Following up on the last post introducing the idea of decarbonizing existing buildings, this post features a flow chart that illustrates decision points and issues for decarbonizing homes in a cold climate. There is plenty of complexity in any building project, arguably more so in renovations; so this isn’t a how-to guide so much as a view into our thought process about the different facets of a project like this. We expect this to change as technology advances and we complete more projects of this type.
Please feel free to download our Decarbonization Resources with links to our recommended websites, products, and organizations:
Given our focus as a firm, and how many deep energy retrofit projects we’re doing, we thought it would make sense to give a little explanation, to let people know what’s going on in our heads and in these buildings.
What’s it all about? These buildings have a plan to stop using fossil fuels—to get to zero carbon. Since we’re in a cold climate, it begins with simple but thorough conservation through insulation and air sealing. Decarbonization continues by using electricity to efficiently power the entire house, using heat pumps for HVAC, water heating and the dryer, and induction for cooking. Can’t decarb if you’re using fossil fuels, so the gas line comes out! Solar PV on the roof then allows us to offset most or all of the annual site energy use. As the electrical grid is increasingly fed by wind and solar, coal and gas generation can be retired, but only if buildings are very energy efficient!
A great benefit of this process is that the home is made more comfortable and durable, with greater indoor air quality for a healthier environment. It’s not cheap or simple, but much of it can be planned to occur with the end of service life of various components such as exterior finish, windows, and mechanical equipment.
The following blog posts will explore a decision flow chart for the decarbonization process. Stay tuned!
In the US most of our buildings are not optimized for indoor air quality, energy efficiency, or today’s living patterns. As our building stock ages, and as appliances and HVAC systems, windows, and finish surfaces reach the end of their service lives, we face an opportunity to radically upgrade: we can refashion our buildings toward a positive vision of the future.
Since the 1970s, researchers and the DOE have studied building science* to determine climate-specific recommendations for levels of airtightness and insulation, ventilation and conditioning systems, and efficient appliances. Following these best practices leads to more durable, comfortable, energy efficient environments with far greater air quality than is typical. These to me are the goals of all building, whether new or retrofit, and they can all be done while upgrading appearance and function. Even without going to extremes, houses in most of the US, including our Chicago climate, can achieve 75-100% energy use reduction while weaning off fossil fuels. All the technology and know-how we need is available right now.
To give a sense of the scale of the issue, consider the Chicago region: since we’re a cold climate, nearly half of residential energy use goes to heating. According to 2010 Chicago data, residences collectively use about 24 trillion kWh annually; if these used a sustainable 3,500kWh per person annually, that would be reduced to about 6 trillion—a factor of 4 reduction, while leaving fossil fuels behind. Most of the energy that goes to an older home, typically a leaky and poorly insulated building, is wasted; but with good retrofits, we can get there. I will demonstrate how in my 1919 house I achieved an 84% energy reduction in five steps, which also meant a 75% reduction in my required furnace (which becomes heat pump) capacity.
So what are the roadblocks? The first, as I see it, is lack of vision: it’s easy to remain entrenched in our old, fossil-fuel age, poorly ventilated mindset, and therefore extend our low level of performance. It takes some analysis and experimentation to get beyond that. In TBDA’s remodel and retrofit work we often chart a path to low- or zero-energy use for clients, with the understanding it doesn’t all have to be done at once; but the near-term steps shouldn’t hinder the long-term goal. You have to see down that path ahead, and knowing how each step is contributing to your big goal keeps the motivation high!
Another problematic-at-scale roadblock is the use of real estate for short-term profit. A flipper or developer doesn’t have incentive to do more than code minimum since they won’t get the financial or health benefits of a higher performing building. A production builder may lock in an inefficient thermal envelope and mechanical system for 25 to 50 years—and we only have 10 to get in front of catastrophic climate change. This will probably require demand, and either financial incentives, stricter regulations, or both.
Next, the question of cost: the knee-jerk reaction is that it costs substantially more to build at a higher level, but studies have countered that. True, a couple exhaust-only bath fans are cheaper than an energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system; lots of insulation costs more than little insulation in the short term. But when you look at life cycle costs and the health effects of the envelope, you may have a different value scale than the flipper or production builder. For new construction, the cost to build to a very high level of performance is, from our research and others we’ve seen, only in the 1-7% increase in initial building costs—easily justifiable by long-term energy savings and increased comfort and air quality. This small a margin is within the range of trade-offs for tile or countertop costs, or slightly reduced (better designed!) square footage. In retrofits the math can be harder, but sometimes forgiving, since you face the need to replace aging infrastructure like mechanical systems or windows.
