requirements in buildings throughout the state. The requirements include: 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 building (from an energy perspective) that can legally be built.

A stretch energy code incorporates similar measures and design approaches but mandates energy efficiency requirements that result in higher performance buildings than those meeting the base energy code. While the base energy code is the default requirement across all towns and cities in the Commonwealth, the stretch energy code must be affirmatively adopted by local municipalities that want to enforce it (at which point, it supplements and overrides the base energy code in that jurisdiction). Importantly, unlike New York State, because the BBRS approves the stretch code, municipalities that adopt it cannot amend it.

In both the Base and Stretch codes in Massachusetts, there is a section for alternative compliance strategies, which specifically includes passive house in both the low-rise residential energy code chapter and the commercial energy code chapter. Under the requirements of its current edition, and in fact since 2012, in any jurisdiction that adopts the stretch code in Massachusetts, a PHIUS+ certified passive house automatically meets code. The current code amendments specify that the annual heating demand for PHIUS certified home or commercial building must be less than 10 kbtu/ft2/year; a value easily met by all certified PHIUS buildings.

The latest edition of the Massachusetts stretch code has just been adopted but has not yet been promulgated* — the expected promulgation date is February 8, 2020 with an effective date of Aug 8, 2020. There will be two significant changes. First, PHIUS itself has updated its standard to PHIUS + 2018 from PHIUS + 2015. Second, with this new edition, a residential or commercial building will be code compliant when it passes the pre-certification stage (much like saying a typical house is given code approval once the plans have been approved.) The updated energy code, based on the IECC 2018, shifts the passive house compliance option from the 10 kBtu/ft2/year metric to an option to seek PHIUS precertification prior to pulling a permit. A project must demonstrate that it has been submitted for final certification by PHIUS to receive the certificate of occupancy. Because PHIUS maintains a rigorous review process through the end of construction, this approach ensures a high quality of construction.

Passive house certification requirements are significantly more stringent than even the other alternative paths in the stretch code (the most commonly used path in the Massachusetts residential stretch code allows for an Energy Rating Index score of 55, which is well above the score typically achieved by a certified passive house).

Massachusetts provides an excellent example of how to use incentives to spur the development of high-performance buildings. Mass Save®, the statewide energy efficiency program in Massachusetts, launched a mid- to high-rise passive house incentive program in the summer of 2019. In the first 6 months over 40 projects with over 3,000 passive house units in development have signed up for the program.  As more projects are built meeting PHIUS standards either through the stretch code or through Mass Save, the universe of designers and builders who become proficient in the construction of high-performance builders grows. This proficiency will result in greater confidence among construction professionals and lower costs with respect to high performance buildings.

As the PHIUS standard includes a pathway to net-zero construction, including it in the stretch and base energy code provides a path for future improvements. In Massachusetts, stretch code development will now focus on a ‘net-zero’ code to run alongside an amended IECC 2021 base code. Having the passive house pathway in the energy codes has introduced designers and builders to the tools and techniques necessary for building cost-effective net-zero single-family and multi-family dwelling. PHIUS looks forward to working with Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, BBRS and other key stakeholders in making a net-zero code a reality.

Massachusetts in one of three states and one municipality that have incorporated the PHIUS standard in the energy code. New York was discussed in a previous blog (Policy Update: New York State, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, January 16, 2020). I’ll discuss efforts in Washington State and the city of Denver in a future post.

* Adoption means voting and signing by government official. Promulgation (it specifically means the decree that puts a law into effect), in practice, refers to when the agency in charge of enforcing the law signs off on the rules and regulations relating to the law.