Au Natural: Passivhaus sans ‘PP’ [Petroleum Products]

This will be the second to last post on the BFC blog. We’ll kick out a proper fare thee well in the next few days, but we wanted to go out with something we’ve raved about for a while. Our buddy Bronwyn Barry has a stellar guest post to further the discussion of high performance homes utilizing natural products – a superb combination. Bronwyn recently visited the office of the greenest architect we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, Createrra’s Bjorn Kierulf. Here is her summary of that awesomeness. Enjoy!

The Passive House Standard (being an energy and comfort standard) does not specify what materials can or cannot be used in projects seeking certification. Despite some claims to the contrary, this does not mean that Passivists don’t care. Quite the contrary. It’s been a pleasant revelation to find many materials-conscious architects working under the Passive House umbrella, quietly eschewing the use of petroleum-based products and promoting the use of renewable, low embodied energy materials.


A recent visit to the Createrra offices of Bjorn Kierulf – a Norwegian Passivist who’s built over 50 Passive Houses in his adopted Slovakia – had me revisiting my neo-hippie post-college days of straw-bale nirvana. (Yes, I once had long hair, spent a year living outside – composting my own waste and growing vegetables in a derelict suburban home my roommates and I were supposed to be renovating. Fact.)

createrra office

Bjorn’s office is not too conventional. It’s housed in a load-bearing straw-bale dome. While my current preference leans well away from the Hobbit aesthetic, I found the dome incredibly charming and comfortable. Even more appealing was the treasure-trove of product samples it housed…


These prefabricated Larsen Trusses aren’t too extraordinary until you realize they come in a variety of widths and depths, depending on whether they need to be load-bearing or not. Simple options with endless possibilities, that don’t require the use of XPS, EPS, rock wool or even fiberglass for filling. They all work perfectly with cellulose.


Next to the Larsen Truss samples were these beauties: pre-finished ceiling or wall finish panels that can also be structural/load bearing. The cross-laminations are a combo of finish wood, fiberboard and board-lumber, with a tongue and groove edge. Super-groovy. Here’s another view:


All that pre-fabulousness is manufactured by LignoTrend – one of those annoyingly cool German companies whose products are not available here… yet. This of course begs the question – why isn’t this available in North America?  Post-communist Slovakia has this stuff, but we’re still sitting here in the product dark ages…  Harrumph.


This next product made me feel better. We have this stuff too – natural pigmented plaster. It was literally plastered all around the dome with each barreled window bay finished in a different color and texture. Phew! No plaster-envy necessary. It was lovely, though, and still worth a mention.

But the last straw (couldn’t be helped!), made by a small company in nearby Lithuania, had to be this product that Bjorn has been using to build affordable, Passive Houses at lightning speed: Ecococon Panels.


This hunk of food-grade goodness made me re-kindle my old straw love. Here’s a bale a girl can love: no re-bar reinforcement required and no odd size custom cuts. That itch-free awesomeness goes together like a real building should: with screws. Wall widths can easily be adjusted for urban lots. These puppies are stackable, scalable and solve all the issues that drove me back to all-wood in the first place. I was swoon-city for straw, once more.

Interestingly this product has garnered quite a bit of attention recently. It made Cradle to Cradles’ Top 10 submittals in their recent Innovation Challenge. I’m hoping a local company will partner with the Ecococon folks and make these panels here. They’re perfect for California with our plethora of Central Valley rice straw and a climate that doesn’t need much heating…

Au naturally.

Passive House North 2013 recap, part 1

Well, they did it (not that there was ever any doubt). With an unofficial total of about 260 registrants, CanPHI laid it all out, and will hopefully get a nice Karmic return. It was truly a phenomenal event – maybe one of the first where I wish it could have gone on longer! Though unable to attend everything – there was a lot of solid information, even relevant to the US – and a lot of good discussions. What follows is my brief recap, heavily linked for your reading pleasure.

The conference actually opened up early, as the City of Vancouver was hosting other North American cities for a benchmarking symposium. This was a great way to get people involved on the legislative level to walk by the Passivhaus trade booths, get a better understanding of component innovation – as well as market viability. A clever way to reinforce that the solutions for ‘bridging the’ building performance gap’ (Mark Siddall, pdf) already exist!