Thus far, each retrofit we’ve seen is unique, but themes and prototypes are emerging. In our next posts, we will be showing case studies to discuss the design and goal-setting processes, building science, energy modeling, and cost issues. In particular we will attempt to outline cost challenges where they occur so that policymakers can understand where incentives will be needed to get us on track. This is our decade to make a difference.
*Retrofit energy modeling begins at 3:07 of video above
** Resources include Deep Energy Retrofit Guidance from the Building America Solutions Center, NREL’s Standard Work Specification website for home energy upgrades, Building Science Corporation’s trove of research papers, insights, and Joe Lstiburek’s wit, the Green Building Advisor website, PHIUS, Fine Homebuilding, Journal of Light Construction, and other publications.
We’re excited to share progress from our project near Bloomington, IN: we count ourselves fortunate to work with inspired owners and excellent builders. Loren Wood Builders is doing a great job on this—not only did they go get Passive House Builders Training, they are being so diligent thinking ahead about components, assemblies, and the integrity of the air barrier. Plus—they have a drone! Here are some photos of the work in progress—you can see we’re using Zip-R (2.5” insulated sheathing) as our air barrier and continuous insulation, over 2X6 studs with cellulose. The slab and foundation are insulated with EPS, and the roof will be insulated with cellulose over the Rothoblass membrane air barrier. Windows are Alpen Tyrol tilt/turn, great performance (triple-glazed) and value. There’s also a shot of the big cistern going in, which is for rainwater collection for domestic use and irrigation.
More coming soon, as the Thermory (wood) and metal siding and roofing go on!
We have participated in the Green Built Home Tour every year for almost 10 years, and we were excited to include Acorn Glade Passive House as part of the tour this year. Although we missed seeing attendees in person, the virtual tour allowed more people to attend and learn about Passive and green built homes. If you were unable to attend, we have included our portion of the tour below. Enjoy!
The shelter-in-place order meant that homes were far more continuously and intensely used than in the recent past; this makes us consider how well they’re taking care of us. Home offices sprung up in mudrooms, bedrooms, basements; many families are cooking much more; and with parks and playgrounds closed, we look to our streets and yards to provide that much-needed outdoor time and Nature connection. As an architect, three issues I’m thinking about due to these new arrangements are air quality, privacy gradients, and nature connection.
Air Quality: this report from Rocky Mountain Institute sheds light on numerous facets of indoor air quality, including racial and income disparities and impacts on children; gas cooking turns out to be a big issue, even in homes with ventilation. To drill down, here’s a good Allison Bailes article specifically on kitchen ventilation and its flaws. The RMI article makes another interesting point—while we have created standards for limiting outdoor air pollution (the Clean Air Act, for example, threatened by the Trump administration), there are no maintenance* standards for indoor air, and in general, it looks pretty bad—though studies are needed. (*By maintenance, I mean what’s actually being lived in, separate from building code and ASHRAE requirements for ventilation, which do not necessarily ensure good air quality.)
One of the important improvements the Passive House standard makes over a typical home is the inclusion of a balanced, filtered ventilation system. A typical modern house only has exhaust for ventilation at bathroom and kitchen, and of course it only works when you turn it on (see the chart from the California IAQ study); and it doesn’t supply fresh air or filtration to bedrooms or living spaces. But a Passive House ventilation system continuously cleans the air at pollution points (baths, laundry, kitchen), and supplies filtered air to bedrooms and living spaces. These filters can be fine enough to reduce some virus-carrying droplets, as described in detail on this other fine post by Energy Vanguard. In all of our new houses and gut remodels, we design ERV systems; typically we specify MERV 13 filters, though the PHIUS standard requires MERV 8.
