Posts Tagged 'Passive House'

Mondays with Mike: I left my heart…

It’s 2:45 PT, which means it’s 4:45 CT, which means I’m running out of Monday to get this posted.

I’ve been out of town since a week ago for the annual conference the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)—that would be where I work—was held. We’re a small organization, so putting on the five-day event for a few hundred people is nerve-wracking, hair-raising, and exhausting. Fortunately, the last day of the conference always comprises a bus tour of local passive house projects, which is downright inspiring each year. Architects and geeky building science people go nuts over these things, and they chat furiously on the bus between stops, swapping tips and stories about how to build these things right.

This year included an office building and a dormitory in Palo Alto, a retrofitted arts and crafts house in Santa Cruz, and then—after a gorgeous trip up Route 1—a retrofit house in progress in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood.

The view from the hotel.

The view from the hotel.

I got back to the hotel, had two celebratory martinis, went upstairs to refresh with the intent of coming back down to watch the Bears play the 49ers here in enemy territory. I turned on the game, propped a pillow behind me on the bed, and the last thing I remember was the Bears were stinking and behind 10-0.

I opened my eyes the next morning, feeling better rested than I have in weeks, and learned that, against all odds, the Bears had prevailed. I’ll try to not watch from here on out.

I’m staying out near the airport, and in most cases that wouldn’t necessarily be ideal, but the hotel is across the water from the runways and, this being San Francisco, even this is pretty beautiful.

Though I’ve been in the Silicon Valley area several times in the past 30 years or so, I haven’t spent much time in the city. So tonight, I’m doing a nostalgia trip.

Back in 1982, I was living and working in Washington, D.C. The magazine I worked for (Washington Consumers’ Checkbook) had opened another magazine in the Bay Area, and asked me if I wanted to move out there to help it get off the ground.

I went on a scouting trip with my dear friend and then roommate, Pick, who knew the city and—as he had been on our trips to New York—was a fantastic fellow traveler who helped me see more than I ever would’ve on my own.

We had a grand time, and I was left stunned by the beauty of the city and the, for lack of a better term, differentness of everything. Vegetation. Rowhouses that seemed to hang from hillsides. The people. The hills.

Our trip was grand. But I didn’t take the job. Making that trip somehoe reminded me that—against any prediction I could’ve made about Myself before I moved away from the Midwest—that I wanted to go back. Which I did a few months later.

But San Francisco remains unforgettable. Our trip in 1982 included a trip to the Top of the Mark, a restaurant/bar on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. And that view—the twinkling lights on the hillsides surrounding us in 360 degrees—is burned into my brain.

So, tonight, with the conference over, I’m taking the BART downtown, and I’m going to see if the real thing is as good as what I remember. I’m guessing it will be.

These are really nice houses

A passive house in Bethesda, Md.

A passive house in Bethesda, Md.

When friends ask what my husband Mike Knezovich does for a living, it can be hard to explain. I tell them he’s the Director of Communications for Passive House Institute U.S (PHIUS). But what is a passive house, and what does PHIUS do?

Lucky for me, a writer from the Boston Globe bought a passive house last spring, and a personal essay she wrote about what it’s like to live there was published in last Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine. Maria Cramer‘s article does a great job of explaining Passive House standards in a way that is easy to understand, and as a bonus, Mike is quoted at the end!

The Passive House Cramer and her husband bought has walls that are 17 inches thick, “The better to trap the heat from the sun shining through our huge windows, she wrote.”  The house was built by Travis Anderson and Declan Keefe, who assured the homebuyers that their energy bills will be reduced to almost nothing. From the article:

The idea of heat staying trapped inside also made me realize that dead air would remain with it. As if reading my mind, Declan explained that a special vent system would filter out stale wire and draw in fresh wire. You’d just have to make sure you cleaned the filter every six months, he said. The place would run on electricity: Two small Mitsubishi devices, one on the first floor, the other on the second floor, would supply both heat and air conditioning. You’d use them about half as much as you would use a regular heater and air conditioner, Travis said. The sun would provide in the winter, they intoned. In the summer, keeping the windows open would bring in cool night air that we could trap in the morning by shutting the windows. The water would be heated by solar panels, backed up by an in-tank electric coil.

The article goes on to describe what its been like to live in the house so far. Cramer said that the long winter this year forced them to rely on the heat more than they’d planned to during their first month there. By April, though, the sun started shining directly into the kitchen, warming the concrete floor.
“On cool mornings, we no longer had to wear socks to stay warm.”