The conference officially opened up with Dr. William Rees (ecological footprint!) talking about living in the age of unreason, limits of growth in the face of climate change. It was definitely a policy level talk, but lead to some rather interesting discussions later in the day – especially regarding growth, decay and where Passivhaus fits in with regard to that. I think many feel Passivhaus ‘growth’ is really more a replacement for substandard processes. As an example, Ireland, where the construction industry was decimated, is slowly being righted, with an emphasis on high performance  construction through Government-assistance and of local Certified Passive House Tradesperson courses (coming to SFO next!) and a window manufacturer re-dedicating itself by focusing on production of passivhaus windows (Munster Joinery).

Harold Orr followed up with an overview of the Saskatchewan Conservation House (1977!). One of the more intriguing aspects (for us fabric-first folks) was that the house has subsequently been added too (not particularly well) and the active gizmos (e.g. solar collectors) were stripped away long ago. There is a good lesson to be learned here…

Orr’s presentation was followed up by Dr. Feist with a sort of ‘State of the Union’ on PH today. Amazingly, there are already 140 certified PH windows, including options finally coming online in North America (Casagrande Woodworks, Northwin). There is also now a sketch-up add-on that exports to PHPP 8 (Ugh… BIM/FIM – no more sketch-up for high performance buildings!) Another fun moment was when Dr. Feist unveiled slides showing that thermal mass in a PH does make a significant difference in performance – something we’ve said for years now (validation!). Feist then went on to talk about the evolution of Passivhaus – showing that if the Kranichstein PH was built today, it would only need two thirds of the installed insulation and would cost less to build. There was also a brief overview of Frontrunner Regions, many of us in attendance would love to see Cascadia take the lead on this – NYC needs a solid challenger!

Guido Wimmers then discussed the formation and evolution of Passive House in Canada, from the Oesterreich Haus in Whistler, onwards. I think he even mentioned there used to be a listserv? A brief overview of built projects was a nice way to transition into lunch.

I’ll pause here to commend CanPHI on doing something I haven’t seen at enough multi-day conferences – extended lunch! With nearly 2 hours, it was enough time for people to meet, catch up, eat, interact with exhibitors and have meaningful discussions/debates without having to miss more program. In many instances, lunch is rushed – and these events are as much about networking/building tribes than anything else. Bravo!

After lunch, the conference was split into two tracks. As I had to give 2 presentations, my overview of these will be limited. Bronwyn Barry already posted her presentation on sills and thresholds!

If you’re looking for information on the Atka project I discussed, check out our posts here and here.

In the second of the Tech & Components track, Brittany Hanam of RDH gave a rapid overview of an analysis undertaken comparing NFRC, ISO and PHI values for window certification. The data was interesting and helped fill in some of the gaps from Bronwyn Barry’s window piece from last year. At the same time, it was also inconclusive. Not in the sense that the information was bad, but that there really is no way to get a direct correlation between the certification numbers. Yes, the PHI/ISO results lead to thicker window frames than the NFRC calculation – but that actually didn’t necessarily mean either the NFRC or PHI/ISO method was anymore accurate or wrong. Hanam did mention that window modeling software has the capability to already produce the numbers used by both certifications, with slight adjustments. Hopefully this will drive U.S. window manufacturers who are facing ever tightening energy codes to turn to the innovation that the Passive House Community has driven. Once finalized, the results will be listed on RDH’s website, which already features a number of reports worth reading.

The first of 2 pecha kuchas then went off, with Tim Naugler talking about the Passivhaus in New Brunswick that is heated solely by ventilation air (!), resulting in a lower monthly cost than a code minimum house would have entailed. Tom Gyimisi then discussed a Passivhaus apartment and workshop in Edson Alberta that was prefabricated and assembled in just a few weeks… In the middle of arctic winter… In an isolated site. This was followed by a multi-generational passivhaus in Nelson, BC built by Lukas Armstrong. This project is an affordable self-build, and sports 3 units in under 2,400 sf.

