The Lesson from Munich

All roads lead to Passive House.

Granted, we don’t see it right now in Seattle. Passive House can feel pretty “niche” compared to the explosion of non-Passive House construction underway here. In Pittsburgh (site of our mid-Atlantic office), a Passive House wave is becoming perceptible, thanks to city and state policies that encourage Passive House development. Even there, the notion that Passive House is the inevitable endpoint for the building industry might seem a stretch.

But the ground is shifting in the building sector and, ultimately, it’s headed toward Passive House. My recent trip to Munich to attend the 22nd International Passive House Conference with four of my NK Architects colleagues made that clear.

A Swiss Sojourn

View from SIGA Guesthouse, Ruswil, Switzerland
View of Swiss countryside from my room at the SIGA Guest House in Ruswil, Switzerland.

Before arriving in Munich, we made a quick detour to the village of Ruswil, Switzerland for the Global Airtightness Training by SIGA, a manufacturer of high performance building tapes and membranes. As practitioners, we're keen to keep up on the latest with the manufacturers that make the building materials that go into Passive House construction, so we were happy to make the trip. Trainees from seven countries, including a large delegation from China, came together for two days of Swiss hospitality and intensive education in building science praxis.

NK Architects' Jim Bischoff and Dave Parker at SIGA Global Airtightness Training
NK Architects' Jim Bischoff and Dave Parker get some hands-on training with SIGA tape and membrane. (Photo courtesy of SIGA.)

Throughout the training, I was struck by SIGA as an example of the mission-driven businesses that are thriving now as part of the broader clean energy and “climate-wise” transition. From the bottom-up, SIGA staffers described a direct connection between their work, SIGA’s vision to “strive for a world of zero energy loss buildings”, and the larger movement to address climate change. 

Brandon Nicholson and Peggy Heim apply majrex at SIGA Global Airtightness Training
NK's Brandon Nicholson and Peggy Heim learn how to apply Majrex membrane.

Perhaps propelled by this alignment and clarity, the company is growing rapidly. We enjoyed getting to know kindred spirits, both on SIGA staff and among our fellow trainees, many of whom we saw later at the International Passive House Conference.

On To Munich

After a jaw-dropping drive through the Swiss Alps and the Bavarian countryside, we arrived at the conference site in Munich, struggled through jet lag at an afternoon training on domestic hot water design (okay, I struggled), and treated ourselves to dinner and beer at a 500-year old beer hall near the center of town. When we woke up the next morning, Brandon Nicholson (NK’s founding principal) and I bumped into Rob Bernhardt of Passive House Canada at the hotel breakfast.

Beer hall in munich
Beer in Munich!

Passive House is growing like crazy in Canada. The groundswell began in Vancouver, BC when that city placed Passive House at the center of its Zero Emissions Building Plan. It’s now spread across British Columbia with the province’s new Step Code. Toronto and other cities are taking up the charge. And the national government is now working to harness Passive House to advance its climate action goals. As Rob told us, “all it took was one election, and now Ottawa is calling us, reaching out to us.”

Before the conservative Prime Minister and government were defeated at the polls, Rob was never tapped by the national government. Today he’s routinely flying to the capital to advise on building policy. Meanwhile, the market is responding to Passive House policymaking. One example: a firm that is designing one of the first Passive House high rises in Vancouver has a dozen more Passive House buildings like it in the queue. That’s what market transformation looks like.

It’s not just Canada, of course. Nations around the globe are coming to terms with the enormous impact buildings have on carbon emissions and are looking for ways to square that with their commitments to climate action under the Paris accord. Because Passive House delivers revolutionary energy efficiency cost-effectively, all roads will lead to it. And by “Passive House,” I mean buildings that are PHI-certified, PHIUS-certified, or meet a building code that specifies very low energy use, physics-based design and modeling, and an envelope-first priority on thermal performance and airtightness.

Passive-house-settlement-in-Qingdao-by-Frey-Architekten
Passive House village in Qingdao, China, by Frey Architekten. (Image courtesy of Inhabitat.)

China gets it. They are building entire Passive House districts now, and sending large delegations to international Passive House gatherings to share their experiences. South Korea’s coming onboard. Japan’s making progress. And Europe, of course, has been at this for years. The entire European Union is moving rapidly to a Passive House-esque nZEB (nearly Zero Energy Building) requirement for all new buildings.

None of this is an accident. It turns out that using building science to create really efficient, healthy, and comfortable buildings cost-effectively just makes lots of sense. It’s also an approach that complements other sustainable construction approaches. That’s why we’re seeing the International Living Future Institute, US Green Building Council, Built Green, and others collaborate with PHIUS and PHI (via NAPHN) to explore certification “cross walks” with Passive House.

So, all roads lead to Passive House, but not to the exclusion of other approaches to sustainable building.

Pittsburgh, Paris, and Political Tides

A personal highlight of the International Passive House Conference was the loud applause that the full conference gave to a quote by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, pulled from NK's conference paper, “Passive House Proof in Pittsburgh: Profit and Paris Progress”.

Responding to Trump’s statement, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Mayor Peduto said: “Hillary Clinton received 80% of the vote in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh stands with the world and will follow the Paris agreement.”

The international conference goers appreciated hearing about that kind of local leadership from the U.S. At some point, perhaps sooner than we think, political tides will turn here and our federal government will get serious about climate change and our buildings. When that happens, all roads will lead to Passive House.

North American contingent at 22nd international Passive House conference
A portion of the North American contingent at the 22nd International Passive House Conference in Munich.

In the meantime, U.S. cities and states are already leading the way on the road to Passive House. Pittsburgh’s a great example. The State of Pennsylvania, New York City, and the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, are other excellent examples. Few people realize that the State of Washington’s building energy code is marching toward Passive House-like performance. Washington’s official energy code target is to reach 70% better building energy performance than a 2006 baseline by 2031. That will bring new commercial and residential buildings to EUIs (Energy Use Intensities, measured in kBtu/sf*yr) in the mid-teens to low 20s, consistent with Passive House.

The thing is, we already know how to create healthy Passive House buildings that make economic sense for our clients, today. So why wait?

See you on the road!