Monthly Archives: September 2010

Not Passive about Passive

Some things take time. My first book, Building the Timber Frame House, was written over 30 years ago. It was a personal manifesto about a better approach to building homes. I was convinced that conventional systems were inherently flawed and that we therefore needed a building system in which higher standards of durability and energy-efficiency were natural outcomes rather than occasional outliers. I made the argument that the dominant building methods invite shortcuts and poor workmanship, while also making energy-efficiency difficult to achieve because structure and insulation fight each other in the same territory.

I promoted timberframing as a solution for two reasons. First, timberframes are robust and visible structures that demand disciplined craft standards and result in buildings that can last for many centuries. Second, by applying insulation as an exterior covering layer,there is less need to compromise the insulation with structure, which I argued was an opportunity to maximize the building’s thermal performance.

Even so many years ago, I could see that our ability to make homes extremely tight and well insulated would lead to interesting challenges and compelling opportunities. I could also see a very exciting future, a veritable paradigm shift in our expectations of our buildings, and knew that the vision I was describing about building performance was even more important than the timberframe strategy that was the book’s subject. It was no accident that these were the last two paragraphs of that book: (Italics added)

To insulate as well as we can and to make houses as tight aswe can presents new challenges to the building industry. Houses will no longer naturally ventilate, because of our inability to get them tight.We can lock them up like thermos bottles if we like. To bring new air into the house, we’ll have to design ventilation systems into the plans.With heat loss cut to the bones, we’ll have design natural and mechanical recirculation to keep the temperature even and the air fresh.In this kind of environment, the heat from appliances, lights, and even body heat will contribute significant proportions to the small heating requirements. In houses built this way, energy from the sun, wind, or water could easily replace fuel-fired power sources.

Energy conservation is the hope of the future. In conscience, we must mark the end of the era of substandard housing that is cheap to build but expensive and wasteful to maintain. In conscience, we should begin a time when houses contain energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels and are built to last centuries.

Without giving that mission a name, I was describing what we now call Passive House or Net-Zero homes. I knew then that these types of homes were possible, and I knew that such a possibility therefore had to be realized, for it wasn’t just an idealized way of the future, but rather–even as I wrote those words in the late 1970’s–it felt like it was our future’s hope.

While our progress has not always been constant, I’m proud to say the mission of building durable, energy-independent homes has always been important. Real important.

We have just assembled our first Passive House. A time lapse of the 5 day shell installation is here. The home is still under construction, but we’re confident we’ll have achieved the stringent Passive House standards* when it is complete, which is basically the realization of the two last paragraphs in my first book. Energy conservation through extraordinary insulation and air tightness is the key to eliminating fossil fuels, and a sophisticated ventilation system is the solution for heat recovery and fresh air.

In a way, the Passive House requirement was not daunting because, at Bensonwood, we’ve been preparing for it with our continual performance improvements over the last 35 years. We’ve been inching ever closer to the “energy autonomous environments” I envisioned. In the past few years, we’ve built several Net-Zero buildings, which while not quite as demanding in proven performance, have very similar requirements. The Passive House standards attempt to achieve energy independence without a conventional heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system, while Net-Zero allows renewal energy sources to make up the difference and also tries seeks to address the total home energy, not just heating and cooling. But there is little doubt that a good way to achieve Net-Zero performance would be to start with a Passive House.

In another way, the Passive House was a big and important step for us. It forced us to improve our air tightness to a level a little better than we had previously achieved. On previous projects, we had achieved .75 ach at 50 pascals, but Passive House requires .60. This is called “raising the bar,” a phrase that is often used, but not always appreciated for its potential significance.

Since I was a pole-vaulter in my high school years, the term “raising the bar” means something pretty specific to me. What I learned back then was that every new height, once leaped, made the height below it seem quantums easier. There was a time when I was stuck at 13’6″ for quite awhile, but a particular competition forced me to jump 13’9″. From then on, 13’6″ was a cinch. The same thing happened at 14′. I spent nearly a year hovering around that height, never doing better, until I somehow got over 14’6″ in a tough competition. From then on, 14′ was no big deal. (If you have no context, these were middling heights. I seldom won.)

