Our Designers’ Reflections on Passivhaus, Post-Training

Posted by Zack Semke on August 11, 2016

NK Architects with Tomas O'Leary of Passive House Academy
Tomas O’Leary (R) with NK Architects’s Seattle design staff

I’m new at NK, drawn here by the firm’s commitment to design and building performance. Call it “Passivhaus high design.” So it was fitting that just three weeks into my new job I got the chance to be part of a weeklong Certified Passive House Designer training with all of NK’s Seattle architectural staff. It was an immersion in both the building science of Passivhaus and in the community of designers that is NK. (It’s an inspiring group, as I think you’ll get a sense for from the quotes later in this post.)

The inimitable Tomas O’Leary – Irish Passivhaus pioneer, instructor extraordinaire, cofounder of Passive House Academy, and all-around sparkplug – taught the training. The man has a gift, holding the 35 of us mostly-rapt for five long days of training in Passivhaus design principles, building science fundamentals, component performance calculation, and PHPP modeling minutiae.

The training was a big deal for us. We aim to be a national leader in Passivhaus design, especially for multifamily and commercial buildings, so growing our firm-wide Passivhaus capabilities is mission critical. We will likely soon have more certified Passivhaus professionals on staff than any architectural firm in the US, but more important than that distinction is the multiplying effect that group training brings. Passivhaus won’t be something that one or two isolated designers try to carry forward at NK. We all get it. We’re all aware of the ways that Passivhaus planning and building science can support great design and better buildings.

“I’ve been in architecture for over 25 years, and to me, the Passivhaus method of designing buildings is really the top of the game,” said Tim Weyand, NK’s CEO. “It’s surprising that Passivhaus hasn’t already caught on in the United States. I mean this is such an accepted way of building, entrenched in Europe and getting to be that way in areas of China, actually. For this way of building to totally reduce the amount of energy that we use in our built environment and not to be embraced already is weird. I think it’s going to take off, and we’re right there, so I’m excited about that.”

Tim Weyand, CEO of NK ArchitectsTim Weyand, CEO of NK Architects

This Passivhaus perspective is attracting new talent to NK.

“When I found out that NK was offering Passivhaus training to its designers, that actually made me choose this job over other jobs,” project manager Peggy Heim told me. “I had been interested in Passivhaus for a long time, and I wanted to have the training. But I wanted to have the training as part of a group so that we could support each other. Because if I just got it on my own I wouldn’t necessarily have the projects or people to collaborate with so I would be just kind of figuring it out on my own.”

Peggy Heim of NK ArchitectsPeggy Heim, project manager with NK Architects

One of the big draws of Passivhaus is that unlike other green building certifications like LEED or Built Green, it requires revolutionary gains in building energy performance. Climate change is humanity’s most pressing environmental crisis and buildings are responsible for nearly half of our greenhouse gas emissions. The idea that building and renovating can be a form of climate action is exciting, and Passivhaus arguably delivers on this promise better than any other design approach.

“When I graduated about ten years ago from architecture school, LEED and sustainable building practices were taking off,” Peggy said. “I was initially really excited about that, but I feel like those types of projects don’t go far enough. I think they were good in starting the conversation, but Passivhaus takes it to the next level. There is a path to really reduce our carbon footprint through these types of buildings.”

Project architect Alyse Zimmer also points out the health implications of Passivhaus design.

“When I first started working in the architecture industry, the first homes I worked on were Built Green 4-star or 5-star,” Alyse said. “It felt good that I had some sort of impact. It was better than code mandated buildings. But what we could have done through Passivhaus would have been so much more.”

Alyse Zimmer of NK ArchitectsAlyse Zimmer, project architect with NK Architects

“Looking back at my motivations for going into the architecture field, I wanted to be able to create something that’s beautiful and wonderful for a homeowner 50 or 100 years down the line,” Alyse continued. “Passivhaus actually incorporates health into that. That’s huge. When I think of an unhealthy building, if that were something that I created, that would be horrible. To be able to incorporate Passivhaus techniques so that the occupant is healthy and it’s a beautiful building? It’s really awesome.”

Beautiful buildings that promote the health of occupants and the planet. Shouldn’t that be what we all strive to design? The approach is not complex. The modeling tools for Passivhaus are built on advanced building science and formulae, but the design approach is one of simplicity.

