Why the passive house could be the future of design in New York

Long Island City Oasis

NOTICholas Liberis knew his office project in Long Island City had to be different.

A new 11-story building surrounded by old warehouses and budget hotels wasn’t exactly a destination for tech giants or hedge funds. Then came a global pandemic, which forced companies to completely rethink their office footprint.

“You needed every competitive edge you could get,” said Liberis, a partner at Archimera, the Brooklyn-based architecture firm responsible for designing the building, which is called the Oasis.

Liberis believes this benefit will come from a German-inspired design standard for new builds and renovations called “Passive House”. Intended to significantly reduce energy consumption, the design standard also produces buildings that are quieter and provide better air quality for tenants, advocates say.

It’s a widely adopted concept across much of Europe, where some municipalities have even begun to incorporate it into local building codes.

Despite the benefits of passive house design, it has yet to catch on with the American masses. Initial costs may be higher. Plus, it’s just not on the radar of landlords and developers who generally prefer to collect rent checks with minimal outlay.

But the concept is gaining ground.

Cornell Tech designed its 26-story apartment building on Roosevelt Island to Passive House standards. In Boston, a 690-foot-tall condo and office tower is set to be the tallest passive house in the United States when it is scheduled for completion next year.

The real catalyst in New York could be Local Law 97, which will require large building owners to reduce their carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. That’s a tall order, even for the most energy-efficient buildings, but advocates say passive house standards could be the solution.

“The fact that someone can buy a building based on the passive house principle and know that they won’t have to pay an appraisal or a penalty is a reality,” said Bill Caleo of Brooklyn Home Company, which uses passive house techniques in its buildings.

From Germany to America

Passive houses have captured the imagination of architects since the concept first appeared in Germany in the late 1980s. It was not until 2003, however, that the first building to meet the standards was constructed in the States. USA: A 1,200 square foot home in Urbana, Illinois.

In the years since, the Passive House Institute US, a non-profit organization founded in 2007, has certified more than 1,000 projects completed or in progress in North America. To qualify for certification, buildings must adhere to a few key principles.

On the one hand, passive house buildings must be highly insulated to ensure that hot air does not escape through areas of least resistance, known as thermal bridges.

“Buildings lose a lot of energy going through walls,” said Stas Zakrzewski of New York-based architecture firm Zakrzewski + Hyde Architects, which focuses on passive houses.

In addition to being waterproof, the building must have triple-glazed windows, or have at least three panes of glass.

Overall, passive houses can reduce building energy consumption by up to 85%, according to New York Passive House, an advocacy group.

But building homes with heavier insulation can pose a risk: poor air quality. This is why passive houses also require an improved ventilation system, providing filtered fresh air 24/7.

In New York, this concept may seem radical.

Air-conditioning units perched on window sills are ubiquitous in the summer. And in winter, when dusty old radiators start banging, tenants are often forced to open windows to lower temperatures in the absence of thermostats.

But Zakrzewski said passive houses aren’t complicated and present an easy way for homeowners to reduce energy costs.

“It’s not like you’re building a rocket,” Zakrzewski said.

Zakrzewski used passive housing to retrofit large antebellum Victorian homes in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. The owners wanted to reduce their energy bills, which, according to the architect, sometimes amounted to as much as $1,000 per month.

Zakrzewski’s biggest project so far has been at Chelsea.

Working with developer Alex Bernstein — whose family owns several commercial properties in the neighborhood — Zakrzewski designed a 25-story, 55-unit passive apartment building at 211 West 29th Street known as Flow Chelsea.

Flow Chelsea at 211 West 29th Street

When marketing the project, Bernstein initially eschewed the “passive house” label, instead playing on the advantages of the design, one of which is silence.

“You can be on the second and third floors and not hear anything,” Bernstein said. “You are really surprised by the calm of the apartments.

Brooklyn Home Company’s Caleo said he was drawn to another benefit of passive houses: air quality. Citing studies on how filtered air affects cognitive brain activity, he believes passive houses – which must provide a constant flow of fresh air – can improve tenant health.

“We try to sell amenities like Sub-Zero,” said Caleo, which uses passive house technology for new residential projects. “Why don’t we sell superior air quality? »

What’s in a name?

Even for their supporters, passive houses have not been the easiest to sell.

Although the concept has grown in prominence over the years, its adherents are still a niche group, largely made up of academics and people concerned with sustainability.

Bernstein said the name is partly to blame for the lack of awareness.

“Passive house is a terrible name,” he said.

Zakrzewski, who is also president of the New York Passive House organization, agreed: “He’s not a big name.”

On the one hand, a passive house is not passive. The concept involves a constant flow of air through a building, which essentially functions as a self-contained entity. Second, the design doesn’t have to be for a house. The technique can be applied to commercial buildings such as offices or hotels, as well as apartment buildings.

Changing the name can help with branding, but owners and contractors should still buy in.

Building passive houses can incur an upfront premium of 3-5% on materials and labor, with the aim of lowering these costs down the line, according to industry professionals. However, with rising lumber and material costs in the United States, those margins are shrinking. Finding certified contractors and engineers to design and build passive houses is another challenge.

“It’s a stubborn industry,” said Alan Barlis of architecture firm BarlisWedlick, which has designed a number of passive houses in upstate New York. “It’s a world where margins are tight. Innovation comes with great difficulty.

The regulations are coming

Passive houses have become particularly popular in cold climate regions like Sweden and Canada. Against the freezing outside conditions, houses need loads of warm air that can escape through the building. This is not only expensive, but also ultimately harmful to the environment.

Some Swedish cities have required new municipal construction to use passive house techniques as part of the national plan to reduce carbon emissions. In 2017, the Flemish government moved its headquarters to Belgium’s largest passive office building in Brussels, where passive house standards have been mandatory for new buildings and renovations since 2015.

To date, the United States does not have a federal mandate allowing building owners to use passive houses. Local Law 97 in New York also does not require the design to be used in construction.

The city is still figuring out the flaws in the law. Zakrzewski, who sits on the Local Law 97 climate advisory committee, said New York “is interested in passive housing,” but declined to elaborate.

Even in the absence of any government mandate, passive houses are increasingly appearing in the northeastern United States. A driver could be Covid-19. The pandemic has dampened interest in office rentals, which means office tenants can afford to be more demanding when it comes to space.

“It’s a saturated market,” Liberis said. “People think more about what they offer.”

One consequence, he said, is that there is now a greater demand for higher quality products, which passive house standards can provide.

“That’s really where the whole building is going,” he added.

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