How ‘negawatts’ help the building industry fight climate change

Posted by Zack Semke on March 24, 2017

Pax Futura passive house apartmentsPax Futura multifamily Passive House project in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood (developed by Cascade Built).

It’s clear to me that if we hope to avert catastrophic climate change we need to start viewing our buildings as clean energy power plants. As I’ll show below, it’ll be easier than you think.

Earlier this month I attended a three-day Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Colorado led by former Vice President Al Gore. Gore and the global experts he convened for the training emphasized three things:

  1. We face a climate crisis emergency.
  2. We have the means to solve the crisis.
  3. Cities and states need to lead climate action in the U.S. Our future depends on determined collective action now.

With reversals in U.S. climate policy underway and the Paris climate agreement in question, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the clean energy transition is already underway.

Falling renewable-energy costs are now challenging fossil fuels on price, without subsidy, in more regions of the world. Because clean energy is technology, not fuel, innovation drives costs down. More demand for clean energy means more deployment of clean energy, which leads to more experience and learning — further driving costs down.

This is fundamentally different from fossil fuels, which are extracted commodities. Each ton of coal is harder to reach than the last, and drives costs up.

The clean energy sector has stunned energy analysts over the past few years with faster-than-predicted uptake and cost declines. For example, the overall (levelized) cost of solar energy decreased by a staggering 85 percent over the last seven years, according to investment firm Lazard. Wind energy costs went down by 66 percent over the same period.

Likewise, the lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles, home power storage and utility scale storage dropped by 80 percent over the past six years, according to McKinsey & Co.

This nascent clean energy transition is translating into jobs. One out of every 50 new jobs created last year in the U.S. was in the solar sector. Solar jobs in the U.S. now outnumber coal mining jobs as well as oil and gas jobs.

Generating “negawatts”

The global boom in renewable energy is reaching an important inflection point.

Renewable energy (plus some nuclear energy) made up 51 percent of the new supply of energy in 2015 globally. Many analysts, including from AllianceBernstein and U.K. research firm Trusted Sources, expect 100 percent of net new energy supply to be non-fossil fuel by 2020.

“Peak fossil fuels” may be right around the corner. That’s good news for the planet. But without a revolution in the energy consumption of our buildings, it is not enough.

The building sector is the biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. today. We know buildings are a problem. They also can become part of the solution as a source of energy, and I’m not just talking about rooftop solar panels.

The “negawatts” we can “generate” through ultra-energy efficiency in buildings is an under-tapped energy resource. Those negawatts are especially valuable to the grid because their “production” naturally peaks during times of high demand.

So negawatts offset the energy that would otherwise be produced by carbon-intensive coal or gas “peaker” plants designed to meet that peak demand. In this way, buildings can become a form of climate action.

When we make our built environment more energy efficient, we are destroying demand for fossil fuels, and its price goes down. When fossil fuel prices go down, the more difficult-to-extract fossil fuels get stranded in the ground because they become too expensive to dig up for a low market price.

The more energy-efficient our buildings, the more fossil fuels are left stranded in the ground. Combine this with a transition to renewable energy, storage and demand response, and you’ve got the recipe for meaningful climate action.

The no-brainer choice

Architects, designers and builders have a starring role to play in climate solution-making. Architecture 2030 recognizes this, and Zero Net Carbon building design is the vehicle.

Start by creating a highly energy-efficient building to generate negawatts. Add on-site renewable energy as feasible. Finally, add locally sourced off-site renewables to reach Zero Net Carbon.

Innovation in high-performance building design is the key. If our purpose in sustainable design is to help save the planet, then we need to focus on meaningful carbon-reducing building solutions that are scalable. We do that by making our buildings so high-performing and cost-effective that the approach becomes the no-brainer choice for building owners, developers and project teams. Passive House makes this possible.

The genius of Passive House design (and other energy-efficient building approaches based on rigorous building science) is that it recognizes the building itself — its skeleton and skin — as a technology. Passive House innovation therefore improves both performance and cost, a la other clean energy technologies.

Powered by modern building science, energy modeling and an advanced analysis of the thermal properties of building structures, Passive House architecture sits squarely in the realm of information technology and science-based innovation. That is a potential game changer for the role of buildings in the clean energy transition.

