Building a ZERO Carbon Future, Together!

Katrin HeadshotPhius Co-Founder and Executive Director Katrin Klingenberg wrote this week’s blog post in advance of her “Zero Energy and the Future of Phius” webinar on Sept. 14. It covers a variety of topics related to Phius’ work and the expanded vision of the organization.

“The west is on fire, and the east is drowning.”

Those attention-grabbing words were the first thing I heard when I turned on my TV the other day.

“The levees held, but the power grid folded”

That was a headline from the day after hurricane Ida swept across Louisiana. Most of the state was left without power; temperatures in the aftermath were predicted to rise into the 100s, all after a ton of rain and flooding. The combination of high temperatures and humidity is life-threatening — on top of all the other hardships brought on by the storm.

And then there was the Texas winter with the grid folding and people and pipes freezing in homes…

The urgency is clear. At our most recent Phius board retreat there was consensus: we are in dire straits climate-wise — it is now or never.

Since its inception, Phius’ vision has had a North Star: to create a carbon-neutral, healthy, safe, and just future for everyone by mitigating the climate crisis. And our mission is to do just that by making passive house and building standards mainstream.

The vision was extended to using passive house and building principles as the basis for all zero-energy and carbon designs. We added the Phius Source Zero certification program in 2012. Net zero is a good first step, but we need to revise the framework. In practice, net zero isn’t enough. 

The conclusion we at Phius have reached — following the thought leadership of our Senior Scientist Graham Wright — is that we need to aim to reach absolute zero in short order to avert the ultimate climate crisis. And that is absolute zero as per the original definition of zero – the absence of a measurable quantity.

A New Brand

We are upping our game on multiple levels in order to emphasize our renewed commitment to solving the ZERO-carbon puzzle for buildings. 

New Brand Same Phius GraphicWe started by reimagining the Phius brand. We are updating its look and making products and messages more relatable without sacrificing what we are known for: scientific rigor, precision, quality assurance, proven guidance, and performance. We are also unifying and expanding our suite of certifications for buildings, products and professionals. We are upping the ante on benefits to our professional members under the Phius Alliance leadership and yes, we are creating exceptionally cool swag to encourage everyone to join our tribe and make it our lifestyle together! Together, our community is creating momentum in the market — and having fun with it!

We also re-organized ourselves internally in more efficient ways over the last year, invested in a new website and a CRM, architecture. And we doubled our staff — to aim for greater, faster and increasingly exponential impact and service for our stakeholders. 

In addition, we are making dedicated efforts to reach out to communities beyond the building industry, to explain why what we do matters to everyone. Renters and owners all have a stake in what we do, and we are all one or the other. We want to give everyone an opportunity to get involved. It is up to all of us now! Join us!

Expanded Vision

Over the last decade, Phius has become the global leader in defining cost-effective and climate-optimized, passive house and building standards. Phius certified projects are now coming in at little or no cost premium compared to conventional buildings. Phius also leads in professional training, certification, and workforce development. We also provide an element critical to mainstream adoption: Quality assurance and risk management.

The building sector accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions, and is key to achieving emissions reduction goals. Passive house and building principles have been, and will continue to be, CORE to our efforts. In that spirit, the formerly known PHIUS+ building certifications have been renamed and expanded. 

PHIUS+ will now be referred to as Phius CORE (before renewables) and PHIUS+ Source Zero will now be Phius ZERO (based on CORE), and will extend to netting out emissions on an annual basis. New passive house and building retrofit certifications are in the offing as well. Phius CORE REVIVE and Phius ZERO REVIVE, as well as a new commercial building certification called Phius CORE COMM and Phius ZERO COMM will be introduced in 2022. 

Phius certifications have grown exponentially around the continent in recent years. Policy progress nationwide has been impressive to say the least. We are in Tarrytown, New York, for PhiusCon 2021 (formerly North American Passive House Conference) to celebrate the leadership of New York State/NYSERDA in formulating an aggressive climate action plan — a process which Phius helped inform. Other states, such as Massachusetts, have modeled their plans after New York’s. Phius’ pre- and fully certified unit count in Massachusetts over the last few years alone is impressive.

Phius Housing Units (In Process or Complete)

 

The Phius Alliance has expanded nationally, and the global network continues to grow. Phius projects have now been completed or are under way in many countries with varying climate zones. The Phius professional training has been translated into Japanese and has been taught this year successfully in Japan by Phius partner PHIJP.

