New York Times: Passive House Poised To Go Big


If you make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. Passive House builders in NYC got recognition for making it happen in last weekend's New York Times Real Estate section. As New York Passive House trumpeted, it's been launched above the fold. There's so much to say about this most recent take on the expanding role of Passive House in New York City's real estate landscape. For now, we want to focus on all the things they got right (which few mainstream articles do) when it comes to Passive House.

7 Things The Times Piece Got Right About Passive House

  1. Brooklyn is where it's taken root - There's a reason our company began in Brooklyn. You can't throw a rock without hitting a triple-pane, Passive House window. Passive House makes a lot of sense for brownstone retrofits. If the building is a gut retrofit, the additional cost of materials to go Passive are relatively minor. You'll spend more on the countertops than you will on the air barrier. These retrofits are so common in our neck of the woods that we devoted our first eBook to it. High Performance Historic Masonry Retrofits is a how-to guide to properly airseal and insulated your EnerPHit rowhouse building.


  2. Large-scale developments are growing next - The recent presentation to a capacity crowd at The Center for Architecture by Günter Lang was like the starting gun for New York firms to go big and go Passive. Lang gave a mouth-watering visual tour of the big buildings in Germany, Belgium, and Austria that have wrested the details and budgets to make Passive House work in everything from pre-schools, to prisons, to pre-fab houses that are assembled in under a week.

    The packed audience at the Center for Architecture in New York for Günter Lang's presentation - Scaling Passive House: Big Buildings, Small Details. Image: Urban Green Council

  3. Airtightness is first on the list - Another element to Passive House's success in the city is that it addresses several problems that can make life a pain in the urban jungle: noise, air, and utility bills. What is job #1 to creating a quiet apartment with filtered air and the lowest energy bills on the block? Air sealing. Your classic NYC rowhouse building breathes through the same walls where your roaches breed. The only way to control the air is to create an airtight building envelope, and the biggest factor for comfort and energy loss is air sealing. The capabilities of quality airsealing are something that must be experienced to be believed - see our video demonstrating noise reduction in a Park Slope brownstone EnerPHit project.
  4. Overcome the learning curve, and it becomes an obvious choice - At 475, we get the privilege of hearing intimate details about many of the Passive House projects happening across the country. There are many common themes, and as a company, we try to help building professionals down the Passive House path. For many architects and builders we see people struggle with the concepts and details on their first attempts, before something clicks and they catch the bug. Once you get it, you get it. That goes for design, that goes for details, and that goes for installation. It's a big reason why we are dedicated to giving away valuable information for free. We want you get over the learning curve and make some buildings happen.
  5. We’re approaching project cost parity -  To quote the article: "Triple-pane windows and added insulation may add costs upfront, but these expenses are offset by the swapping out the boilers for a small heat pump system (heating and air-conditioning) which is all that most passive houses require." Well said. If you do the math, plan ahead, and design a simple, robust wall system, it's possible to have the components you avoid offset much of the cost of the components you add. As the Passive House movement grows, material costs come down, and this math becomes easier and easier to do. The early adopters have adopted. We're on the edge of the next wave.
  6. Aim high, it's worth the effort - If you know anything about us, you know we agree that new standards proposed by PHIUS have some inherent flaws and "may unintentionally sow confusion" within the Passive House movement. The PHI standard is a rigorous goal, but as the article mentions, a project "that falls a bit short of the original Passivhaus Institut standards and fails to obtain certification is still a very low-energy house."
  7. City government is catching on - Passive House is not only on the radar of the Mayor's office - it's in writing. In the One City: Built To Last plan, released in October, Passive House is the only green building standard mentioned by name. That speaks volumes. As mentioned in the piece, the city is "looking to high-performance innovations, such as passive-house, carbon-neutral or zero net energy strategies, to inform the city’s standards to reduce energy use in both new construction and our older building stock.”


Project Profiles

The article goes on to profile several projects happening in Brooklyn and Manhattan with friends and colleagues of 475. We can't resist sharing a little bit about what's behind the walls in some of those buildings. Long story short: INTELLO Plus and TESCON Vana are the high performance materials of choice for both retrofit and new construction.

Stephen Lynch / Caliper Studios - We're big fans of Stephen Lynch's work. In fact, we profiled the early stages of Stephen's home, which is highlighted in the Times piece. Read / see more in our blogpost: Tight Historic Masonry Rowhouse Renovation by Caliper Studio. The project used most of the solutions found in our High Performance Historic Masonry Retrofits eBook to get below the 1.0ACH50 target for EnerPHit renovation projects.

Blowerdoor test by 475 achieved below 1.0ACH50 at Stephen Lynch's house Airsealing the party wall joist with TESCON Profil and Proclima primer - no more smells from the neighbors INTELLO Plus with TESCON VANA tape on-site at one of Baxt Ingui's Passive House retrofit projects
Blowerdoor test at 1.0ACH50 at Stephen Lynch's house by 475 AIrsealed party wall joists Stephen Lynch - Caliper Studios

Baxt Ingui Architects has transitioned much of their practice toward Passive House renovation, both in Brooklyn and Manhattan. This began several years ago when they worked on a Brooklyn Heights brownstone which was a neighbor of Passive House renovation project that Ken Levenson designed. They were impressed to see construction workers in t-shirts in the middle of the winter with just an airtight shell and windows in place. Now the firm regularly uses INTELLO Plus as an air barrier / smart vapor retarder in a growing number of their projects, in combination with blown-in cellulose insulation. INTELLO controls the humidity in the historic walls, while also allowing it to be completely airsealed - taping overlaps and connections with TESCON tape. When required by historic preservation districts, they use simulated double-hung, triple-pane windows. All windows are airsealed with TESCON Profil tape. The system creates a complete shell that reduces energy demand and protects from noise, dust, and pollutants, allowing them to shrink mechanicals drastically. This means radiators and ventilation ducts are no longer an architectural issue. A win for the architect, the owner, and the environment.

255 Columbia Street was right around the corner from our Union St office location, so we got to see the project grow step-by-step. By the time they were putting on the finishing touches it was sold out completely. Location and view played a role, as in any apartment, but project manager Ben Igoe of JBS project management also attributed the excitement around this project to Passive House elements. For example, fresh filtered air proved valuable when marketing the units to families with small children.

Airsealing with 475 proclima
8" of insulation is installed after envelope interior airbarrier is completed with Proclima tapes and gaskets

When we asked Ben to expand on the New York Times piece, he said "the Passive House design was very central to our sales and marketing effort. The goal was to simplify the technical aspects into tangible, easy to understand benefits. These three concepts were: reduced energy costs, healthy air quality, and noise reduction. Living in an urban environment all three of these items resonate with buyers. We feel that compared to other developments on the market we had an advantage with a Passive House building."

255 Columbia Street's super-insulated facade and reclaimed wood balconies was designed by another friend of 475, Loadingdock5, and was prominently shown in the leading photos. What goes behind the insulation is, of course, the airseal accomplished with Pro Clima's TESCON Profil window tapes, ROFLEX gaskets and liquid applied air barriers as recommended from 475.

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