After the Coffee Break, I caught Brad Liljequist’s thoughts on how Passive House contributes to the LBC. After my semi-viral crit of LBC, it’s nice to see that there is a realization that Passivhaus is strong where LBC is weak – and, consequently, vice versa. That being said, my opposition to ‘net zero’ urban buildings seems to grow by leaps and bounds, maybe it’s time for another blog post!

My presentation on cold-climate Passive House projects went through a number of strategies (some of which we’ve covered on the blog, such as optimization, shoehorning, and head-faking) for PH in general, but especially for cold climates. I also unveiled a new way of thinking/discussing Passivhaus projects which has its own forthcoming post. This was followed by a barrage of buildings at the intersection of high performance and high design. I was asked by a number of folks to send out my slides, I will probably roll that into a blog post as well, there is a lot of decent information on the web and they links and reports are a good accompaniment to the info presented.

At the conference banquet, CanPHI premiered their ‘Golden Blower Door’ award, which Dr. Feist gave to Harold Orr. It was, I think, a powerful and emotional moment, with Orr getting a rousing ovation from all. It was then followed by a super limited preview of Faith Morgan’s documentary Passive House: A Building Revolution, which had premiered the night before. It is for sale if anyone is interested. Henry Gifford then discussed his take on mechanical systems and integrity, which was both hilarious and pointed. Henry pulls no punches, but his insights are valid. I wish I had filmed it… Henry had some choice comments, a few of which went viral, including these two gems:

  • ‘Put the fuel bill for every building on the Internet. That will save the planet.’
  • ‘I predict that someday energy will be so important that we will measure it’

Look for the next post later this week. -M

BFC on Baugruppen: yes in our back yard!

This is part 7 of a series on baugruppen, private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects. Read parts 1, 23, 4, 5, and 6.

With this series, I initially set out to highlight some of the aspects of baugruppen I found intriguing – and the reasoning for this was mostly selfish: I’m an aspiring baugruppee. Can these types of projects be replicated Stateside? I believe so, and I’d love to see jurisdictions prioritize them – but, as in Germany, I think it will take time to gain foothold. There are a few ways this could happen, but first…

a reality check

Regarding Germany, there are a couple of reasons baugruppen are cost-competitive – the financing terms, taxes and fees aren’t drastically different for either turnkey or BGs. German home loans generally require a significant down payment (up to or over 20%), whereas a baugruppe member’s loan are generally higher, around 30% (or more, potentially). While seemingly vast, baugruppen typically save 15% over turnkey projects. For comparable units, BGs require slightly more up front, but result in much lower total and monthly payments. The tradeoff being a tailored unit, bombtastic communal spaces, etc.

Why is this relevant to the US market? I don’t foresee legal or social obstacles to forming a baugruppe – judging by conversations/ tweets/emails – many others love this idea, and legal structures (e.g. LLCs) exist for taking on project development. Rather, it is the financial side that will probably be the highest hurdle. Once a group unites around a concept or idea, they’ll form a legal structure in order to protect themselves, make payments, etc. Those are relatively easy and don’t incur much cost. The purchase of land and financing of construction, however, are quite the opposite. The first wave of projects will probably require self-financing, which could affect if affordable housing plays a role unless  owners push to include it. Alternatively, a progressive city or green, community bank could step in. I do think that if this shows to be a successful, affordable model – jurisdictions will step in, and the financing hurdle becomes lower.


Banks will likely be reluctant to lend without prior experience with baugruppen, so early groups will likely need to self-finance/develop their projects. There is precedent for this – initial BGs in Germany had difficulty obtaining funding and so members used personal savings, borrowed money, and even undertook some of the construction themselves. This is probably how the ‘first wave’ of these projects would have to be taken on Stateside. Being innovative/groundbreaking early adopters can be hard! This is also an issue the co-housing community is pretty familiar with, as several have had to take this route. There are a handful of urban co-housing projects that could serve as a good model such as the eastern village (Treehugger), and DurhamCentralPark.

