Meet the Passive Home: The Future of Construction

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Recently, my friend was online, in the thick of that familiar New York City activity: apartment hunting. One listing, at 228 Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill, advertised units that had been renovated to meet Passive Housing guidelines. Passive housing? What? Some amateur Googling taught us that passive houses require significantly less energy to heat and cool, and can save homeowners up to 80 percent in utility bills. But paradoxically, they use less rather than more technology to achieve this feat. So, what are these passive houses running on—magic?

Not at all, Michael Ingui, partner at Baxt Ingui Architects tells me. His firm is currently at work on eight passive housing constructions in the city, including six in Brooklyn. “What’s cool about passive homes is that they’re relatively dumb homes, because you don’t need as much mechanical equipment” Ingui explains. “It really is just a building that, when you’re renovating, you build tighter than had it not been passive housing.”

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The passive housing movement began in Germany in the late-80s. Since then, all over Europe, thousands of homes have been constructed according to passive housing standards. Ingui says entire cities, like Brussels, even mandate it. In the States, passive homes are far less common, but Brooklyn, comparatively, has a lot: More than two dozen have been completed here, and many more are under construction. Ingui attributes the preponderance of these energy efficient homes to Brooklyn’s robust community of artisan builders, who also share their tricks, and because passive remodels pair especially well with Brooklyn townhouses.

But what does this “tighter” construction actually entail? Four basic build-out details, says Ingui: In the cellar, a slab is created that does not let in moisture, and thereby creates a warmer, drier foundation; as front and rear walls are built up, crevices that typically let in air and outside pollutants are sealed up; air-tight windows are installed; and finally, a lot of insulation is inserted into front and rear walls. Miraculously, none of this costs any more money than standard building practices. Instead, the difference originates from smarter placement of materials. On the roof, insulation goes on the outside rather than the inside, so that heat is caught before it is ever let in, and creates a bigger cooling bill.

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Ingui is building a passive home for himself in Carroll Gardens, and says he can heat and cool the entire place with “a tiny three-ton Mitsubishi.” Typically three or four units would be required to do the same job. Ductwork, typically a high-cost item, is reduced by 80 percent, and there is also no need for a boiler. “You save your money in mechanics, and put that money toward exterior walls and better building in the basement and roof,” says Ingui. “That’s how it comes closer to cost neutral—or if it does cost more, you can recoup it really quickly.” You set the thermostat once, says Ingui, and it stays there forever and ever.

Plus, passive homes simply feel better. They’re equipped with mechanical ventilation systems that fully replace the entire air supply four or five times every day. “When you walk into a passive home you can sense the difference,” says Ingui. “You don’t know what it is—but it’s really fresh air,” which also makes getting sick less likely.

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As a designer, Ingui says passive homes are especially fun to work with. Normally, bathroom and bedroom placements are limited—situating them near front or back walls would be too loud, or too cool. Neither of these restrictions figure into passive house design. Additionally, without all that ductwork, front entrance ceilings don’t need to dropped, and there are no radiators to work around. “It’s just less stuff in the house that I don’t have to design that I don’t want to deal with anyway,” says Ingui.

Passive homes are not just the future of home construction in Brooklyn, or New York City, they’re the future of construction, period. “Once you learn these tricks, you just don’t look at these houses any other way,” Ingui explains. Especially as complex heating and cooling systems become more and more expensive, it is virtually impossible that the passive housing movement will not catch on, and integrate itself into standard practice, Ingui estimates. “Once you realize, ‘hey, if I did five things and nothing else, I could reduce my energy by this much—especially if these five things cost absolutely not a penny more—it changes the way you think about the whole thing, and the community here feels the same way.” ♦

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