Many Passive House projects today are approaching cost parity with conventional construction. When a significantly better product becomes available for little or no extra expense, then mass adoption becomes possible.

When Passive House buildings become commonplace — as they are in Europe and beginning to in Vancouver, B.C. — then the negawatts generated by this stock of ultra-efficient buildings can truly help power the grid. Future electric vehicles can be powered by these negawatts, enabling Passive House architecture to reduce emissions from both the building and the transportation sector.

Recent research by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College of London suggests that the market impact of the low and continually declining price of solar energy and electric vehicles could significantly curtail demand for fossil fuels and limit warming to between 2.4 and 2.7 degrees Celsius, when combined with strong but politically feasible climate policies. The research team concludes that decarbonization of buildings is vital to reaching the 2 degrees Celsius target.

The need to act boldly on climate solutions is urgent, given federal intransigence. Our peers in Vancouver are leading the way with their Zero Emissions Building Plan.

The city of Seattle should match that ambition and adopt Zero Net Carbon building policies aimed at making highly energy-efficient buildings scale in our city. Innovative finance structures like MEETS (metered energy efficiency transaction structure) that value building efficiency negawatts exactly like power from a power plant should be accelerated.

Now is the time to reclaim our city’s position as a beacon of sustainability. It is not hyperbole to say that our future may well depend on it.


(Editor’s Note: This article originally published by Seattle DJC.)

NK Architects now has the most Certified Passive House Consultants and Designers of any firm in North America

Posted by Zack Semke on February 15, 2017

Uptown Passive House Apartments, Seattle
Uptown Passive House Apartments in Seattle, one of our multifamily Passive House projects currently underway.

As reported recently by Vancouver, BC-based Pembina Institute, North America is experiencing exponential growth in the design and construction of Passive House projects: buildings that meet the world’s most stringent energy efficiency standard.

With this growth in Passive House design and construction has come an acceleration in Passive House training among architecture firms focused on sustainable design, sparking a friendly rivalry between companies. I’m proud to report that NK Architects just claimed pole position in this high performance design training race. On Monday, we received results from Germany’s Passive House Institute for the recent Certified Passive House Consultant and Designer examination.

NK now has 21 CPHCs and CPHDs, the highest number of any firm in North America.

This developments builds on the firm’s commitment to Passive House design, including the design of Seattle’s first certified Passive House, Park Passive, a custom home that won the national 2014 Housing Award from American Institute of Architects and the 2016 Passive Projects Design Award from Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). We now have several major multifamily Passive House projects–and one Passive House library–underway between our two offices:


  • Morningside Crossing: a Passive House retrofit and addition to an elementary school, to become 46 units of senior housing.
  • Glassport: another Passive House retrofit and addition to an elementary school, to become 55 units senior housing.
  • Carrick Library: a two-story Passive House replacement of the outdated Carrick Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.


  • Pax Futura: a multifamily Passive House building in the Columbia City neighborhood, with 32 studio and one-bedroom apartments and 3 live/work units.
  • Uptown Passive House Apartments: a multifamily Passive House building in Lower Queen Anne with 56 studio, 1, and 2-bedroom units, as well as 3 live/work units.
  • 11th and Republican: a 20-unit Passive House retrofit and new multifamily building with a rooftop solar array that connects an historic Capitol Hill home with a modern new building.
  • Arbors Passive: a luxury Passive House home in Maltby, WA.

Congratulations to our Certified Passive House Designers and Consultants who make these projects possible!:

  • In Pittsburgh: Jim Bischoff, Loren Brandford, Marc Ford, Rebecca Griffith, Shanna Kovalchick, Lauren McCunney, Brandon Nicholson, and Alyssa Swisher.
  • In Seattle: Marie Caryl, Suzanne Davison, Emily Evenson, Steve Fischer, Alec Gardner, Joe Giampietro, Christine Goodwin, Rachel Hedlof, Peggy Heim, Katie Luedeman, Briana Peretti, Brittany Porter, and Alyse Zimmer.



We Remain Optimistic About Our Climate Future. Here’s Why.

