Posts Tagged 'Katrin Klingenberg'

Home and away

Not long before they're in Chicago.

Hi folks, I just heard from Beth. She and Whit and their trainer Chris are off for a big test this morning: New York City. A combination of rides on commuter trains, subway trains, and buses–plus negotiating the sidewalks full of New Yorkers. Everyone’s determined to make a city dog of Whit, and I have every confidence she’ll become one.

Only a week to go now, and while the first few days really crawled along, last week flew by. While Beth’s been at Paw Camp, I’ve been spending more time working at the Passive House Institute US office in Urbana, Ill. (I usually split my time between there and my home office in Chicago, but with Beth away, Urbana’s seen more of me lately). We’re gearing up for another year of training architects, engineers, builders and others to design, build and test Passive House buildings. I think Beth explained Passive House in another blog post –a building that is certified to meet the Passive House standard uses only 10 to 20 percent of the energy an equivalent conventional building uses.

There’s no magic involved, and there’s no waiting on hydrogen fuel cells or other pie-in-the-sky technology. Basically, you just:

  • Insulate the bajeesus out of the building–the wall structures are designed to accommodate thick insulation
  • Create a supertight “envelope”–just think of the outer skin of your home, and imagine if it didn’t leak air
  • Use superb windows–they’re triple-paned, and even the frames and sashes have high insulation values
  • Use energy recovery ventilation instead of a conventional furnace–an ERV transfers heat from exhaust air to incoming fresh air, so hardly any heat energy from the interior (generated by appliances, humans, and such) is lost

One of the cool things about Passive House design and construction is that buildings can look any way you want them to look: Contemporary and sleek or stately and traditional. The method has been used to build everything from single-family homes to large townhouse developments to high-rises. Passive Houses stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter–I’ve been in them and they’re unbelievably comfortable, draft-free, and the indoor air quality is superb. I want one someday.

A Passive House can look like this traditional foursquare in Bethesda, Maryland (photo courtesy of the architect, David Peabody)....

Our conference in the D.C. area last October got a lot of buzz. As a result, a new program will allow Passive Houses to receive a rating called a HERS Index. People from all over the country who work as energy auditors–they rate homes for their efficiency– were in Urbana last weekend for a special training to show them what to look for in Passive House construction. Our goal is to make Passive House construction more commonplace and to qualify the buildings for financial incentives associated with programs like Energy Star and LEED for homes.

All good stuff, and for me it’s been a labor of love. Hard to believe how far Passive House has come in the United States since I first learned about it, but it’s a story worth telling, I think.

Beth and I met Katrin Klingenberg nearly 10 years ago. We were out on a weekend in Urbana to see a band at a local watering hole and were lucky enough to find seats next to Katrin (Kat) and her husband Nic Smith. Beth and I learned that Kat was born in Germany, studied there, then came to Ball State for graduate school in architecture. That’s where she and Nic met.

After working at architecture firms in Chicago (Kat worked for Helmut Jahn, no less), they’d decided to build the first example of a Passive House in the United States. They were in Urbana to scout property–a much more economical prospect downstate than in Chicago.

Through the din of steel guitar and drum solos, Kat explained the principles to me. And I understood them. That’s what told me it might be a good idea. It requires technical sophistication to execute a Passive House building but the principles were so simple even I could grasp them. I was the editor of a weekly newspaper in Champaign-Urbana back then, and I knew this would make a great story.

I made Kat promise to call me when the project got started. Months later, I found myself in my ragged newspaper office in downtown Champaign, sitting across from a woman in tears. Kat was in mourning.

...or like this, Kat's first Passive House--and still her residence in Urbana, Ill.

Her husband Nic had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and died shortly after the diagnosis.
–when Kat appeared in my newspaper office she was only a week or two removed from his death.

Kat asked if the paper might publish some of her husband Nic’s poetry in tribute. We did. Beth and I stayed in touch with Kat, and we became friends. Kat followed through on the Passive House construction: Smith House was completed in Urbana in 2002, a testimony to her resolve and her abilities. I published a story about it in the newspaper I edited,
and scanned it to pdf and posted it here, if you’re interested.

Fast forward to 2007: After partnering with the City of Urbana to build affordable housing units, Katrin and the construction manager on the project who was won over by Passive House–Mike Kernagis–decided it was time to go national with this thing. And so, they founded Passive House Institute US. PHIUS has been training people, certifying projects, promoting, and building ever since. (Mike Kernagis–a man of many talents–has written a terrific book that’s a great primer.)

I joined the board of directors a couple years ago; last year I left the board and joined the staff. It’s terrific to work with people I admire, and for a purpose that makes so much sense it hurts. This is where the unashamed plug comes. The holidays are traditionally donation time, and I know you’re inundated, but if you’re looking for a place to donate before year-end, Passive House Institute US is a 501(c)3. PHIUS has supported itself largely through fees for training to day, but the demand is growing faster than we can keep up. In 2012 we’ll be counting more on grants and donations to train more people who can build and retrofit existing buildings. So donate and deduct to your heart’s content–and stay warm!

Thanks for reading.

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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