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.

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.

Looking back and ahead at passive building

Today PHIUS delivers its CPHC training virtually and and across the country, and in partnership with organizations like Yestermorrow and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It all started with the first class in Urbana, Ill., in 2008, pictured above. Bottom row, from l-r:  John Essig, Dave Brach, Mary Graham, Katrin Klingenberg, Laura Briggs, Jonah Stanford. Second row: Christina Snyder, Luis Martinez, Jim Olson, Lance Wright, Paul Eldrenkamp, Hayden Robinson, Henry Gifford, David White, Graham Irwin. Back row: Katia Sussman, Tim Moran, Ian Schnack, Al Hothan, John Highland, Gino Mazzaferro, Mark Hoberecht, Ed Shank, Bogdan Zagorowski, Jesper Kruse, Steve Robinson, Matt Howard, Tim Eian, Harold Finigan, Vahid Mojarrab, Tad Everhart, Marc Rosenbaum

I wrote in my last post about how my diagnosis with MS motivated me to rebalance my lifestyle and nutrition. One other positive by-product has been an opportunity to reflect. Once again, reflection and mindfulness – like good nutrition – have always been a goal. But the MS forced the issue by slowing me down (at least for awhile).

And I was reminded of what a rich and wonderful journey it’s been, and how far we’ve come together.

When I set out a dozen years ago, it was not simply to advance passive house principles. It was to help shrink our carbon footprint—and the effects of climate change. Passive building seemed then as it does now to be a critical part of the solution.

I started by building my own residence in Urbana, Ill. Then Mike Kernagis joined me as construction manager on two affordable passive houses built in partnership with the City of Urbana. One other affordable home was built in 2011, and we designed three private homes. And, the Solar Decathlon Home 2009 came home from D.C. after placing second, bringing the number of passive homes in the Champaign-Urbana area to eight.

The reaction — from points far and wide across the country was — so strong and positive that we assembled the first English language CPHC (Certified Passive House Consultant) training program in 2008.

It’s been a whirlwind since then. In 2009 we founded the Passive House Alliance US (PHAUS) and communities of our trainees coalesced in their respective regions, forming groups such as PHCA, PHNW, NYPH and PHNE. PHAUS, a PHIUS program, has added more than a dozen chapters under the PHAUS umbrella nationwide.

Most important, we deliver the training nationally and virtually now, and the community of PHIUS-trained CPHCs (now 550+ strong) started building real, successful projects across North America’s climate zones. Some of the bleeding edge heroes of the effort include Dan Whitmore, Jan Fillinger, Win Swafford, Tad Everhart, Blake Bilyeu, Randy Foster and Tessa Smith, Alex Boetzel and Stephan Aiguier, Rob Hawthorne, Margo Rettig, Jesse Thomas, Joe Giampietro, Graham Wright and Sam Hagerman in the Northwest. In the Bay Area, the torch was carried by Allen Gilliland (the first NZE home in Calif.), Graham Irwin, Rick Milburn, Nabih Tahan, Lowell Moulton, Katy Hollbacher and Prudence Ferreira.

The Northeast honor roll: Laura Briggs, Paul Eldrenkamp, Marc Rosenbaum, Peter Schneider and J.B. Clancy, Mike Duclos and Paul Panish, Alan Gibson and Matt O’Malia, Svea Tullberg, Jesper Kruse, Stephanie Bassler, Jesse Thompson, Laura Blau, Tim McDonald, Chris Benedict and Henry Gifford, Dennis Wedlick, David White, Ken Levenson, Jordan Goldman and Stephanie Horowitz, Andreas Benzing, Julie Torres-Moskovitz.

David Peabody, Adam Cohen, John Semmelhack, Michael Hindle, Barbara Gehrung, Alan Abrams and Dan Levy have led the way in the Mid-Atlantic region; Chris Senior, Clarke Snell and Jeff Buscher in the Carolinas; Ed Shank and Mark Hoberecht, Eric Lang, Pat Murphy, Mary Rogero and Faith Morgan in Ohio.

In Kentucky, Ginger Watkins and Michael Hughes have been leaders; way up North Stephan Tanner, Tim Eian, Carly Colson, Rachel Wagner and Mike LeBeau carried the banner. Lance Wright and Brian Fuentes sparked the community in Colorado; Joaquin Karcher and Jonah Stanford in New Mexico; Dave Brach in Salt Lake; Vic Weber in Idaho; Ross Elliott and Natalie Leonard in Canada; Thorsten Chlupp in Alaska: Linda Metropulos, Laura Nettleton and Michael Whartnaby in Pennsylvania; Tom Bassett-Dilley, Mark Miller and Patrick Danaher in Chicago. Finally, Dave Stecher, Dylan Lamar (who also did the first IP version of PHPP while at PHIUS, a critical step), Ian Schnack, Ryan Abendroth and Darcy Bean helped blaze trails back at home in Urbana, and later on their own in Phoenix, St.Louis, Portland Ore. and Pittsburgh. Pa.