“I’m impressed with the basic simplicity of the Passivhaus system,” said senior technical architect Loren Brandford. “There’s a very short list of rules which are usable to drive design towards very large energy savings and more ‘moral buildings,’ or less ‘immoral buildings,’ as Tomas put it.”

Loren Brandford of NK ArchitectsLoren Brandford, senior technical architect with NK Architects

For Loren, the desire to create “moral buildings” goes back to ninth grade bible class.

“Mr. Merrill made us read ‘The Limits To Growth,’ the report of the Club of Rome. And I admit, it sort of scared the bejeezus out of me,” Loren said. “Oh my god, we’re going to run out of iron ore! We’re going to run out of aluminum! We’re going to run out of gravel! We’re going to run out of oxygen! We’re going to run out of oil! That put me on the course of thinking about issues of sustainability, as it did for many people.”

This ultimately drove Loren to architecture as a profession.

“When it came time to choose a career, what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” Loren continued, “having lived in apartments most of my life, and lived in cities all my life, and being concerned with issues of sustainability, I sort of smashed them all together and aimed toward sustainable housing in cities. You can draw a ridiculously straight line between what brought me to architecture initially and Passivhaus design as a rigorous system for building sustainably on this Earth.”

Staff architect Brittany Porter’s story echoes Loren’s.

“I decided to become an architect not knowing whether I should become an environmental lawyer or a politician or who knows what,” Brittany explained, “trying to do something towards sustainability and towards improving our global future. Passivhaus is an amazing tool to do that. It’s a tool to try and build more responsibly.”

Brittany Porter of NK ArchitectsBrittany Porter, staff architect with NK Architects

The training with Tomas had an immediate impact on Brittany’s work.

“The day after we got back to the office after the training we were working with our SIPs [Structural Insulated Panels] manufacturer,” Brittany said, “and we were able to bring drawings that we had done at the training during lunch breaks and asked, ‘Can you do this? Can this be manufactured for us?’ And they can! So we were able to achieve the airtightness that we talked about at the training and also the continuous insulation using this new material, this new piece of construction. We said, ‘We learned these principles, can you help us do this thing?’”

Passive House wall and window assembly, post-Passivhaus trainingBrittany and team’s sketch showing thermal bridge solution incorporating SIPs

“They were a little surprised,” Brittany continued. “They hadn’t realized that, ‘Oh if we just inset a window in the sill that one inch and bring that insulation up it’s going to be the detail that achieves Passivhaus.’ That was really exciting, and it happened 24 hours after the training.”

The most consistent reaction to the training? Praise of Tomas and his teaching style.

“What was the highlight of the training? Tomas O’Leary. He was just…I can’t get him out of my mind! That sounds creepy,” joked principal Jill Burdeen. “I can’t imagine having taken that class from anyone else. There was no part of it, no matter how mundane, when I wasn’t captivated. He was so engaging. Engaging! That’s the number one word I use for him.”

Jill Burdeen of NK ArchitectsJill Burdeen, principal with NK Architects

“The real highlight of the training was Tomas’ boundless energy and enthusiasm for the Passivhaus system and conveying what he understands of it to the rest of us,” Loren agreed. “We were eager to learn it and he was eager to share it, despite many, many time zones of difference and very long days.”

– Zack

Passive House Training with Tomas O’Leary Begins

Posted by Zack Semke on July 20, 2016


Change is afoot in the world of building design. Both our ability to design buildings that address climate change and our sense of urgency to do so are stronger today than ever.

The Passive House approach to high performance building stands at the vanguard of this development, enabling designers and builders to revolutionize building energy performance in a scalable and cost-effective way: buildings can become a form of climate action.

As we wrote recently in our post about our experience at the North American Passive House Network’s conference in New York City, serious momentum for Passive House is building. We’re committed to help drive that momentum and to help provide the building science expertise necessary to create projects that realize the full potential of the Passive House approach – not only transformative energy efficiency, but also superior comfort, indoor air quality, and building durability.

To that end, we’ve brought to Seattle one of the world’s leading Passive House trainers, Tomas O’Leary, for a five-day “deep dive” into Passive House building science and energy modeling. All Seattle NK design staff – 34 in all – will take part in 55 hours of top-level this week. (NK Pittsburgh staff will go through the same training this September.)


