Dispatch from Leipzig, Germany.
Despite my appallingly limited German, I was able to navigate Leipzig’s public transportation this morning to arrive at the 19th International Passive House Conference, short on both sleep and coffee but driven by the adrenaline of attending a conference I’ve had my eye on for years. The trip was made more difficult, for this foreigner, by the elaborate number of travel options on hand. The conference center, which is only about 10 minutes from the city center by car, is served by bus, tram and regional rail lines- and I spent about 15 minutes sorting out which was which with the help of google maps. It is a master class in transportation diversity that makes even New York City seem sparse in comparison. And this is a city of about 500,000 souls. Someone explain to me again why New York City, 8 million strong and the financial capital of the globe, still doesn’t have a train to La Guardia? Anyway, that is not the subject of this note! We are hear to talk about buildings, not trains- although in both cases the German’s do them better in almost every way.
My first impression of the PHI conference is that I am surrounded by a very serious bunch. I have a fairly strong background in building science from almost 20 years of working in and around buildings as an architect and consultant. But I feel like a dilettante here, surrounded by people that have PhDs in physics and a host of other sciences that bear on the performance of buildings. And of course this impacts all of the proceedings. Whereas Greenbuild is as much about networking as it is about technical issues, this conference is deep in the weeds of building construction and operation. And rightly so. Passive House distinguishes itself from US energy codes by being a true performance standard. In the US, our codes prescribe a methodology in the design phase that we feel pretty confident will result in a reasonable level of performance, but we don’t require you to prove that the building is performing as expected. Passive House prescribes the building comfort and energy use criteria you must reach- not the process or method of getting there (although it provides an excellent tool to help you get there- the Passive House Planning Package modeling software.) It sounds subtle, but is actually transformative. The sessions here are dominated by subjects like “airflow optimization” and “classroom thermal analysis”. This is a far cry from Greenbuild, where this year Deepak Chopra asked us all to meditate our way to sustainability. As much as I enjoy Greenbuild, and though I feel slightly out of my depth here, I find that I much prefer physics to woo-woo.
An informal survey indicates an absence of woo-woo has attracted my fellow attendees as well. For example, I was introduced to a charming but no-nonsense property manager from the UK, Mike Levey, from Grosvenor. Grosvenor is effectively the property management firm of the British royal family, which owns, quite literally, most of west London, including vast swaths of the tony areas of Mayfair and Belgravia. The fact that a single person, the Duke of Westminster in this case, owns an entire quadrant of a global metropolis strikes me as the precise reason the colonies severed their ties with George the Third- but one positive outcome of this medieval arrangement is that you have ownership with a committed, long-term interest in the community. Most of Grosvenor’s properties were built between 1730 and 1820- very few organizations can demonstrate similar experience in long term management. Mr. Levey has retrofitted several properties in Landmark districts to the Passive House standard. He explained to me that they did not pursue Passive House in order to help save the planet for polar bears, although that’s a nice side benefit, he pursued the standard because it produces the highest quality buildings and therefore represents the best opportunity for their buildings to last another 300 years.
The other primary impression from my first day here is that Passive House is about comfort, not energy use. Massively reduced energy use may be why we all have heard of the standard, but the standard was developed to provide the most comfortable indoor environment- and it turns out that our model in the US of compensating for drafty buildings by blowing more air of a different temperature around the room does not produce very comfortable places. Many of the sessions here focus on measuring the impact of different measures or systems on the occupants. I’ve noted this before but one of the more incredible requirements within Passive House, for someone from the US, is that the heating and cooling system cannot be heard. Acoustics is an element of interiors that is almost entirely ignored in the US unless you happen to be working on a concert hall. Despite this intelligent emphasis on the occupants, however, the conference is short on humanist gestures. I came to the profession of Architecture through a love of design, and while many Passive House projects are very beautiful it is not much discussed here. If you can’t measure it, most Passive House advocates are unmoved by it. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Even the German word for joke, “witz”, isn’t any fun.
Tomorrow, the focus of my time will be on the EuroPHit standard, which looks to apply Passive House standards (though slightly less stringent) to the incremental retrofit of buildings. It’s obviously a major component of work in New York City and something the Europeans have been focused on for several years. I am looking forward to figuring out how we can benefit from their lessons back home.
– Yetsuh Frank