Posted by Zack Semke on December 14, 2016


Earth's atmosphere, from International Space Station

With federal policy on climate set to reverse in January and the Paris Climate Agreement hanging on a thread, the struggle to secure a livable future for humanity has taken a hit.

But one significant cause for hope is the nascent clean energy disruption, driven by technology, innovation, and falling prices for renewable energy, battery storage, and electric vehicles.

Because Passivhaus understands that the building itself–its skeleton and skin­–is technology, it too is part of this disruption and can help accelerate our transition to a post-carbon world. Just as innovation in PV technology improves performance, innovation in Passivhaus design and construction drives down energy consumption and building cost, opening the real potential for market transformation in the building sector.

Read our report, “On Buildings, Swans, and the Power of Arithmetic,” (drawing on research by Carbon Tracker Initiative, CitiGPS, AllianceBernstein, and others) to learn more and to understand why we remain optimistic about a future of prosperity and climate security, and the role that buildings will play in achieving that future.


Is Passive House the solution to our climate crisis?

Posted by Tim Weyand on November 7, 2016

Key design breakthroughs center on the skeleton, skin and respiratory systems of buildings.

The message from scientists is clear: The planet is on a finite greenhouse gas budget and the longer we wait to reduce emissions, the faster we’ll have to reduce later to avoid catastrophic climate change. Time is of the essence.

While we have made remarkable progress over the past decade in delivering more energy-efficient buildings, we are moving too slowly given the urgency of the climate crisis. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s 2014 projection for building energy use, efficiency gains will be offset by the 60 billion square feet that will be added to U.S. building stock between 2005 and 2030.

That’s not good enough. If we’re serious about our climate goals, we need to bend the building energy use curve downward.

The good news is that we — architects, engineers and builders — can transform building energy performance today. Passive House (aka Passivhaus) design and construction, for example, can reduce overall energy consumption by up to 75 percent and launch the built environment toward the Zero Net Carbon goal recently announced by the World Green Building Council, Architecture 2030 and others. And we can do this cost-effectively and predictably.

Nevermind the gap

Ever since the New Buildings Institute published its 2008 paper documenting the performance gap between modeled and actual energy use of LEED buildings, the predictability of performance in LEED and other high-performance buildings has been the topic of much study and debate.

passivehousegraph by Passivhaus Institute, redrawn by NK Architects
There is no such debate with Passive House performance. The consistent finding is that Passive House modeling (via the Passive House Planning Package or PHPP) is highly correlated with actual building performance.

Research from Germany bears this out. Data from independent researchers, shared by Passivhaus Institut, compares the heat consumption of four developments: three Passive House settlements and one non-Passive House settlement (though still fairly energy efficient.) Their findings:

  1. Passive House radically outperforms conventional energy-efficient buildings, by up to 80 percent in heat consumption.
  2. Occupant behavior varies widely. It is normal to see a swing in energy use of around 50 percent for identical units within a settlement. The S-curves that emerge for each development illustrate the variance between energy “misers” and energy “hogs” across functionally identical units within a community.
  3. Passive House modeling has strong predictive power. The PHPP model’s predicted heating consumption for the three Passive House settlements is nearly identical to the actual average heating consumption of each.

Predictable performance

Passive House models are highly correlated with actual building energy performance for two reasons.

First, the data inputs for the PHPP performance model exactly correspond to the actual building materials and assemblies used in a Passive House project. And these assemblies control convection, conduction, radiation, and the movement of heat, air and moisture.

Second, Passive House quiets the volatility (measured in temperature deltas, moisture gradients and air leakage rates) that we see in non-Passive House buildings. Energy models of stable systems are more accurate than energy models of volatile ones. So, the quiet and comfortable interior environment in a Passive House is a boon for both the occupant and the modeler.

The key design breakthroughs of Passive House center on the skeleton, skin and respiratory system of buildings.


For centuries we have ignored the thermal (and condensation) implications of the structural elements of our buildings, blithely allowing beams to jut through walls without a care for the energy transferred through these thermal bridges. In fact, steel beams thrusting through otherwise decent exterior walls can still be seen as a signature architectural gesture today.

But even far less egregious examples of thermal bridging, like wood studs in a wall, dramatically reduce the overall performance of the building envelope.