Tomas is co-founder and president of Ireland-based Passive House Academy, the Passive House certifier whose certification portfolio includes the Cornell Dormitory Tower on Roosevelt Island in NYC, the world’s tallest Passive House building. Tomas and PHA also cracked the code in Ireland’s Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County to require all new homes to be Passive House. He’s an entertaining and high-endurance educator (which will surely come in handy during his five intensive days with us!).

With this training under our belts the next step will be to study and prepare for the examination process to become Certified Passive House Designers. That exam will take place in October.

If you’d like to meet Tomas and hear from NK designers about how the training is going, please join us this Thursday evening (7/21) from 5-7pm at the FADO Irish Pub’s “Dungeon Room,” 801 1st Ave (near Pioneer Square), for an evening of drinks and conversation.

In the meantime, wish us luck as we hit the books!


Passive House Mixer with Tomas O’Leary

Posted by nk on July 18, 2016

Come meet Tomas O’Leary

Join Nicholson Kovalchick Architects for drinks and conversation with Tomas O’Leary, international Passive House leader and cofounder of Passive House Academy (PHA). In addition to certifying the likes of the Cornell Dormitory Tower in NYC, PHA cracked the code in Ireland’s Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County to require new homes to be Passive House.

Thursday, July 21st, 5:00-7:00 PM

FADO Irish Pub
in the “Dungeon Room”
801 1st Ave
near Pioneer Square

Attendance is free. Please extend the invitation to others who may be interested.nk_passive-house-mixer_F

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Four Questions With NK

Posted by nk on July 13, 2016

The talent and unique perspective of our staff is at the heart of every project we design. Each quarter we will highlight a member of our team in Four Questions with NK, a series intended for our clients, partners and peers to get to know NK Architects a little better. This month, meet Curtis Bigelow, a project manager with a passion for thoughtfully designed urban landscapes and pushing ultra-sustainability forward.


What industry changes are you are most excited about?
The most exciting shift in the industry, to me, has been the rediscovery of urban neighborhoods. Sadly, so many of our western cities were deserted 60 years ago and the infrastructure turned to suburbia – creating dissociated neighbors, horrible traffic, wasted farmland, and ugly landscapes. Recently, people are coming back to the cities and architects are embracing the concepts of urban living: exploring different building types, materials, and connections. Integrating energy efficient concepts and urban building is exciting and worthwhile. Creating interesting buildings on small, infill sites is a test in itself, but the complexities of the added desires of the modern world and environmental responsibility add to that challenge. The demand on our profession seems to be: make successful, attractive, sustainable buildings that add to our sense of place, allow for the human experience, and provide a legacy for the future. How much more exciting is that?

What does great design mean to you?
Great design is a successful design. Success is measured from the owner’s pocketbook and the user delight from the first day. It’s also reflected in a project’s longevity. As someone who strongly believes our society needs to make some basic changes to our built environment concerning energy use, energy consumption, and urban life, buildings, infrastructure, and landscapes need to contribute unequivocally to the healthy, vibrant, happy lives of people. Great design incorporates the needs of today while staying flexible for the future and encourage good decisions. Great design enhances and eases individual, daily activity while contributing to a vibrant, efficient city. Great design synthesizes all these things beautifully and cohesively to support surroundings that people cherish.

What do you like most about Seattle’s architecture?
For me, the best part is its accessibility, and of course, its sense of Seattle. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I have a connection to the rainy, wooded forests of western Washington and the natural beauty that can be seen all around the region. The great buildings of Seattle draw from that expression and reflect the imagery and grandeur of our exciting landscape as well as the spirit of the people who live here. The singularly white and tall spire of the Smith Tower reminds me of the white capped mountains throughout the Cascades and the fading brick of the Seattle Tower harken back to the rocky shores along the Sound. Seattle also loves something unique and new; our city symbol, the Space Needle, is just plain futuristic cool and the growth and variety of downtown’s contemporary buildings reflect the region’s desire to live in a vibrant city.

Seattle’s architecture feels pedestrian – in the best possible way: it isn’t too high brow and generally gives a person the chance to appreciate either a special detail, like the Arctic Building’s tusks, or a sparkling window that opens onto one of our neighborhood corridors allowing the energy of the interior to erase the line between inside and outside. Pacific Northwest architecture has long relied on blurring the lines of the natural and built environment, keeping us rooted to our surroundings.