So what can you do now? First off, ALWAYS use your kitchen hood when you cook, and use the back burners first. Even boiling water can release CO and other toxins (not the water, the combustion byproducts), and the hood picks up fumes from the back burners better than the front ones. Open windows when you can. Get outside. Consider a finer filter for your HVAC system, but heed the advice on Energy Vanguard’s blog about potential effect on your fan (check with your service tech). Consider installing an energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Here’s the thing: less expensive ones like Panasonic’s spot ERV don’t work below 32F or so—you need to get one that can handle cold weather, like Panasonic’s Intelli-Balance, which means you’ll be into ducting; or you can get a pair or two of Lunos units, very clever retrofit devices; or you can get a unit that will connect to your house’s forced air system like the Renewaire unit (it will require new ductwork from your exhaust locations, but puts fresh air into your existing ductwork); or a stand-alone unit like the Zehnder, or, the gold standard in my opinion, the CERV from Build Equinox, a demand-controlled ventilation system with conditioning and continuous air quality monitoring.
Privacy Gradients: This may sound like architect-jargon; what I mean is that it’s good to have active areas where common activities (cooking) happen and family and friends can gather, and it’s good to have spaces where people can get away from the crowd and noise. It’s a general principle that can result in a space being called “home office” or “music room” or “library;” a good example of this is the “Away Room” or “Place of Your Own” as laid out in Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House concept. At TBDA, most of our houses, in response to client desires, have include a living-dining-kitchen area that is joined in one big rectangle, L-shape, or other joined configuration; but these houses also feature a quiet non-bedroom space that can be used as office, place for a quiet conversation (or a Zoom meeting, these days. I’m finding in my house that it’s nice to have the kids at the table close to the kitchen (in nearly continuous use!), but the attic studio is a welcome feature when my wife gets on a Zoom call with 20 fourth graders.
What can you do now? Well, if it’s relatively easy, you’ve probably figured out a solution already; maybe you were able to re-think function and see your space in a new light. If it’s not so easy, remodeling may be worth considering, especially if it can solve other problems or otherwise help you upgrade your living environment. Often it’s a matter of space planning expertise and the experience a residential architect brings to see the big picture and make the best use of space, light, and structure.
Nature Connection: This dovetails to the remodeling comment above: it may not be a quick and easy fix. A house can be designed or remodeled to make the outdoors, or a courtyard, feel very much like a part of the home, which is good for us in many ways. Biophilic design is becoming more important as we spend more time indoors—our genetics aren’t that far away from our hunter-gatherer past, so we expect those inputs from the natural world, the variable sounds, smells, air movement, textures, and natural materials and patterns, to be fully alive. Our stress levels rise when we don’t get those and instead get the sound of the refrigerator humming, cars honking, an HVAC system blasting on, the soul-deadening environment of featureless drywall painted with plastic paint.
The concept of home must continue to evolve away from boxes-with-holes to shelter-in-nature; it’s more subtle than a glass box approach, best exemplified by buildings like Fallingwater and other Wright masterpieces; and we must recognize that our neighborhood structure of car-oriented grids with rectilinear family slots leaves much to be improved upon.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself and my family taking more walks around the neighborhood and appreciating the great Spring here; granted, this is in part because we have a new dog, but it’s also because we feel the need to change our environment and can’t go to a gym, library, restaurant, museum, or theater. We’re feeling grateful for our health and for a back yard and neighborhood that are enjoyable to be in. I hope you are (safely!) enjoying good places too, and keeping in good health.
Most of us architects love to design new buildings—we get to shape the mass, the light, the experience, we get to create an architectural expression as true to our ideals as possible. But in a place like Chicago, or really any metro area, that opportunity is less common than remodels, the incremental upgrades people make to existing buildings.
According to Architecture 2030, Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual global GHG emissions, and approximately two-thirds of the building area that exists today will still exist in 2050. If we want to achieve the goals of the Paris Accord, we have to radically reduce the energy consumption of our existing building stock. The good news is that this can be done hand-in-hand with interior remodels that update spaces to modern uses, increase use of natural light, and improve the indoor environmental health for occupants. It can also be done in conjunction with exterior remodels like siding retrofits—tighten up the sheathing and add insulation, THEN apply siding! The bad news is that this is more expensive than a cheap flip or band-aid solution, so it’s rare; and every building that’s patched up to limp along for the next 15-20 years will be consuming too much and not doing as much good for its occupants. Speculative real estate in the market of older buildings is a real problem for the climate—there is no incentive for developers to invest in performance upgrades. This is a problem policy should address.