That last one seems to be a BG – urban, dense – and is listed as ‘self developed’ on the co-housing website. I like where it is headed, and hope they open source their process.  That being said, there is room for…

City/State financing

In Germany, a number of progressive cities have taken the lead in prioritizing, facilitating, incentivizing, and in some cases, funding baugruppen. Wouldn’t it be phenomenal if, within the halls of city government, there existed a department with the ability to finance affordable housing to ensure diverse citizenry, strong tax base, jobs, etc, as in these incredible German jurisdictions? Oh wait, what’s this? This department already exists?!? Holy Shirts and Pants!!! Yup, in Seattle, this department is the Office of Economic Development (OED)

OED provides ‘low interest loans for mid-sized and large mixed-use and commercial projects. Both for-profit and non-profit developers or community developers may be eligible.’ Hmmm… we may be getting somewhere. Eligibility requirements? Achieve ‘significant public benefits including:’     

Creation of jobs:

Several ongoing, mid-scale baugruppen projects would provide quality construction jobs with prevailing wage requirements. That these workers could potentially afford to own in projects they build would be a significant advantage for the city (and model for the country!). And BGs could even have retail spaces – more jobs! Winning!

Affordable housing that will support neighborhood businesses while helping to preserve a diverse economic base of residents:

We’ve shown that baugruppen can be an innovative, cost-effective alternative to turnkey projects, including the potential for ultra-low maintenance and operational costs. Additionally, BGs have the potential for more economically, racially and socially diverse ownership versus traditional development.  Furthermore, the City could make a requirement for a percentage to be allocated for families, elderly, etc. Boom!

Redevelopment of abandoned or underutilized property that will contribute to the revitalization of the City’s business districts.

Baugruppen and abandoned/vacant lots near business districts sounds like a winning combination if ever I heard one. This is how the innovative eco-districts in Freiburg (Vauban) and Thuebingen started. Affordably housing community-oriented groups in buildings near communities they want to live in? Isn’t this what we should already be striving for in urban environs? I’d like to think there may be some synergy here!

Innovative lenders

Banks will be reluctant to lend money to groups that don’t have a construction background (hence incorporation of Construction PMs on projects) – but I believe this is a market where smart, innovative, sustainability- and community-focused banks could thrive. Maybe I’ve been forced to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ one too many times, but I think these are the exact kinds of community investments that pay big dividends. And again, this is not without precedent – Shorebank Pacific (now one pacific coast bank) has provided loans for co-housing projects in the past – as have others. Historically they haven’t been predominantly multifamily urban projects – so whether or not these organizations would find interest in this market is unclear. In Germany, while there was reluctance, there have been a couple of banks that have realized the potential in baugruppen, and have divisions willing to finance them. I imagine that a similar course would result Stateside after initial proof of concepts have been built and everyone sees how awesome they are. Additionally, jurisdictions incentivizing BGs would probably go a long way to getting banks more interested in lending on these kinds of projects.

Concluding thoughts

So… is this all just a pipe dream? If we’re going to make Seattle a green leader (beat Freiburg!) then we’ll need affordable, urban innovations like baugruppen to succeed – and the regulatory and financial tools to organize and construct them. At some point, City Hall will have to acknowledge existing models aren’t great for low and middle income families, and will only get worse without intervention. What green-focused City government wouldn’t want urban, uber-sustainable, hyper-comfortable, high quality, well-designed, prefabricated, bike-friendly, car-free, affordable, jointly-built housing inhabited by racially and economically diverse homeowners making stronger communities with reliable tax bases? If that’s a pipe dream, then I must be crazy, because it’s the exact urban model I’d dwell in, if it existed here.

As I stated in our first BG post, my wife and I are very interested in sowing the seeds of our own group.  Lately, I’ve been gravitating towards a passivhaus rehabiliation of an existing building – with a focus on car-free living (bike friendly – correction, cargo-bike friendly), community garden, roof terrace… We will dub it RETROFIETS!

Hopefully this little excursion has been worthwhile reading. I want to keep an ongoing dialogue on this, so chime in with thoughts, crits, suggestions, emails, etc.