The last decade was focused on figuring out the building part of the decarbonization equation (mission accomplished — solving for climate, cost, comfort). Now it’s time to expand beyond the building itself. We see Phius buildings as valuable capacitors of the new, renewable grid. They are low-load buildings that have the ability to load-shift and shed, which is immensely beneficial to the optimization of the overall grid design and resilience. 

Phius has begun to assess and measure the benefits of low-load buildings for the overall grid design, including micro and nano grid models. We call this initiative Phius GEB (Phius Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings) led by our Associate Director Lisa White. A pilot for a microgrid Phius community certification is underway. Buildings plug into the grid, and new opportunities for synergies and resilience arise. Design for the best result does not stop at the building envelope or lot line. 

Our new teal-colored logo symbolizes this expanded vision. It is a closed loop symbolizing whole systems design on all levels, aiming at harvesting adjacent system synergies: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The color teal represents clarity of thought, rejuvenation, open communication and integrity. 

Same Phius

While Phius will be steadily expanding its zero-carbon framework beyond its hallmark passive house and building standards, we will maintain our core competencies of aiding in design, building, policy writing and quality assurance. We are working to solidify and upgrade our foundational programs. Certification staff has doubled and processes are being refined. We are working on getting even better at what we already do well!

The Phius focus has evolved to the broader task of decarbonization. We’ll do so with the same scientific rigor and attention to detail as before. Our goal is the next level of systems optimization so we as a society can make real-time ZERO carbon (not just net) a reality soon!

We hope you’ll join us and continue to trust us to pave the way for the future of decarbonization strategies. There is still lots to do, so let’s get to it!

Feedback on the standard adaption: A summary

GWLast year the PHIUS Technical Committee published its draft report on a climate specific passive building standard. It also called for formal public comment. Here, with an update on that process, is PHIUS Senior Scientist Graham Wright.

We got some good feedback on our standard-adaptation work – fourteen folks submitted some fifty pages of formal commentary altogether. Thanks to all who took the time to write out their thoughts. The PHIUS Technical Committee (TC) reviewed all the feedback.

I’ll summarize the process, but first you might remember that our report is also a report to U.S. Department of Energy Building America (BA) program, a proposal for the next-generation Zero Energy Ready program (ZERH). The reviewers for BA sent 134 line-item comments on the draft report. (We’ve been busy responding to those, and we think the final report is much better now!)

Click on the cover graphic to download the final U.S. DOE Building America report at the Building Science Corporation site.

The DOE/BA and the passive house community have the same goals and are, at a broad conceptual level, working on the same thing (otherwise this work would not have been funded.)  At the workaday level though, there are a lot of differences, and also a lot of investment by the two communities in their own approaches – it’s part-and-parcel with the commitment and passion for better building that both communities share.  But when you ask the questions “is there anything passive house can bring to BA/ZERH” and “is there anything BA can bring to passive building,” it turns out the answer is yes.

The TC believes we’ve achieved a fruitful synthesis, a best-of-both-worlds combination. For example, when it comes to designing for high performance, we agree it’s better to set performance targets and do an energy design than to use prescriptive tables (and by the way that design can be somewhat site-specific). But when it comes to field quality assurance, then  a checklist table – like the BA approach — is the right tool for the job.

To put a finer point on it, we at PHIUS hope the final report persuades BA that the ZERH program should be a performance standard, with criteria on both heating/cooling loads and on total source energy, and that those performance targets are predicated on ducts inside, strict air-tightness, and using really good windows for comfort reasons.

Likewise we hope it makes the case to the passive building community that the heating/cooling criteria can be adjusted for economic feasibility / competitiveness in a climate-sensitive way, that the risks to comfort and building durability are low, and that the heating/cooling energy savings are still impressively deep.  Over all the climate locations studied, the proposed criteria represent median reductions in peak heat load of ~77%, annual heating of ~86%, peak cooling of ~69%, and annual cooling of ~46%.  (The baseline is 2009 IECC code.)

So, about those formal comments: Most commenters checked either 12-20 or 20+ years experience. In terms of survey questions we asked, no one liked star-ratings, so pass-fail it is. In going through the feedback the TC found no surprises–most all of the concerns had indeed been fully vetted en route a consensus over the past two+ years.  Here are some of the specific questions we received, along with answers:

Q: Could WP software be modified to make heating/cooling load calculations consistent with ACCA Manual J and ANSI/ASHRAE/ACCA Standard 183?
A: That is possible!  Added to the feature request list.

