The Passivhaus Project as an Ethical Idea

Editor’s note: The following post was written by Fred Gordon, who spoke to us on November 16, 2014.  The corresponding Powerpoint slides referenced in this post can be downloaded here.

Fred Gordon photoThe issue of climate change is both overwhelmingly important, and also distant and abstract.  It is unlike the imminence of war, where motives which we recognize as bad—aggression, hatred, xenophobia, and national aggrandizement—threaten to produce disastrous results, and we can point to these bad motives with distressed warning.  It is not like issues of social injustice, where the anger and pain of those who are victims remind us of the presence of the injured.  Global warming was not the result of any evil act, but centuries of quite innocent and even beneficent acts—think of the early enthusiasm for electricity, or automobiles.  But through a slow accumulation of scientific data, all of these things we thought were benign are now recognized as bringing about a result which is quite horrible.  But it is a horror which won’t come upon us for decades.  Global warming has therefore a kind of intellectual distance —we depend upon science to tell us what we can’t see much of day to day and won’t see the worst of until it is too late to do anything about it.

But these long-term results are disastrous indeed.  They will be the 10 plagues of Egypt on a global scale—agricultural failure in the sub-tropical zones, starvation, mass migration of desperate populations, war, collapsed states; the rates of species extinction accelerated 1000 fold, giving opportunities for new scourges—explosions of life forms unchecked by stable ecological orders—unstoppable pathogens, invasive species of plants that take over the countryside, rampant vermin and insects; the hardening of people’s moral sensibility, as the violence and hatred of the desperate overwhelm all humane response, and defeat the impulse to help.  Finally, all of these images of global warming may be superseded by far worse scenarios, where warming unleashes vicious cycles by which it becomes runaway—the release of methane from melting permafrost, or from the melting of  from frozen methane at the sea bottom, both causing acceleration of the damage.

All of this makes the problem a test of the moral mind.  It is necessary to read the future as well as we can on the basis of abstract scientific hypotheses and probabilistic data.  And it obliges us on the basis of something which we cannot see to take action on a massive and global scale to change the business of energy production,  the biggest business in the world, and an economic infrastructure built around it.

But what is one actually to do? I will talk  a little about my own story, a step by step effort to come to terms with the moral issue, and to figure out whether there was anything useful I could contribute. I happened to be in an unusual situation that made it possible to address the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.

While I had been active in what you’d call ordinary environmental politics for a long time, I saw a particular and unusual opportunity in the fact that I happened to own since 1984 a big former rum distillery in South Boston (slides 2 and 3).  The building occupies a city block. I had turned it into a haven for about 150 artists and was content to simply let the thing go along on an even but unspectacular financial keel (slides 4 and 5).   A bit about the site:

We are on the old shoreline—everything to the North is filled land, which was sparsely utilized for 100 years (slide 6, 7, 8).  Everything to the South was the old South Boston peninsula, a poor, working class, politically potent neighborhood, with the distinction of precocious criminal over-development.  As Boston grew out to the size that it used to have before decades of decline, this vacant land to the North became valuable, lying between the business district and Logan Airport and now tied to transportation routes in all directions.  The Menino administration pushed this land as the new Innovation District, and that caught on.  It now competes well with Kendall Square as the center of cutting edge industries. And South Boston, with its beaches, monuments, and parking problems, became the center for high end Yuppie settlement.

So I had an opportunity to develop the property and, as I become more and more interested in environmental issues, thought that, having read a lot by people who were amateur visionaries and tinkerers,  I would use the project to demonstrate just how energy efficient a building could be.  I decided to preserve the old rum distillery, but to tear down the architecturally undistinguished bottling plant, and a structurally unsound cooper shop, and to build 65 units of housing, on top of 147 parking spaces, including café, food store, greenhouse, roof gardens, solar energy, cogeneration, and everything else I could think of (slides 9, 10, 11). So I decided to take on a level of debt which I still find unfathomable.

I thought that buildings were a good thing to do.  First of all, I knew something about them.  And almost no one else in the climate movement did.  Second, buildings use about 40% of all energy in the economy—just their operation for heat, light, air conditioning; if you include the embodied energy in the building materials, you get to close to 50%  (Slide 12).  Further: making buildings energy efficient is the most cost-effective way of cutting greenhouse gases (Slide 13).

I decided to build a building that targeted 80% energy reduction. Architects were eager to work on this.  They all claimed that they could do it.  It turned out quite differently—none of them could. We finally stumbled on Passivhaus, the movement that started in Germany and certified buildings which, basically, cut thermal loads by about 90% and overall energy use by about 70%.  Passivhaus is now the standard for all new buildings in the EU by 2016 and mandatory for all new buildings by 2020.

Passivhaus had solved a problem which the American architectural and building community had been incapable of solving.  If you take a building and insulate it, add good windows, and, above all, tighten it up so that it does not leak air, the building becomes toxic.  Humidity builds up, mold grows; toxins, off-gassing  from building materials, furnishings, cleaners, and insecticides create very serious health problems.  And the CO2 buildup makes people groggy—not to mention the smells of sweat and cooking.  Buildings have to breathe.  Because of this problem of ventilation air, American low energy buildings hit a threshold of about 30% thermal energy reduction relative to the standard requirements of the building code.  Passivhaus is able to push this to 90 – 95% (slide 14).

