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Designing for a Post-COVID World with Passive House

Passive House design for large multi-family buildings aligns with and builds upon industry guidance for mitigating the spread of infectious diseases.

As the world continues to be turned on its head by the impacts of COVID-19, the building industry has been scrambling to respond, encouraging designers and building operators to learn about how their buildings are being ventilated. Industry experts have produced an array of documents and reports outlining guidelines for reopening buildings safely while minimizing the risk of transferring infectious disease. Much of the focus of this guidance has been on using mechanical ventilation and proper air distribution to dilute contaminant levels in spaces and minimize the spread of viruses. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has produced a significant amount of guidance for designers. One of their main documents, produced in April, is the “ASHRAE Position Document on Infectious Aerosols,” which provides useful information for how buildings should be designed and operated in response to a pandemic. However, it has prompted questions from design teams about how this might conflict with the goals of very low energy buildings, such as Passive House (PH). This blogpost is written as a response to some of these questions and to highlight the benefits of Passive House design in light of recent recommendations by groups like ASHRAE.

Benefits of Passive House for Mitigating COVID Transmission

The following are some of the benefits of Passive House design for multi-family buildings compared to code requirements as well as some additional guidance for how to design to mitigate virus transmission.

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Pirelli Historic Retrofit: Part 1

 

image of Pirelli buildingOne of the most important drivers in achieving Passive House certification (or achieving any goal!) is getting the project team involved from the start. Becker + Becker, the owner, architect and developer for the creative retrofit of the Pirelli Building, hired SWA’s Passive House, LEED, Enclosures, and Accessibility teams to coordinate during early design. Becker +Becker is invested in rebuilding for resilience, sustainability, and occupant health and comfort and appreciates the necessity of getting goals defined at the outset.

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The Numbers Are In! NYC Passive House Performance Data

In a collaborative effort that merged financing and energy use analysis, the New York City Passive House industry finally has performance data. Working together with Bright Power, The Community Preservation Corporation, and NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development, this analysis is the first of its kind.

Why does this matter?

Energy Use Intensity (EUI) measures energy consumption on a per square foot basis to compare buildings and allows interested parties to gauge one building’s usage to another (or to a group of buildings with a similar use type). The study team compared the actual EUI of six completed Passive House-certified and Passive House-like buildings against recently completed multifamily code-built buildings. Information was gleaned from the EnergyScoreCards database and the Passive House (PH) target. The weather normalized data indicates the Passive House and Passive House-like buildings are performing much better than the comparable code-built group, but are not quite as efficient as the Passive House threshold. Industry leaders have recognized this performance gap – between predictive assumptions that rely on standardized patterns of use and the real-life habits of actual people living in the building. This gap has been a hot topic  at the past several New York Passive House conferences. The results from the current analysis provide a starting point now, so the industry can focus on strategies to continue to reduce EUIs.

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How to Talk Windows with a Passive House Nerd

Before we get into this topic, please take a few seconds to consider the following questions:

  • Do you plan to work, or have you ever worked, on a Passive House building? (If not, the rest of your answers are probably no.)
  • Has your Passive House consultant ever told you that the window U-Value you provided “won’t work in their energy model?”
  • Has your Passive House consultant ever told you that your window “doesn’t meet the comfort criteria?”
  • Have you ever scratched your head when someone asked you to provide the “Psi-spacer” for your window?

If you answered yes to two or more of these queries, please read on. If not, you’ll still learn some useful information, so why not continue?

If you’re still reading, then you are probably somewhat familiar with a “U-Value” and you may know what “SHGC” means. If not, no worries. This article will explain both, and by the end you’ll be able to talk about these terms with most Passive House nerds.

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Net Zero and Electrification

Net zero” can mean a lot of different things depending on what you choose to measure – zero energy usage, zero carbon emitted, zero lifecycle impact, etc.

At Steven Winter Associates, Inc. (SWA), we work with clients who are approaching net zero from different angles: driven by institutional goals, climate concerns, marketing campaigns, and connecting with municipal emissions targets. One thing we see over and over is that super high performance is difficult to achieve, but with a key simplification – there are not many ways to do it. All roads may lead to Rome but the closer you get, the fewer roads there are to take.

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Passive House: An Alternative Compliance Path to Toronto Green Standard Tier 3

It is clear to see that the Passive House (PH) standard is here to stay! Across North America, more States, Provinces, and Municipalities are integrating PH into their building standards. One of the more recent adopters is the City of Toronto. In the most recent version of the Toronto Green Standard (TGS), the PH standard is offered as an alternative compliance path to TGS Tier 3, and with this alternative compliance path one obvious question comes to mind: What is the major difference in required component efficiency for a multifamily building in Toronto that is looking to meet either the PH standard or TGS Tier 3?