BFC on Baugruppen: Instant community (just add water)

This is part 6 of a series on baugruppen, private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects. Read parts 1, 23, 4 and 5.

foto: Behörde für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt Hamburg

So how is it that baugruppen seemingly excel on the community cohesiveness and livability front over turn-key projects? I think there a few moving parts to this. As we’ve noted, baugruppen tend to form or ‘market’ around specific concepts or values, cities are pushing and rewarding diversity and livability of BGs, and the arduous, multi-year democratic process undertaken to actually construct the cooperatively-owned project seems to bring about cohesiveness as well (yes, that’s right, multi-year, as in 2+ years. Time is the largest advantage a turnkey project has over BGs).

There are a number of ways baugruppen are formed – some are initiated by friends or acquaintances that already share a common bond or set of core values. Others need additional members, and declare a strong central concept (bikes only! DINKS ok! Intergenerational granola-loving families!), a rallying cry for those that may be interested in joining up. Through various online portals (including cities keen to advance such developments – hint, hint Seattle), community meetings and word of mouth – groups are completed. Of all the projects I’ve looked at, the FAHRRADLOFTS seems to do this rather well (or maybe just hits at the type of BG in which I’d like to dwell – unsure!). This is an important step in the process – declaring what you are about, be it uber-green living, diversity, gardeners, etc – a project won’t get built if it doesn’t get enough members. The big advantage in both of these scenarios is that you know, or will soon enough, who your neighbors will be at project completion. Along with the stated concept is the obligatory group photo and/or groundbreaking!

Once formed, a large amount of community buy-in must take place. To actually build a baugruppe is no small feat. Like co-housing, the design process of many baugruppen is driven by future tenants. Concepts, themes and ideas are developed, processes are formulated to move project planning forward. The land situation must be worked out. Architects work with the owners on the design – both groups bringing needs and constraints to the table. This is not usually the case with developer-initiated projects, but on the best projects, it is this close collaboration with clients that really drives success. There has to be consensus amongst the members to move forward, schedules have to be maintained. This is a process of give and take – actual democracy in action! Though the process may take more time (e.g. weekly meetings for up to and over a year) and definitely involves challenges (There should be bike storage! The stairs should be yellow!) – it seems like a great way to engage your future neighbors while formulating a building that meets your needs in a way other models can’t or won’t. Imagine having a say in whether or not your building would have a roof terrace, or how you building engages the public! Want to implement ecological and social requirements for a project? Then do it! How about prioritizing car-free living like in Vauban? Go for it! This process seems to induce a greater sense of pride, respect and sense of community than other models – perhaps owing to the greater degree of trust and respect garnered through the planning process.

foto: flickr user ADEUPa Brest

Cities can also play a large part in the success of baugruppen. As we previously discussed, there are a multitude of advantages for cities – taxes, affordable housing, increased density, diverse citizenry to name a few. Because of this, many jurisdictions go out of their way to not only promote BGs, but stronger forms of them. They do this through the sale of city land to the group deemed most diverse/ecologically friendly/kid friendly/etc. They also do this through the appointing of facilitators, promotion of projects – built and in planning, and maybe more interestingly, holding the sale of city land while a BG gets it’s planning figured out and funding in order. Yep, you read that right – some jurisdictions are so gung ho for baugruppen, they’ll delay the sale of land to ensure the project is done right. Talk about winning on all fronts!

foto: flickr user ADEUPa Brest

Mostly, though, I think it’s the intentional [urban] community that forms – a close knit bunch that looks out for each other, works together, genuinely cares about the place in which they dwell. Is this a critique on contemporary urban dwelling? Is affordable communal dwelling, then, the biggest advantage to baugruppen? I believe it is. Yes, there is the opportunity for long term financial benefit through reduced construction costs/loans and operational energy (passivhaus!) – but it is the communal aspect of BGs that seems to drive success larger than anything else. Per the NYT article on the roedig schoep stunner, ‘Mr. Roedig and Mr. Schop point out that they live in the building, not just their own apartment. The building was designed to be a kind of modern-day kibbutz.’

So… Maybe it doesn’t take a whole village… Maybe it just takes a baugruppe. With a community garden. That needs a little water.

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