What style architecture are you most drawn to?
In a word: quirky. I’ve never been one to design ‘star’ buildings; my buildings tend to be part of the fabric of a neighborhood or environment. Perhaps that is why I find those little gems of construction or thought so compelling. I find that something unexpected or a small, but bold creates a delight that is more personal and special. I do try to incorporate some small, focused item of interest or unusual design decision that has a very specific reason or function. The small scale of a quirk is what draws my attention and helps bring a connection between the built environment and the human experience through identity and care.

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NAPHN Conference Emphasizes Opportunity & Growth of Passive House in the US

Posted by nk on June 27, 2016

NAPHN PicEarlier this month, NK’s founding principal, Brandon Nicholson, and CEO, Tim Weyand, attended the North American Passive House Network (NAPHN) annual conference in New York City. NAPHN brings together owners, designers, builders, suppliers, lenders, enthusiasts, and policy makers who want to learn about the latest techniques, innovations, and policy changes affecting the industry. It’s also the time when board members of NAPHN network organizations, including Passive House Northwest and Passive House of Western Pennsylvania, convene to set the annual NAPHN agenda.

One of the most important takeaways of the conference is that Passive House is accelerating in the US, particularly in the Northeast and Northwest—a great opportunity for our firm and those individuals and organizations with Passive House experience and focused expertise.

We also gained an understanding of key policy changes and commitments that will shape the continued growth of this important movement to achieve a carbon neutral future.

  • New York City has committed to reducing citywide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% by 2050 – the 80/50 Initiative. In NYC, buildings account for 73% of their GHG’s and the City has committed to a 50% energy reduction for all new municipal buildings starting now, and codifying a whole-building performance standard by 2022.
  • The New York State Energy Development and Research Agency’s (NYSERDA) Deep Energy Retrofit Program is targeting Passive House as a method to retrofit 100,000 units of affordable housing by 2025.
  • 422 new units of affordable housing being built today in Pennsylvania with PA Housing Finance Authority (PHFA) tax credits, will serve as a catalyst for thousands more in another 10 states with similar programs. Washington State is being lobbied hard to include Passive House in their Qualified Allocation Plan.
  • Vancouver B.C. has committed to being carbon-free by 2020 and sees Passive House as a proven method to reduce overall energy demand. The City of Vancouver has trained several key staff members, including the Director of Build Inspections, in the 5-day Passive House Tradespeople program, and plan to train another 40 in one-day sessions. The department is actively changing their code to remove barriers to Passive House design.

Member organizations, including Passive House Northwest, are taking note of these important strides towards carbon neutrality in NY, Vancouver and Pennsylvania, and will be advocating hard in their regions for similar advances.

We will be with them leading the way.

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NK Selected to Design Stunning Capitol Hill Multi-Family

Posted by nk on June 23, 2016

NK Architects will design Gerrish Hall, an eight-story boutique apartment project in the heart of Capitol Hill at 1820 Boylston Ave. Developed by Capitol Hill Lofts, LLC, the 55-unit 43,270 sf project will be comprised of one-and-two-bedrooms, a guest suite, and two penthouse units with views. NK’s design will capitalize on its central location with added stories, including a recessed top floor that creates space for a common rooftop amenity area while offering quiet and privacy from the street.


The well-designed units will have a large sliding door system that opens to private balconies to create synergistic indoor/outdoor living environments. Each unit will also feature interior glass walls separating the bedroom from the living area while allowing for an abundance of light throughout. Penthouse units will have a large kitchen, separate living area, master suite, and one with access to a private rooftop deck. Residents will enjoy an indoor/outdoor amenity room with a large screen TV, and a kitchen with La Cantina folding doors that open to large rooftop deck with a fire pit and sweeping views of downtown Seattle, Puget Sound, Space Needle, and Queen Anne.


Located just two blocks from the Broadway corridor and Capitol Hill’s newly opened light rail station, residents will enjoy a Walk Score of 98 with easy access to downtown, South Lake Union, acclaimed restaurants, and nightlife.

Gerrish Hall will be designed to Built Green 4-star certification. Construction is scheduled to begin winter 2016.

NK Welcomes New Staff

Posted by nk on June 10, 2016

NK Architects continues to grow with the addition of two new staff; join us in welcoming Kurt Wong, business manager and Peggy Heim, project manager to our team!