The PH standard is performance-based and is focused on decreasing whole building energy demand, improving building durability, providing optimal occupant thermal comfort, improving indoor air quality, and reducing carbon emissions. The PH standard reduces building operation costs, decreases carbon emissions, and supports an improved indoor environmental quality for building occupants. The TGS has similar goals and benefits when compared to the PH standard, and there are some obvious synergies in the program design between TGS and PH. The tiered energy category in the TGS takes a similar approach to PH by offering an annual budget for three different categories. For PH you must comply with a total energy budget for annual heating demand, annual cooling demand, and total source energy use intensity. Similarly, but slightly differently, the TGS offers a budget for total site energy use intensity (TEUI), annual heating demand or Thermal Energy Demand Intensity (TEDI), and the additional category of Greenhouse Gas Intensity (GHGI). In both standards, the path to compliance is non-prescriptive and designers can implement a variety of component efficiencies and system options. See table 1 and 2 below:

 

Image of passive house criteria standards

Table 1: Passive House Standard Criteria

Second image of passive house criteria

Table 2: Toronto Green Standard Tier 3 Criteria

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Climate Week NYC: Seven Days of Climate Action and Discussion

 

Climate Week logoLast week, as I was writing this blog, I came across a New York Times article: “The Amazon, Siberia, Indonesia: a World of Fire.” By now, I’m sure most of us are aware that the Amazon Rainforest has been burning for weeks, but this deliberate act of environmental destruction will contribute to a feedback loop. These fires release carbon dioxide and kill the trees and species that not only remove greenhouse gasses from the air but are part of vital fragile ecosystems. As more climate-warming gasses fill the air, extreme weather patterns, drought, species loss, and global warming are exacerbated. These effects then accelerate the spread of infectious disease, global poverty, and human health defects. Overall, climate change and environmental degradation negatively affect both humans and the planet, which makes us less resilient and allows for climate change to accelerate even more aggressively. And the cycle continues.

So, for the sake of our (really wonderful) natural planet, and humankind, it is crucial that we try to hinder this feedback loop and make climate action a priority around the world. And, although individually we can try to have a more reciprocal relationship with the planet, our actions and voices carry more weight collectively, which is where Climate Week NYC comes in.

What is Climate Week NYC?

Organized by The Climate Group, Climate Week NYC is an annual week-long gathering for citizens and global leaders to join forces and take action to mitigate environmental harm caused by human activity. There will be a number of public events each day from September 23-29, including tours, film screenings, conferences, and more.

Fun fact: Swedish teenager and activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic all the way from England to meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit, scheduled on the first day of Climate Week NYC!

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It’s Time to Focus on Our Schools

If you are a parent like me, I am sure you cherish your kids and seek to offer them the best opportunities in life. I even moved to a different school district. And, while the education is top-notch in my town, I have come to realize that it really doesn’t matter what school district you are in…all our schools need help. I am not talking about smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, after-school programs, and more school supplies, although those are important. School buildings need attention. With budgetary pressures, a lot of maintenance and repairs are being deferred and schools are not aging well. Whether it is repairing existing systems, replacing systems at the end of their useful life, renovating, or building a brand-new school to service your community for future generations, advocate for your Board of Education (BoE) to think holistically about improving the conditions for our children.

Why My Call to Action?

This year I was asked to join our elementary school’s Tools for Schools committee, which is tasked with implementing an indoor air quality (IAQ) management plan. This experience gave me an opportunity to get involved and provided me insight into the school’s systems and the operations and maintenance (O&M) processes that were in place.

Unfortunately, at the start of the 2018 school year, mold issues were identified in our local middle school and the building was closed. In fairness, I quickly realized that buildings were outside the BoE members’ knowledge base. Afterall, they are educators, not facility managers or building scientists. They sought outside consultants but didn’t know the right questions to ask. After some time, the BoE decided to get input from local experts in the community. Fortunately, we have several experts (including me) who were willing to volunteer their time. As part of a task force, we laid out a strategy to remediate the mold issues in the school and to implement short- and long-term repairs to minimize/eliminate water incursion and elevated moisture issues within the building.

I am not saying you must get involved at this level, but I do encourage you to attend a BoE meeting and start asking questions related to IAQ. Ask if the school has deferred maintenance needs and if/when these are being addressed in the annual budget. Ask when (if) comprehensive physical needs assessments and energy audits were performed on all school buildings. Educate yourselves; then help educate your BoE and your community on IAQ guidelines for schools. Here are some great resources:

How Can SWA Help?

In working with schools, I have learned that one of the greatest challenges school decision-makers face is not knowing where to turn for support and guidance. Steven Winter Associates, Inc. (SWA) has been working to improve educational facilities for decades. Whether you have questions related to mold, moisture, comfort, absenteeism, accessibility, high utility bills…on up to zero energy design and progressive learning environments, SWA can support you. Here is just a sample of past school projects that SWA has worked on:

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The First Certified Passive House in Southeast Asia – Star Garments Innovation Center

Following up on our blog post in August 2018 – Just Your Typical Blower Door Test… in Sri Lanka – Star Garment Innovation Center – we have exciting news coming out of Sri Lanka. The Star Garments Innovation Center is now officially certified as a Pilot EnerPHit building, the building retrofit standard under the Passive House Institute (PHI).