If not detailed properly with thermal breaks between inside and outside, the skeleton of a building can undermine energy performance, yet thermal bridging is either ignored or incompletely accounted for by many modeling protocols and by many designers.

Passive House is the gold standard of thermal bridge-free design, dramatically improving energy performance, predictably.


In a Passive House, building envelope and ventilation function together as a system. Airtight construction is central to this system because it limits the movement of air, and the heat and moisture that air carries, through the building envelope. This dramatically reduces the loss of thermal energy from buildings, especially when combined with a thick sweater of insulation. It also protects the integrity of building assemblies, limiting the movement of moisture into wall cavities where it can cause mold and rot.

Equally important are the health implications of this approach. Airtight construction stops random, uncontrolled air leaks through cracks in building materials and enables designers to bring filtered fresh air in through balanced ventilation with heat recovery. This approach delivers superior indoor air quality to building interiors. (This is why the 2017 Washington Code will require DOAS, or Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems, in commercial buildings.)

The heat recovery of ventilation air brings major energy performance benefits as well. And because the airtight envelope eliminates random air and heat leaks, the system becomes easier to model: predictable energy performance.

At what cost?

I’m often asked, what does Passive House cost? What’s the premium?

It really depends on the building typology and program, of course. And if Passive House is tacked on late in project development as an afterthought it can be expensive. But when part of an integrated design approach, Passive House’s “premium” can be negligible.

Recently released data from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency illustrates the point. In 2015 and 2016, the agency received 179 project proposals for Low Income Housing Tax Credits: 59 of those proposals were for Passive House projects and 120 were for conventional buildings. The average projected construction cost for the Passive House buildings was $171/square foot, compared to $168/square foot for the conventional projects. That’s a difference of just 1.8 percent.

Revolutionary efficiency, predictable performance and negligible cost premium? That sounds like a pathway to move our industry from being part of the climate problem to being part of the climate solution. And not a moment too soon.

(Editor’s Note: This article originally published by Seattle DJC.)

With Passive House, Incentives Can Be All Carrot and No Stick

Posted by Zack Semke on October 5, 2016

Affordable housing Passive House - Orchards at Orenco. Built By Walsh Construction, designed by Ankrom MoisanPhoto by Casey Braunger: Orchards at Orenco, near Portland, applied lessons learned from phase one to slash the Passive House expense in phase two by more than half. This fast learning curve makes Passive House a great candidate for incentive programs aimed at market transformation. Ankrom Moisan and Walsh Construction led the team.

When I bought my Prius in 2010, the federal tax rebate for hybrid vehicles was a real win-win. The feds got one step closer to their fuel efficiency goals and I got my hands on an uber-efficient vehicle without breaking the bank.

The approach was simple: incentivize the purchase of a superior-performing product.

But imagine if that incentive had been structured differently. What if it depended on user behavior? What if I could be penalized later if my driving habits led to greater-than-modeled fuel use? Too many trips to the mountains? Foot too heavy on the gas pedal?

With the risk of such a penalty, I wouldn’t have purchased the Prius. I doubt others would have either. The risk of that behavior-based penalty would have weakened the incentive’s power to motivate buyers to purchase hybrids, slowing adoption.

The certainty of Prius performance means that policymakers don’t have to impose such a penalty. The fuel efficiency of a 2016 Prius is carefully measured and known (VW cheating notwithstanding), and each Prius that comes off the assembly line will perform essentially identically to the one before it. Regardless of driver behavior, more Priuses means increased fuel economy on aggregate.

But that kind of certainty has been lacking for green buildings. Unlike cars, every custom-designed building is a prototype, totally unique. Even for designs that are replicated over and over, each building will vary in orientation, shading, solar access, elevation and construction quality. And frankly, conventional means of predicting building energy performance, even LEED-certified ones, has seemed little better than guesswork at times.

The rational decision for policymakers crafting building efficiency incentives has been to require post-occupancy energy monitoring and to impose penalties when actual performance doesn’t perform up to snuff.

While this approach removes uncertainty for policymakers, it creates it for project owners. The risk of financial penalty is a disincentive.

Passive House design can remove uncertainty for both policymakers and project owners. Its energy modeling is predictive, with modeled results highly correlated with actual energy use. This correlation is thoroughly documented and demonstrated thousands of times over in the U.S., Europe, China and elsewhere.