Kurt Wong

Kurt’s unique breadth of experience includes over 10 years of practice administration and architectural design.  Offering a unique perspective with a background designing multi-family projects, Kurt was attracted to NK for the firm’s core belief of creating sustainably designed, livable cities. As a Certified Design Firm Administrator, he partners with internal stakeholders to provide our clients efficiently executed service. Outside of work, Kurt enjoys playing volleyball and tennis and exploring Seattle’s diverse food scene. He is currently the Treasurer for the Seattle Chapter of the Society for Design Administration.


Peggy’s 10 years of architecture experience includes design for market rate and affordable cohousing, community, senior, and commercial projects for clients that include Sound Transit, King County Housing Authority and the Salvation Army. She believes deeply in Passive House as a viable solution to create healthy, energy-efficient living environments, having sought out NK for its commitment to the standard and pursuit of high-performance affordable housing. In her free time, Peggy enjoys playing tennis, downhill skiing, hiking, and backpacking.

With 29 current full-time staff, NK is targeting 20% growth in Seattle and Pittsburgh this year. Are you interested in joining NK? Visit our Careers page to learn about our openings.

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Tim Weyand Appointed to PHnw Board President

Posted by nk on June 1, 2016

Join us in congratulating our CEO, Tim Weyand, on being appointed Board President of Passive House Northwest (PHnw). Bringing over 20 years of experience in high-performance architecture and practice management, Tim will preside over all board and membership meetings, represent PHnw in transactions with outside agencies, promote the welfare of the organization, and transact business on behalf of and at the direction of the board. Tim was appointed to the PHnw board earlier this year and joins NK’s resident Passive House expert, Principal, Joe Giampietro, who also resides on the board.

NK is committed to reducing the impact of buildings on climate change with ultra-low-energy solutions like the Passive House standard, which reduce energy use for heating and cooling by up to 80-90% –when compared to conventional design. Beyond energy savings, these homes and buildings also offer maximum thermal comfort for occupants year-round, continuous filtered fresh, healthy indoor air free from allergens and outside toxins, quiet and security, and economic future-proofing against rising energy costs. NK currently has one of the city’s first multi-family Passive House projects on the boards.


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Turning The Tables on Climate Change with Zack Semke

Posted by nk on May 23, 2016

Last week we gathered the region’s ultra-green building leaders – developers, architects, decision makers, and energy experts – during our Turning the Tables on Climate Change event. Over 100 people joined us at The Kitchen by Delicatus in Seattle’s Pioneer Square where Zack Semke of Hammer & Hand presented Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Jevons, a thought-provoking, humorous refutation of The Jevons Paradox – claiming that energy efficiency leads to more energy use, not less.

Zack used undeniable examples including the Black Swan events theory of unexpected change – one we are now seeing with the rise in renewable energy production and the drop in energy prices –  calling on us all to make a greater impact with low energy solutions, including renewable energy sources and Passive House design strategies.

Various firms also presented a sneak peek at the region’s first multi-family Passive House projects. Still in design – these groundbreaking projects exemplify that building to the highest energy standards possible is viable – even in today’s high-priced real estate and construction market.

Here are a few photos from the event. Visit our Facebook page for more!

The evening’s presenters including Zack Semke, Tim Weyand, and project presenters from NK Architects, Weber Thompson,  and HKP Architects.

Zack Semke presenting Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Jevons

NK staff including Brittany Porter, Alyse Zimmer, Chris Jones, and Emily Evenson

NK’s Joe Giampeitro with Skander Spies of McKinstry

NK’s Tim Weyand with Rhoda Lawrence of Bola Architecture + Planning


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Construction Starts on Crown Hill Mixed-Use

Posted by nk on May 13, 2016

Construction has begun on our latest mixed-use apartment project in Seattle’s growing Crown Hill neighborhood. Developed by ConAm, the 150,000 sf, 4-story project will offer occupants increased energy efficiency and walkability. Designed to connect Crown Hill’s urban village and adjacent Greenwood neighborhood, the project will provide an enhanced pedestrian experience with bright retail spaces, ground-level terraces, and an open public plaza, carefully preserving the residential neighborhood feeling.

Expected to be completed this winter, residents will enjoy an array of amenities with a fitness center and abundant outdoor spaces including an interior courtyard, rooftop deck with views, and unit-specific patios and balconies.

Crown Hill 16

Read more about the project here.

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