There are more—like Corey Saft who had the gumption to build a passive house in Louisiana. We learned so much from that project. Surely I am omitting people – I apologize for any memory lapse. The point is, there’s no substitute for all of your commitment. I feel privileged to be part of your community.

We are headed toward our 9th Annual Conference, and today, in addition to CPHC training, we offer PHIUS Certified Builders Training, and a PHIUS+ Rater training that enables HERS raters to accurately rate passive houses. These programs are relatively new, but the Certified Builder program is always sold out and already the community of PHIUS Certified Builders is approaching 100; and the Rater community is right behind it.

We’ve forged strategic partnerships with the likes of the U.S. DOE, Building Science Corporation, RESNET, Rocky Mountain Institute. We’ve also established  relationships with the prestigious Fraunhofer IBP, Owens Corning and Oak Ridge National Lab—a partnership that produced WUFI Passive. WUFI Passive is a fantastic software modeling tool that is making passive energy modeling easier, more accurate, and integrated with WUFI hygrothermal analysis. It’s a commercial grade software tool with a streamlined GUI and the most powerful passive and hygrothermal modeling capabilities on the market. It is, simply, a leap forward.

Looking back, I see there was another critical group—and I mean critical. Let’s call them the passive house skeptics. They’ve ranged from Marc Rosenbaum to Joe Lstiburek to Martin Holladay.

When I set out to prove passive house principles in the United States, I was energetic, armed with information from the German PHI, and … a little naïve. Passivhaus was new to me and the majority of people I talked to about it. And I thought—like a lot of like-minded people—that I’d discovered something brand new.

After I built my own passive house in 2002, and we started getting some attention in the mainstream and trade press, I began hearing from energy conservation pioneers. On one hand, they were excited to see conservation back on the front burner, after interest in it trailed off back in the 80s.

But some were also a bit miffed. I didn’t understand it at the time – and misunderstood it as resistance to change. It was quite the opposite. It was the notion that this passivhaus or passive house was new that was irksome to them.

Indeed, I learned that the foundation principles that distinguished what I called passive house in English or passivhaus in German were not at all new. Superinsulation, high-performance doors and windows, removing thermal bridges, energy recovery ventilation/minimizing mechanicals, managing solar gain. A group of pioneers — including some in my own backyard in Urbana at the University of Illinois—had formulated these concepts decades earlier.

What we have learned – and I say we because we’ve learned it side-by-side with CPHCs and builders who’ve faced real-world challenges across climates—is that this group of early pioneers had valid misgivings about passive house as formulated in Europe. The concerns included the small-house penalty, North American issues with latent humidity, and the cost-effectiveness of investing in the envelope as opposed to renewables. The biggest concern: deep disagreement that a single numerical standard for all climate zones could make sense.

Reasonable people can and will disagree. But on the single standard, we at PHIUS have come to agree that a one-size-fits-all-climates standard is flawed, and is a major factor holding back adoption. I, like a lot of people, found the notion that a single number could work for all climates magnetically attractive. But in our experience designing, building, certifying and monitoring, we’ve concluded it doesn’t work. That’s an important departure, but not a disagreement about passive house principles being the best place to start for high performance building.

That’s why we’re engaged with Building Science Corporation in testing climate-specific standards that use the peak load calculation (which underlies also the European standard) as a baseline. (BTW, again—climate-specific doesn’t necessarily mean “easier.” In some climate zones, we expect the standard to tighten.)

Now, make no mistake: When interest in conservation waned in the United States and Canada in the 80s, the efforts of Drs. Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist to formulate passive principles for Europe were heroic, and Dr. Feist’s continuing efforts with PHI have been invaluable. In particular the PHPP was an important step toward putting modeling within reach of passive house professionals. We owe them gratitude. But the work of our entire community, the advancement of building science and innovation must quite naturally go on. There is no holy grail here.

Some lament the differences that exist within the passive building community. To be sure, some of the harsh rhetoric and hurt feelings have been regrettable (and, I think, entirely avoidable moving forward). But we see different and competing ideas as healthy and necessary. It’s only natural that as a community grows, it grows more vital and diverse, and that competing views—and to be sure, competing interests—arise.

The entire passive house community, regardless of scientific position or organizational loyalties, is pulling toward conserving energy and reducing carbon emissions, while constructing extremely comfortable, healthy and resilient buildings. And we agree that passive is a great way to do that. But honest competition has always driven growth and innovation. Trying to put a lid on ideas suppresses growth, and leaves us fighting over a very small pie.

Here’s to a vibrant and diverse passive house community, and to a much, much larger pie!

Katrin