This certainty means that, like the Prius incentive, we can incentivize better buildings with all carrot and no stick because both policymakers and project owners know that they’ll get superior energy performance at project completion.

11th & Republican Passive House apartments will be Net Zero Energy
11th & Republican, designed by NK Architects, combines a new apartment building with a retrofitted house targeting Net Zero Energy for multifamily projects.

Driving costs down

Make no mistake, the stakes are high for getting catalysts for change right.

Most of us recognize that climate change represents a serious threat. We understand that humanity needs to rapidly change the way we use and produce energy. This is why Seattle’s Climate Action Plan calls for net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, and King County calls for an 80 percent reduction by the same date.

Real cause for climate hope has emerged recently. The plummeting price of renewable energy, batteries and electric vehicles makes meaningful GHG reductions doable. Financial analysts from Citi, Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Alliance Bernstein argue that because solar, wind and EVs are powered by technology, innovation will continue to drive costs down. This cost shift is causing a fundamental and increasingly disruptive transition away from “business as usual.”

The key question is whether that transition will happen quickly enough to achieve climate security.

Answering this question rests in large part on what we do with our buildings. Buildings consume nearly half of all energy in the U.S., and are responsible for over a third of GHG emissions in King County. Viewed through the lens of climate change, buildings are a problem.

But buildings could readily become part of the solution. Just as cheap renewable energy, batteries and EVs are changing the rules of the climate change game and making climate action practical, so too can Passive House design.

The genius of the Passive House approach is that it views the building itself — its skeleton and skin — as a technology. Innovation can therefore drive down both energy demand and the cost of meeting that demand. Passive House buildings routinely use 90 percent less heating energy than conventional buildings, and up to 75 percent less total energy.

When a project team does its first Passive House building, construction tends to cost a bit more, but the learning curve is short. By the second or third project this cost premium often drops 2-3 percent on multifamily and commercial buildings. When you factor in superior building quality, better comfort, indoor air quality and lower utility bills, this small cost premium leverages a lot of value in terms of higher rents, and lower vacancies and maintenance costs.

Passive House is scalable because it pencils. Other jurisdictions in North America recognize this and have begun to harness Passive House to deliver on both climate action and affordable housing goals, recognizing that low energy bills mean reduced energy poverty for building residents:

  • The New York Energy Research and Development Authority made Passive House the centerpiece of its $27 million incentive for building energy efficiency.
  • The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency uses Passive House performance as a key criterion for the award of Low Income Housing Tax Credits, spurring dozens of affordable multifamily Passive House projects throughout the state. Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Illinois, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Idaho have followed suit.
  • The newly adopted Zero Emissions Building Plan of the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, positions Passive House design and construction as the model for future building in the city. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Authority is a big proponent.

It is time for the Seattle region to reclaim its position of national leadership in green building. The city’s Living Building pilot program is a great step. The next step is to scale up: capitalize on the predictive modeling of Passive House to create a catalyst that is all carrot and no stick, providing policymakers and developers with the certainty they need to make green projects happen and building-as-climate-action to scale.

To this end we are working with Passive House Northwest and others on the 20 by 2020 Building Catalyst, a campaign to reward buildings over 20,000 square feet that achieve 20 EUI (energy use intensity) by the year 2020.

Note: See Elrond Burrell’s excellent piece contrasting Passive House with Volkswagen’s performance gap.

(Editor’s Note: This article originally published by Seattle DJC.)

‘Passive house’ design can make housing more affordable.

Posted by Tim Weyand on October 3, 2016

The White Hall multifamily Passive House Pennsylvania
Our friend and colleague Tim McDonald (pictured above) explains to a North American Passive House Conference tour group about how Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency’s priority on Passive House for affordable housing projects is catalyzing innovative multifamily buildings like The Whitehall  (under construction).  

As Seattle gets ready to deliver 20,000 units of new affordable housing, we should ask if it can deliver the kind of high-quality, energy-efficient and low-maintenance housing that everyone deserves.

Most of the new affordable housing in Seattle will be underwritten with both state Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and the soon-to-be-implemented city of Seattle linkage fees.