Their energy bills are a sixth of what they paid in their old place, and Cramer says she was pleasantly surprised to discover that in addition to keeping out the cold and humidity, the thick walls and triple-pane windows keep noise out, too. “At night, when our neighbors stay up late talking or when they set off firecrackers around July Fourth, we need only shut the windows.”

There are thousands of passive houses in Europe, but only about 120 certified and pre-certified structures in the United States. One unfortunate thing about the passive house name is that it implies the approach is only for single family homes. In fact, you can build anything, including skyscrapers, using passive building principles. Mike says that more an more multifamily buildings–apartments, row houses, etc.–are being submitted for certification. And it’s a natural for affordable housing developers, who are embracing it.

I’ll end this post with the best part of the Boston Globe Magazine article — a passage that includes Mike’s quote explaining why that is:

Still, that’s a big jump from 2012, when there were only about a dozen in the United States, according to Michael Knezovich, spokesman for the Passive House Institute US, which certifies the homes. (Not included in the count, Knezovich points out, are homes built to the passive standard but not certified, like the one featured here.) The increase, Knezovich says, is due to developers seeing value in formally validating homes as energy-efficient and home buyers becoming familiar with the passive home concept.“It’s very clear that more and more people are learning about it,” he says. “The early adopters were kind of tree-huggers. But [the houses] are very comfortable. They’re well built, and when people walk through one they say: ‘Oh, this isn’t a flaky thing. It’s not a sacrificial thing. You don’t have to wear a sweater all the time. It’s not just a do-gooder thing.’ These are really nice houses.”

If you want to immerse yourself in passive house, Mike’s organization (PHIUS) is putting on it’s 9th Annual North American Passive House Conference in the Bay Area September 10-14. You can learn more and register here.

Energy to burn

That's Katrin Klingenberg's Smith House, Urbana.

For the past couple of months, my husband Mike Knezovich has had two full-time jobs. He rose to the occasion after I broke my foot in June, walking Harper, accompanying me to doctor appointments, chauffeuring me to the Chicago Cultural Center so I could teach my memoir classes, running all our many, many errands. He helped me sort through the heartwrenching decision to retire Harper early, and once that decision was made he shepherded me to France to meet up with dear friends. Well, I guess that last part wasn’t really work.

Through all that, Mike was keeping up with his day job for Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), flying to DC to visit potential sites for their annual conference, working with vendors and exhibitors, promoting the event and juggling–with his coworkers–all other sundry things involved with planning a national conference. And now, the Passive House conference is here! It starts this week, and this article in USA Today helps explain what PHIUS is all about:

The passive house movement, popularized in Europe, where thousands of such homes have been built, is starting to catch on in the United States as consumers look to lower their utility bills. These homes don’t require pricey solar panels or wind turbines but focus on old-fashioned building science to reduce energy use by up to 90% less energy. They’re different from the “passive solar” homes of the 1970s, which used a lot of south-facing windows for heating, because they emphasize other features: thick walls and roofs (often at least a foot) and triple-paned windows, as well as efficient appliances and lighting. The secret is tightness, achieved via superior insulation and air sealing. A mechanical system brings in fresh air, heating or cooling it as needed.

Few U.S. homes, only a dozen so far, have obtained certification from the Passive House Institute US, a private Illinois-based group that bases its rules on the German Passivhaus standard.

Well, the number of certified homes is up to 24 now, with dozens more–including commercial buildings–in the pipeline. PHIUS is working to make passive house commonplace in new construction and retrofitted buildings.

When I tell friends about Mike’s work with passive houses, their first question is almost always about the windows. “So you have to keep the windows closed all the time?” The answer is no. When the weather is nice outside, you can still open the windows. But when temperatures are outside the range where you’d be comfortable with the windows open, the idea is to keep the inside of the home comfortable all year long, and the super-insulation means most passive homes don’t need a conventional furnace. The ventilator runs constantly at very low, quiet levels to provide air quality. And the windows–triple-paned in most cases–mean you can sit by one and never know it’s below freezing outside.

Katrin Klingenberg’s Smith House, completed in Urbana, Ill. in 2002, was the very first Passive House built in the United States. Which is appropriate, because fundamental passive house principles were actually developed at  the University of Illinois back in the 70s. Builder Mike Kernagis pitched in on other Passive House projects that were built as affordable housing in partnership with the City of Urbana, and in 2007 Klingenberg and Kernagis founded Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). Since then more Passive House structures have been built in the United States, and more are in the works. And PHIUS has certified more than 200 architects, engineers and builders as Certified Passive House Consultants. You can find consultants here.