Passivhaus basically combines very tight building envelope with highly efficient Heat Recovery Ventilators.  When a Heat Recovery Ventilator vents out stale air,  it transfers about 95% of its heat to the incoming air. You get fresh air without heat loss.  The same goes for air conditioned air in the summer. You retain the coolth by transferring it to hot air coming in (slide 15).

Passivhaus combines low heat losses from ventilation with high insulation and with terrific triple paned windows, which we get from Germany.  And it avoids what’s called “thermal bridging,” conductive thermal transfer between inside and outside.  That is basically it (Slide 16, 17).

Passivhaus buildings are somewhat more expensive than non-Passivhaus.  This differential ranges from 3 to 15%– closer to 3% in Europe, and with big buildings a better deal than small ones.  We estimate that ours will be at the lower end. The finances are pretty good.  A cost increment of 3% is more than balanced against the large energy savings.  Looked at from the point of view of cash flow analysis, things are even better.  At current interest rates, the interest payments on the cost premium are low.  Furthermore, for home owners, they are tax deductible. But energy costs are not; they are post-tax. So, if cash outflows for the mortgage on the Passivhaus  premium about equaled the energy savings—we should do better than that– by the grace of the American tax law, the Passivhaus ends up with an added 30% return in tax savings.

Besides the benefits of energy savings, there are other benefits which are extremely valuable. The buildings are much more comfortable.  There are no cold spots near the window.  The air is always ventilated, the humidity level is right, they are quiet.  They are more durable.

But besides all of this, I have been much interested in the findings that have been coming from researchers at medical schools and schools of public health on the relation between air pollution and health.  Air pollution in urban areas is related to respiratory disease, heart disease, cancer, auto-immune disease, autism, low IQ, dementia, obesity, and early death.  These are all highly significant findings.  Further, it now appears that some of the effects of pollution are heritable, through genetic mechanisms that are now being understood (slide 18).

The particles that are the worst are the ones that you can’t see.  These are micro-particles that penetrate the walls of leaky buildings, destroy the lungs, and enter the blood stream. There are serious problems of pollution from interior sources—offgassing of solvents in construction materials and furnishings, smoke from cooking (which becomes carcinogenic under flame), evaporating cleaning chemicals and insecticides, mold, and radon.

Because Passivhaus takes in air from only one point—through the Heat Recovery Ventilator—it is able to filter incoming air potentially down to the level of many micro-particles (slide).  And because the air movement is continuous, internal pollution is continually being cleared out.

We are working with the manufacturer of HRV’s to raise the level of filtration to the micro-particle level.  The preliminary findings are that this can be done without significant costs of electricity to drive air through the filters, and that added filter replacement costs are very low.

Our aim, then, is to attack the problem of global warming by building and promoting buildings that use radically less energy, and that are also more economical, comfortable, healthy, and durable.  Passivhaus offers a financial incentive to purchases to buy and profitability for developers who build them.  Why then has the effort to get this project done been so enormously difficult?

In order to build a building that solves basic energy problems, you first have to build a building.  Most of your effort goes there. Then, when you put the energy aims of building on top of that,  the obstacles become yet bigger.  People don’t know how to do it.  And then there is the problem of dishonesty—from simple self-servingness to outright fraud.  And this from the lowest subcontractor up to the most prominent law offices and engineering operations.    The problems in realizing this project mainly involved four areas.

First, the architectural community.  From the beginning, we decided to target an 80% overall reduction in energy usage. And architects were happy to work with us.  If we wanted “green,” they gave us “LEED,” a certification system for “green” buildings. LEED turned out to be useless in reducing energy; until a few years ago, there was no measured difference in energy use between LEED buildings and non-LEED, and even now the data are weak and the reductions small.  American architects had never heard of Passivhaus.  And they were not much interested in it when they had.  Passivhaus requires a firm knowledge of building science that American schools of architecture hardly teach.  LEED is a superficial check-list add-on.  Architects figure LEED was good enough even if it didn’t reduce energy and the client would never know the difference. We employed and dismissed five successive architects, before finally figuring out how, and who, could make this happen.

Second, the political system. State and federal governments did not go after energy efficiency, which was the best way to reduce global warming, but rather invested in new technologies for energy generation.  The reason is that while there was strong popular support for environmental legislation, the business community balked.  Governments bought off this difficult segment by skewing investment in business subsidies. Green politics became a boondoggle for the business well-connected.

Third, the construction industry is enormously inefficient and poorly structured.  It is based on an adversarial system between owner, General Contractor, and Subcontractors, which leads to poor coordination, waste, opacity, and a well honed pattern of outright fraud. On top of this, the skill level of American construction workers is low. Buildings are so expensive and the process of building them chaotic, so that adding exacting requirements pushes them over the line for feasibility.

Fourth, the unions. In urban areas where the benefits of green buildings are the greatest—low transportation costs, large buildings, sharing of resources—the unions add 30% to the cost of construction. The City of Boston claims to be interested in middle class housing and energy efficiency, but only after forcing developers to pay the premium to the unions without which they could not win elections.  Energy efficiency could be bought for a fraction of the union premium, but with the union premium, it is often a bridge too far.

We manage these problems every day.  I have been amazed by the thousands of things you have to do, the endless petty irritations, the deception, extortion and fraud, and the confounding weight of technical, engineering, and design problems.  I don’t think that this is unusual.  Any moral principle grinds away at a reality that is resistant and recalcitrant. It is not so hard to overcome these things.  All you need is a clear and stubborn vision of what you’re doing, cleverness, and an robust nervous system (slides 19, 20, 21).