But I see a positive path forward in two phases: first, long-term energy savings can offset first cost upgrades, often leading to a cash-flow-neutral status compared to lesser performance; for owner-occupants, this can make a lot of sense, but they have to take a long view. Again, the cheap flip or developer-build is not aligned with this approach; it won’t pay back immediately, but in 5-10 years. Second, it’s inevitable that property tax credits, carbon tax, and other financial incentives will give owners the push needed to accelerate adoption of carbon-reduction strategies. I believe municipalities should start with a Climate Action Plan; here in the upper Midwest it will quickly become evident that energy efficiency upgrades will be an early, necessary step, so incentivizing them is important.
While there are general principles of energy retrofits (air sealing, insulation, efficient appliances, etc.), each building is different, so there won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. Each building’s structural condition, site condition, moisture load, HVAC system, will need to be analyzed, and the solution custom-tailored. Each building will require significant skilled labor to do the weatherization work and testing/verification; these realities mean that local jobs will be created. The sooner this path is taken, the sooner people start saving money by living more comfortably while creating local jobs. And if they hire good architects, they improve beauty and function at the same time!
Passive House is more than an energy standard—it’s a way of understanding the technology of high-performance building, and it allows architects to optimize a building’s performance through the design process, regardless of whether an owner wants to pursue certification or not.
The “business-as-usual” approach to design is to focus on program and appearance, then have an engineer or contractor size mechanical systems to condition the building; more sensitive designers may take into account sun angles and daylighting, but for many designers these are afterthoughts as well. That approach usually leads to needless energy consumption, glare, overheating, and thermal bridging. Our approach is to use the powerful Passive House modeling tool to tune the building to the climate as an integral part of the design process.
We begin design with an analysis of climate (temperatures, humidity, sun, rain/snow, wind), vistas and sense of prospect or “belonging” on the site, topography, and neighborhood or natural setting, all to allow the building to speak the language of the site. I think of it as imagining a living thing that evolved to live in that place—its feet or roots in the ground, its back to shelter, its face to the sun, with the right brows, whiskers, or foliage, as the metaphor may be!
That leads to initial gestural designs that become building shapes. As soon as we settle on a general layout, we then bring that geometry into our Passive House (PHIUS) modeling software (called WUFI-Passive), where we can enter values for insulation, window size, orientation, and performance, mechanical system performance, and internal energy use. By trying out different values for these, and by trying different approaches to shading and exposure, we can arrive at an optimal performance level for the building.
Part of the beauty of the PHIUS standard is that the climate-specific metrics give definite targets to design toward. When we optimize for both heating and cooling loads, we set the stage for comfort; when we minimize overall energy (efficient mechanical system, lighting, and appliances), we can design a project to meet annual net zero energy with the smallest solar PV array possible. And from a design point of view, we know the building will have a climatic “fit” that will allow the building to feel true to place.
If there’s one absolute I go by, it’s that Nature is right. I use the PHIUS tools and knowledge to allow my designs have an organic approach to energy, just as I employ biophilic design and understanding of the locality to allow the designs to have an organic, natural countenance and fit with the site. We’re pursuing ecological architecture through both art and science.
For those of us trying to radically push energy efficiency ahead, a strong incentive program can be a blessing. That’s what we now have with the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. Their Net Zero Energy Building Program provides grant money to non-profits, local governments, and colleges/universities undertaking building to site net zero, typically through Passive House or Net Zero/ILFI Certification. Years ago they would provide funding for LEED projects, but as LEED became more common and the need for energy efficiency more urgent (and attainable!), they raised the bar from LEED to Zero Energy. This is huge—we are seeing an amazing increase in PHIUS buildings: aside from our Park District project, there are at least three other schools and park buildings in construction or design as I write this. Given that the only other PHIUS certified projects in the area at this time of writing are our TBDA designed ones and one affordable multifamily project (Tierra Linda), this is a big deal. It’s also a bit worrisome: for the designers and contractors taking this on for the first time, there will be lessons learned and probably some bumps in the road, just as we’ve had on our projects.
To put this into perspective: we just received grant approval for our Carroll Center project, a retrofit and addition for a park district building that will accommodate preschool, after-school, and adult class programming. It’s about a $1.7M build, and the grant of about $577,000 covers the complexity of the retrofit construction (a gut rehab to eliminate thermal bridges, add insulation, replace windows, and redo mechanical systems), upgrade the new addition to Passive, and cover the certification costs (for energy modeling, rater work, and PHIUS review and certification). Without the grant, the park district would not have been able to justify the costs. So, a big thank you to ICECF!