So for us, building the Passive House is a lot like my 14’6″ jump. It couldn’t have happened without years of developing skills, training and continual improvement. But since we have now made the performance leap from .75ach to .6ach, we think .6 will be become relatively normal and .75 will be easy. In fact, we already think .6 will soon become our standard air tightness expectation and we look forward to setting our sights on an even better performance stand of .5ach at 50pascals.

The cool thing about the air tightness improvement is that it’s essentially free, where improving the R-value means increasing shell thickness and/or buying better windows, and that costs more money. Air-tight building is about attention to detail, discipline, and doing things correctly and precisely. It’s not about buying more materials; just installing the same ones a little bit better. Once the process is understood, it becomes repeatable with no penalty on production efficiency.

We recently raised our standard insulation level to R-35 (wall) and R-42 (roof). At this level, both Passive House and Net-Zero are within reach for most of our standard homes. With our newly-gained Passive House level of air tightness, we’re closer than ever to my 30+ year old vision. Being this close makes me anxious for the bar to be a bit higher, because I think we’re ready to make that leap to “begin a time when (all our) houses contain energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels and are built to last centuries.”

* Passive House standard from Wikipedia:
The building must be designed to have an annual heating demand as calculated with the Passivhaus Planning Package of not more than 15 kWh/m² per year (4746 btu/ft² per year) in heating and 15 kWh/m² per year cooling energy OR to be designed with a peak heat load of 10W/m²

Total primary energy (source energy for electricity and etc.) consumption (primary energy for heating, hot water and electricity) mustnot be more than 120 kWh/m² per year (3.79 × 104 btu/ft² per year)

The building must not leak more air than 0.6 times the house volume per hour (n50 ≤ 0.6 / hour) at 50 Pa (N/m²) as tested by a blower door.

What Matters

Oh boy. The “housing sector” has been both receiving and delivering really bad news for the past few weeks. Every day seems to bring yet another body blow. One our economy’s usually strongest pullers is now beaten to a bloody pulp and just can’t get up. In this NYT report, we are told that homes will possibly no longer be a source of wealth creation, which is quite a problem because homes have been a fountain of cash, sprinkling life to a myriad other economic sectors.

Home ownership will never again yield rewards like those enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century, when houses not only provided shelter but also a plump nest egg.

The wealth generated by housing … did more than assure the owners a comfortable retirement. It powered the economy, paying for the education of children and grandchildren, keeping the cruise ships and golf courses full and the restaurants humming.

More than likely, that era is gone for good.

The dire implication is that homes will just be homes and there will be great suffering if they will never again be useful as ATM’s.

In a Monthly Review article, Rick Wolff suggests that the whole “homeownership religion” was always a bit of a sham because it was propped up with subsidies and encouraged very long term debt that had not historically been a part of the American economic system until very recently.

To see the systemic problems of the US housing industry, consider its basic economics. The “American dream” of owning one’s home was never affordable to the vast majority of US families because the wages or salaries paid by their employers were never enough. To realize the dream therefore required borrowing. However, because working families had insufficient wages and salaries and no accumulated wealth,.. private banks rarely lent to them. The vast majority of them,not merely the poorest among them, were too risky as borrowers

(A) …”solution” was found… The government would subsidize and guarantee private banks’ loans to millions of homebuyers. This solution boosted profits in private banks’ mortgage loan business. It indirectly subsidized all the industries producing for private homes. Yet it did not raise wages and salaries (something capitalists opposed).Many US workers became homeowners with large, long-term mortgages, making them more dependent on keeping jobs, not offending employers, etc. That experience also prepared workers to accept credit card, student loan, and other consumer debts. Expanding debt became the way most Americans bridged the gap between their incomes and the “good life”relentlessly advertised by capitalists needing buyers

The US housing industry’s basic problem is the system in which it is embedded… Over the last 75 years, US capitalism has bridged that gap by means of private credit guaranteed and/or subsidized by the government. This system provides incentives as well as opportunities for excessive home prices, diminished wages and salaries, and excessive quantities, risks, and costs of housing credit. The last 30 years have seen all three phenomena converge into a systemic crisis.

