Passive House is not so Passive Anymore: Q&A with Zack Semke

Passive House architecture sits squarely in the realm of information technology and science-based innovation. That is a potential game changer for buildings’ role in the clean energy transition.

By ArchNewsNow

A principal at Seattle- and Pittsburgh-based NK Architects, Zack Semke was recently elected to the Board of Directors of Passive House Northwest, and chairs its Policy Committee. In addition, the entire staff at NK Architects is trained to design to Passive House standards. Here, he discuses how buildings are positioned to emerge as our newest, most impactful renewable energy resource.

How would you describe the clean energy landscape right now? Are there any trends that stand out in particular?

Zack Semke: Falling renewable energy costs are now challenging fossil fuels on price, without subsidy, in more and more regions around the world. The key thing to understand about clean energy is that it is technology, not fuel. Innovation drives technology costs down. More demand for clean energy means more deployment of clean energy. This results in more experience and learning, and drives costs down further. 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 – and high demand for fossil fuels drives prices up. Extraction has a rising cost structure. Technology has a falling cost structure.

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% over the last seven years, according to the investment firm Lazard. Wind energy costs went down by 66% over the same period. Likewise, the cost of lithium ion batteries used in electric vehicles, home power storage, and utility-scale storage dropped by 80% over the past six years, according to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

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.

 The global boom in renewable energy is reaching an important tipping point. Renewable energy (plus some nuclear energy) made up 51% of the new supply of energy in 2015 globally. Many analysts (including from the investment management and research firm AllianceBernstein, and Trusted Sources, which provides investment research on emerging markets) expect 100% of new energy supply to be non-fossil fuel by 2020. The point of “peak fossil fuels” may be right around the corner. That’s good news for the planet.

What role do you see architects and designers playing as we face climate change?

ZS: I’m glad you asked! The building sector is the biggest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. today. We know buildings are a problem, but they also can become part of the solution. We should start viewing buildings as a source of energy – and I’m not just talking about rooftop solar panels, either. The “negawatts” we can “generate” through ultra-energy efficiency in buildings is an under-tapped energy resource. And 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.

All things being equal, when we make our built environment more energy efficient, we are destroying demand for fossil fuels. When we destroy demand, fossil fuel prices go 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 break-even price is too high. 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.

Architects and designers have a starring role to play in climate solution-making. Innovation in high performance building design is the key.

What makes Passive House buildings so impactful?

ZS: 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. Therefore, Passive House innovation improves both performance and cost, à 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 buildings’ role in the clean energy transition.

Many Passive House projects today are approaching cost parity with conventional construction.

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.

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 as is beginning in Vancouver, BC – 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.

Why aren’t there more buildings built to Passive House standards today? What can be done to build momentum?

ZS: The U.S. got a later start with Passive House compared to Europe. But we’re seeing exponential growth in Passive House projects, square footage, and unit count across North America. As more jurisdictions adopt policies to encourage Passive House design and construction, and as more great Passive House buildings are built in communities throughout North America, I expect that market transformation toward Passive House and related high-performance building approaches will take place. We’ve got the building technology to make it happen, and our innovations will only make that technology more effective and low-cost. But we need to accelerate the effort.

Ultimately, the driver will be learning. Learning empowers innovation in technology. Innovation improves performance and decreases cost of a technology. Better performance and cost accelerate adoption of the technology.