The PHIUS conference will take place in Silver Spring, Maryland and includes tours of existing passive house projects and a ton of practical , academic and hands-on advice on how to design and build to the passive house standard–and even a panel of folks who live in these things. You can link here to view the conference’s full schedule, including passive house building tours and pre-conference workshops. You can still sign up for the conference online, but you’d better do it fast — registration closes Tomorrow night, October 23.

And hey, if you go to the conference and you see Mike Knezovich there, do me a favor: pat him on the back for two jobs well done.

Mike’s gone passive on me

One night when Mike and I were still living in Urbana, we sprung for a babysitter and headed to a nearby bar to hear some live music. The band was fun, the place was packed, and two young strangers invited us to share their table.

That's a just-completed residence built to the Passive House standard, in Salem, Ore.

Through the din of the band and the beer we managed to make conversation and discover that the two of them were newlyweds, both working as architects in Chicago. Katrin was born in Germany. Nic was born near Urbana. They were in town that weekend looking for an inexpensive empty lot where they could build something called a Passive House. I couldn’t make out Nic’s explanation of what a Passive House was, exactly, but before the night ended, Katrin had slipped a business card to Mike, and we promised we’d let them know if we heard of any property for sale.

The next time we saw Katrin, she was a widow. Nic had an undiagnosed brain tumor. He died suddenly. Unexpectedly. Katrin

That's Katrin Klingenberg.

left Chicago and moved to Urbana alone, determined to build a Passive House in Nic’s memory.

The Passive House concept began in Germany and represents today’s most stringent — most aggressive, you might say  — building energy standard. Buildings are constructed or retrofitted to cut the standard slash heating/cooling energy consumption by a whopping 90%. Windows usually face the southern sun, but the Passive House goes a lot further. Passive House construction uses thick walls and super-insulation —  a wall of a Passive House is about three times as thick as a typical  building. The buildings are super-tight; they use tape-sealed construction to keep cold out, and heat in, during the winter. Vice-versa during the summer. That means air doesn’t leak in or out through cracks and holes. But the air quality is still fine — there is a constant, low level ventilator operating. And it uses a heat exchanger so that exhaust air (already heated) transfers heat energy to the incoming air. Mike told me that some homes are heated with the equivalent of a blow dryer. Most don’t need a conventional furnace — or cooling system. Katrin told me that if Americans started using the Passive House design it would help energy conservation in the United States, her new home.

Twenty-five thousand certified passive structures — from schools and commercial buildings to homes and apartment houses — have been built in Europe. Katrin Klingenberg’s Smith House, completed in Urbana in 2002, was the very first Passive House built in the United States. Her determination to get the Passive House standard, literally, off the ground in America did not end with the completion of the Smith House. Local builder Mike Kernagis pitched in on other Passive House projects in Urbana, and in 2007, he and Katrin founded a non-profit called Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). They asked my Mike to sit on the board, and he’s been involved ever since. Since the completion of Smith House, more Passive House structures have been built in the United States, with more in the works. From a story in last September’s New York Times:

Ms. Klingenberg echoes many building science experts when she calls for more rigorous standards for energy-efficiency benchmarks, particularly if there is to be any hope of tackling the environmental and climate problems related to the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. “We have to stop using halfway measures,” she says. “Each new building that we don’t go all the way with now is putting us deeper in the hole.” Ms. Klingenberg was a co-founder of the institute in 2008, intending it as a domestic outlet for the design philosophy espoused for the last 14 years by the passive-house movement’s official sanctioning body, the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany.

To date, Passive House Institute-U.S. has educated about 160 builders, architects and engineers in the standard through a series of training programs and a final certification exam. By year-end, the number is expected to be 300, and Ms. Klingenberg said the institute was having difficulty meeting demand for its courses.

The PHIUS board is meeting in Chicago this weekend, and of course Mike will be attending. Not as a board member, though — as an employee! PHIUS needed someone else on staff to help meet the growing demand for information on the Passive House energy standard, and in January they hired Mike as Director of Marketing and Outreach. Learn more about Passive House Institute U.S. in a February article in USA Today and in another recent article in the Chicago Tribune.

If you like what you read, check out the PHIUS Web site or the PHIUS Facebook page.


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