Like the changing of seasons, and night following day, housing has long been propped up on the unquestioned belief that homes will always increase in value. When the props fell out of that particular structure of shared belief, a tidal wave swept in and took away zillions of dollars that only existed because we told each other so.

Props gone; faith gone; money gone.

What’s left? The house. Even as people are absorbing their losses and the economy searches for some other kind of savior, it is dawning on homeowners that they still have something that’s pretty important, as David Streitfeld reports in a NYT article about July’s terrible housing sales figures:

His house, (homeowner Jimmy Penz) knows, is “an illiquid asset, a long-term asset, something I won’t be able to tap in for cash. But we chose a place we’ll be able to stay for a long time, to ride out any trouble.”

Once upon a time, before everyone from the banks to the buyers to the sellers got greedy, that was how everyone thought about the housing market. And however bumpy the path, that is once again the market’s future, said Mr. Kelman of Redfin.

“It’s not the apocalypse,” he said. “People will buy homes when they need to move or want the house, not when they want to make money. There will be winners and losers — not just, as in years past, winners and bigger winners.”

While everyone seems to be searching for a silver lining, including me, these articles are peppered with phrases like, “truly gut wrenching,” “gruesome,” “even more breathtaking,” “unprecedented,” and many foreboding indications that it could get worse, such as: “If unemployment goes higher than 10 percent, then the housing market is really looking at trouble.”

Joe Nocera, in hisTalking Business blog, even mocked the spokesperson for the National Association of Realtors, Lawrence Yun, for trying to put a positive spin on a very negative situation. He wondered “what they’re smoking over there.” All Mr. Yun said was that “Given the rock-bottom mortgage interest rates and historically high housing affordability conditions, the pace of a sales recovery could pick up quickly..” Still,Nocera picked that comment apart and did his best to explain why our situation is really, really bad and may never get better.

For millions of homeowners stuck “underwater,” for millions more who have foreclosed, and for people who are suffering everywhere because this housing situation has drained all vitality out of our economy, Mr. Nocera’s analysis has the depressive ring of truth. There’s no way to make this picture pretty.

I’d have ended this post that way, but my day and attitude was just brightened. I just had a chat with prospective clients who want to add on to their small home. Their upbeat attitude was infectious. Their two young sleeping boys are beautiful and heartwarming. They hope we can build a good quality house they can afford. I looked at this family and I could feel their excitement. I couldn’t help but hope for their dream right along with them.

They tell their story of rehabbing a rough, small cabin into a more-finished small home. They’re proud of their work and the result. It works, but it’s very small for their growing family.

They would like us to build an addition that would provide an open living area on one level and several bedrooms on the upper level. It’s a simple concept, and they say several times that what they are after is a home that is well-built, well-insulated and functional. “Nothing fancy,” they say, “We just want a good quality home for our family. And we definitely don’t want it big. We don’t want to have to call people to dinner with a cell phone. It would be better just to be able to say ‘dinner’s ready.'” All I do is smile. I’m sold.

I didn’t stay in the room long. I was just there to introduce myself. Bill Holtz, one of our architects, was there to work through some design ideas with them.

But in the space of a few minutes, they made me happy. I can’t fix the decades-long misguided and greedy machinations to pull money down from housing every which-way from Sunday. And I can’t fix the rotten economy that resulted from all of that. What I can do is help our team continue our efforts to make our homes better and more affordable. This lovely couple and their two boys were a refreshing reminder that homes matter in the lives of people and that we can make a difference.