These funding agencies, being strong proponents of social justice, should take note of recent successful affordable housing projects in Pennsylvania, which have been able to provide high-quality, healthy housing within state affordable-housing budgets.

Three years ago, Pennsylvania wanted to find a way to improve energy efficiency and construction quality in state-funded affordable housing projects, and landed on the “passive house” standard as the mechanism for achieving their desired gains.

Passive house refers to a voluntary standard of building design that reduces energy used for heating and cooling by up to 90 percent over code-minimum buildings. The passive house design methods of air-and-weather barriers, superinsulation and heat-recovery ventilation also create very healthy indoor air environments and reduce risk of rot and mold in buildings.

A year later the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency implemented an incentive program that included passive house energy benchmarks in its LIHTC application scoring. Their belief was that competition for state funds from nonprofit affordable housing developers would drive lower-energy, higher-quality projects.

Affordable multifamily passive house in Pennsylvania
This affordable passive house project in Philadelphia received funding from a nonprofit agency.

In the first year, 20 percent of all awarded affordable housing projects in Pennsylvania were built to the passive house standard, which will result in 422 new high-performance affordable housing units. In the 2015 funding cycle, almost half of all proposed projects chose to pursue the standard.

Other states with affordable housing funding agencies have taken note, and currently nine other states, including New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Idaho, have included the passive house standard as an incentive in their own affordable housing funding selection criteria.

“Future-proofed” housing

Affordable housing developments are well suited to being high-performance passive house buildings for many reasons.

The first reason is that passive house buildings are much more efficient to heat and cool than conventional buildings, which lowers operating costs. Lower operating costs are very important for affordable-housing operators because rents are lower than market rate average, and they must keep operating costs in check to remain viable.

In fact, because electricity costs are rising faster than rents in many areas throughout the U.S., passive house buildings confer additional long-term financial viability to multifamily housing assets, often referred to as “future-proofing.”

The second reason that affordable housing developments are well suited to being passive house is that maintenance costs are lower. This derives from the air- and weather-tight exterior walls and roof, which prevent water intrusion as well as in-wall vapor condensation, eliminating the chances for rot and mold. Longer exterior system replacement schedules translates into lower reserve funds, and therefore lower operational costs.

Third, passive house interior spaces are much healthier than conventional buildings, which is just as important for affordable housing residents as it is to any other individual or family.

We believe that everyone should have access to safe, healthy, affordable homes. Spaces are more comfortable because the passive house enclosure and HVAC system keeps thermal and humidity swings within the human comfort range, and because the heat-recovery ventilation system used in passive house buildings provides constant, HEPA-filtered fresh air.

Lastly, apartments are more peaceful because continuous exterior insulation and high-quality windows and doors keep outside noise and odors away.

Need for state incentives

In Seattle, multifamily affordable housing buildings use significantly more energy than their market-rate counterparts across building sizes, according to the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment.

This has often been attributed to lower unit sizes and denser populations in affordable housing facilities. However, in the case of mid-rise buildings, the affordable housing facilities are on average 28 percent more dense, yet use 42 percent more energy, which cannot be attributed to population habits alone.

If the passive house standard is incentivized at our state and local levels, it would be reasonable to expect — following Pennsylvania’s experience — that after four years, half of our new affordable housing stock would be performing at 18 EUI, or a full two-thirds less energy than was benchmarked in 2013.

We’ll need to build 8,000 units in four years’ time to stay on pace with the mayor’s housing challenge of 20,000 affordable units within 10 years. With a Pennsylvania-type passive house incentive system, at least half of the 8,000 units would be low-energy, low-operating cost, comfortable and healthy places to live for our community’s needy individuals and families.

The time is now to incentivize high-performance affordable housing in new construction, not later when we will have to go back and retrofit walls, roofs and foundations.

Seattle has long been seen as a progressive city when it comes to social and environmental justice. If we don’t adopt now what other states rightly see as a clearly progressive initiative to build quality affordable housing, then we will not even be able to call ourselves sensible followers, much less leaders, in the social and environmental justice movement.

Tim Weyand is CEO of Nicholson Kovalchick Architects.

(Editor’s Note: This article originally published by Seattle DJC.)

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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