Ten years after

Hi folks, this is Mike Knezovich, also known as Mike #2. (PHIUS has a Mike problem.) I pitch in here on communications, conference, and, like everyone does in a small organization, whatever might need done. Anyway, Katrin’s in Pittsburgh for CPHC training at CMU, and is loaning me the Klingenblog space to wax a little nostalgic. Hope you enjoy.

A little more than 10 years ago, my wife and I took a frigid winter walk from our vintage (as in older than dirt) house in Urbana, Ill., to a little downtown bar called The Embassy. A good band was playing that night, and the place was packed. Friends waved us over, and in turn introduced us to their friends from out of town, and invited us to sit with them.

Raising the TJI-framed walls for Smith House.

One of their visiting friends was Katrin Klingenberg, an architect who lived and worked in Chicago. She had this idea to build a proof of concept for something called a passive house and was scouting for an empty lot–knowing land would be a lot more affordable in East Central Illinois than Chicago.

I was editor of an alt-weekly newspaper in town and started grilling Katrin. With healthy skepticism. But she wasn’t talking pie-in-the-sky bleeding edge technology like a magical yet-to-be-developed hydrogen fuel cell that would sit in the back yard.

Superinsulation. Airtight envelopes. Energy recovery ventilation. Triple pane windows. Passive solar. I’m a journalist by training—building science ain’t my forte. But I understood this stuff. And I figured if it made sense to me, it probably would make sense to a lot of other people, too. And that this might be a great story. I got Kat’s card, and later, when she and her crew got the slab for Smith House in the ground, I attended the groundbreaking party, and I got a nice feature for my paper.

During the summer months, vegetation on the trellis provides nice shading.

PHIUS staff celebrated the 10 year anniversary of the groundbreaking for Smith House just last week with an autumn cookout. And it brought to light just how much has changed in 10 years.

Urbana is now home to seven passive houses, three of them affordable housing projects built in partnership with the City of Urbana. More than 800 folks have taken the PHIUS CPHC training, with better than 400 earning CPHC status. Dozens of projects have been certified, and more than a hundred are in the pipeline.

Established institutions—like the U.S. Department of Energy, RESNET, Building Science Corporation and Fraunhofer IBP—that once were as skeptical as I was about passive house now see the value.

Years after writing the newspaper story I was recruited to the Ecolab and later the PHIUS boards. And a couple years ago, I joined PHIUS –at that time PHIUS was founders Katrin and Mike Kernagis, plus Ryan Abendroth — at PHIUS as an employee. Since then it’s been a ride.

I was lucky back in the 90s to have a front-row seat at the birth of the Web; I see definite similarities.

A peak inside from the loft.

Technologies once reserved for elite technocrats being democratized. Tremendous excitement. Constantly changing technology and changing assumptions. A feeling of infinite potential alternating with fear of losing steam. New players. Intense passion and competition. A need for open, adaptable standards and technologies that will help accelerate—not impede—growth.

During our conference in Denver, the sense of busting out was palpable. Passive house principles are on the verge of going from being a boutique program with a cultish following to something that will soon be commonplace. I feel proud and privileged to be along for the ride.

Thank you all for continuing to push. And though I can’t design or construct buildings, I’ll do my small part. I mean, I know a good story when I see one. And I think this one’s just getting started.

Mike Knezovich