EnerPHit logo with project details

EnerPHit certification for this project is a milestone achievement on many levels. The Innovation Center is now the first certified Passive House in Southeast Asia and one of only a handful of certified PH projects in tropical climates. PHI deemed the project “a milestone in industrial energy efficient retrofitting in a tropical monsoon climate.” Many of the passive measures employed at the Innovation Center, including continuous exterior insulation, highly efficienct windows, variable refrigerant flow heat pumps for cooling with wrap around heat pipe for enhanced dehumidification capacity, and balanced ventilation with heat recovery can be utilized across all future construction projects in tropical climates. The Passive House team here at SWA is excited to see the potential growth in tropical-climate Passive House construction as a result of the Innovation Center’s success.

But what good is certification if the building doesn’t perform as well as the energy model predicts? Well, we have exciting news on this front too!

At the very start of SWA’s involvement in the project back in the summer of 2016, SWA conducted a utility analysis of the base building prior to any renovations to predict and later verify the energy savings of the Innovation Center by designing to the PH standard. Once the energy model was developed, SWA predicted approximately 50% in energy savings when compared to the previous building’s energy bills.

Fast forward to Fall of 2018 and the building has now been occupied for a full year. The two inevitable questions are:

  1. How much energy is the Innovation Center saving as compared to the previous building?
  2. How does the modeled energy use for the Innovation Center compare to what it is actually using after a full year of occupancy?

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Establishing Moisture Control in Multifamily Buildings

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of a humid apartment after taking a hot shower. Some of us kick on an exhaust fan, perhaps un-fog the bathroom mirror, or even open a window to get the moisture out. Domestic moisture generation—moisture from human activity—is a major factor driving the humidity levels in our residential buildings, especially in super air-tight, Passive House construction. Before diving into just how much of an impact domestic moisture has in our buildings, let’s first look at average daily moisture generation rates of a typical family of three[1]:

  • breathing and transpiration—6 to 9 pounds of water vapor/day;
  • 10-minute shower in the morning for each individual—3.6 pounds of water vapor;
  • cooking fried eggs and bacon for breakfast—0.5 pounds of water vapor;
  • cooking steamed vegetables with pasta for dinner—0.5 to 1.0 pounds of water vapor; and
  • one small dog and a few plants around the house—0.5 pounds of water vapor/day

This brings the daily total to 11.1 to 14.6 pounds of moisture generation per day, or about 1.5 gallons of liquid water.

Where does all of this moisture go? In a typical code-level apartment building with moderate to high-levels of air leakage, water vapor has two year-round exit pathways: exfiltration through the façade and dedicated kitchen or bathroom mechanical exhaust. Additionally, in the summer, moisture is removed via condensate from the cooling system.

Let’s now put this in the context of a highly energy-efficient apartment with very low levels of air leakage (about 5 to 10 times less than the code-compliant unit), and balanced ventilation with energy recovery. The first means of moisture removal, façade exfiltration, is virtually non-existent given the building’s superior air-tight design. Next is mechanical exhaust ventilation in the kitchens and bathrooms. Because the unit has balanced ventilation and energy recovery, the exhaust air stream in a Passive House project typically passes through the energy recovery core. Depending on the core selection, a large percentage of the interior moisture may be retained in the apartment air despite the constant mechanical air exchange.

There are two basic types of cores:

  • Heat recovery ventilator (HRV) in which a certain percentage of sensible heat is recovered (transferred from the exhaust air stream to the supply air stream) while no moisture is recovered.
  • Energy recovery ventilator (ERV) in which a certain percentage of sensible heat and a certain percentage of moisture in the air is recovered.

To fully understand this issue, Figure 1 breaks break down the moisture-related pros and cons of ERVs and HRVs in the context of a high-density, Passive House building.

  ERV HRV
Pros Summer – prevents high exterior air moisture load from being supplied to interior air; cooling loads are minimized Winter – flushes high internal moisture load out of building; humidity levels reduced
Cons Winter – if internal moisture generation is high, interior moisture load is not flushed out of apartment; humidity levels increase Summer – allows exterior air moisture load to be supplied to interior air: cooling loads increase

Figure 1. Moisture related pros and cons with ERVs and HRVs in high efficiency, airtight construction

 

Traditionally, the key factor in deciding between an ERV or HRV for a high-efficiency building has been the project’s climate. However, as internal moisture loads begin to exceed exterior moisture loads in high-density projects, the decision between ERV or HRV must be looked at more closely for each project regardless of climate.

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