Q: Could PHIUS consider consolidating QA/QC checklist to be free standing from DOE ZERH and EPA Energy Star (for both residential and commercial projects)?
A: Some progress has been made on this. Stay tuned.

Q: Will the standard help me design smaller passive houses?
A: The short answer is probably yes.  There is no explicit “small house break” but there are three changes that indirectly tend to benefit small detached buildings at least in some climates:  air-tightness criterion by shell area instead of volume, source energy allowance per person instead of per square foot, and higher plug load defaults and detailed internal-gain accounting.

Q: Has there been any progress with PHIUS and NFRC in aligning data to meet PHIUS needs and possibly using NFRC data?
A: Not a lot. But we want to get it done this year. Third quarter.

Q: Please explain why you chose the specific denominators in the formulas. For example, why $ 0.155 electricity? 482 kWh? 1341 HDD65?
A: Those are the best-fit numbers determined by the regression analysis, that is, it’s like when you fit a line to a trend in x,y data, the trendline formula has the form y = m*x + b.  The numbers in the denominator are like the m, the slope or sensitivity to each of the factors.

In terms of final refinements to the new standard, PHIUS has been operating an alternate certification path along the lines of the BA draft report for some months as a pilot program. In the February and March meetings, the TC did pass some changes in advance of broader implementation. The changes came from both the feedback and the pilot program experience.

One kind of comment that spoke to us was, “this isn’t disruptive but you might want to change this to align with, or not conflict with, the building code.” The most to-the-point answer to feedback about rules is what gets changed or upheld, so here is the list of changes the TC agreed on:

  • Source energy: The U.S. source energy factor for electricity is adjusted to 3.16 (aligns with IECC 2015). The residential source energy limit is adjusted to 6200 kWh/person.yr.
  • Air-tightness criterion: 0.05 cfm50/sf of envelope area or 0.08 cfm75/sf (testing at 75 Pa aligns with commercial code and U.S. Army Corps). If testing at 75 Pa, report the flow coefficient and exponent from the blower door tests (that way the software can extrapolate to 50 Pa for compatibility of figuring the natural air change rate for infiltration losses).
  • Non-threatening air leakage: If the air-tightness criterion is missed, and the extra leakage can be proven to be due to a non-assembly-threatening leakage element such as a vent damper, certification staff may allow that element to be taped off for the purpose of passing the air-tightness criterion. The un-taped test result must be used for the energy model.
  • Phase-in period:  Dual certification path continues until September 15, after that the old protocol is phased out for PHIUS+ 2015.
  • Break-in period: If a project is seriously constrained on one of the criteria, a case-by-case overage may be allowed on any one of the four space conditioning criteria, or source energy, for the next year.
  • Retrofit:  The retrofit criteria are the same as new construction, except for a case-by-case energy allowance for foundation perimeter thermal bridges or other such hard-to-fix structural thermal bridges. Provided the design is “damage-free” that is, low risk from a moisture point of view.
  • Add-on badge: for supply air heating and cooling sufficient, per static calculation, with the average ventilation rate no more than 0.3-0.4 air changes per hour. (That is, low peak heating load and low peak cooling load. Special recognition for those who favor and design to this particular “functional definition” of a passive building.)

And finally, Katrin’s long-awaited favorite:

  • Add-on badge: for source net zero.  Onsite renewable electricity generation above any that was already credited as coincident-production-and-use, counts towards net zero with the same source energy factor multiplier for electricity, i.e., 3.16.

To me the most substantial comment was along the lines that cost has been added on to the building delivery process, when you consider the labor of the CPHC, the pre-certification review, and the rater visits for quality assurance. The TC believes much of this concern is simply a matter of getting used to the requirements until it becomes the new normal, but we know that there is room for improvement on making the planning tools easier to use, and we will keep working hard on that.  Most commenters felt it was also very important to get the standard written out in human-readable form, not just encoded in WUFI Passive, and we will work on this as well.

Overall, we believe that PHIUS+ 2015 will make passive building more cost-effective across climate zones. The community’s collective experience informed all the work–so thank you all for all your input and hard work and again, thanks to everyone who took the time to submit formal comment. We’re excited to implement the new standard and believe it will dramatically increase adoption of passive building.