Our Designers’ Reflections on Passivhaus, Post-Training

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.)

Tomas O'Leary (R) with NK Architects's Seattle design staff

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 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, 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, 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, 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, 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?’”

Brittany 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, 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