As building professionals, we often ask ourselves, “what are the most critical components to a high-performance building?” Portland, Maine based architect and building science expert, Jesse Thompson, will tell you it’s air-sealing and ventilation.
On this episode of Buildings and Beyond, Jesse explains the importance of incorporating as many Passive House principles as possible when designing multifamily buildings. His focus on air-sealing and ventilation allows him to effectively maximize building performance, reduce energy use, and increase comfort. Leveraging those strategies, Jesse and his team have completed many noteworthy high-performance buildings in some of the most challenging climates.
Episode Guest: Jesse Thompson
Jesse is an award-winning architect who has become a national leader in green design and building science. Growing up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Jesse started his career working construction in high school. Since then, he’s been through every stage of design and building. Jesse is relentlessly practical, but he sees possibility for greatness in every project. He loves a good challenge. Jesse’s always working on balancing elements—engineering with art and design, beauty with affordability, function with potential.
Jesse is a graduate of the University of Oregon, current President Elect of AIA Maine, and a former board member of the Portland Society for Architecture. He’s a founding member of Passivhaus Maine, and was the first architect in northern New England to become a Certified Passive House Consultant.
Episode Information & Resources
- Jesse’s Stealth Passive House Presentation (PPT)
- Kaplan Thompson Architects – Projects
- IAQ & Energy Conference 2019 (Oct 31 – Nov 1) – Portland, ME
Other Relevant Resources:
ASHRAE 62.2 is a standard that sets minimum ventilation requirements for achieving acceptable indoor air quality. Balanced ventilation in multifamily was a big theme in this episode, and there’s a change being proposed to Standard 62.2 that would limit exhaust-only ventilation in multifamily buildings and instead say that balanced or supply ventilation should be used. If you have strong feelings on this, it’s open to public comment until October 21. Here’s the proposed amendment and link to submit the comment (you’ll need to create a Log In to do so).
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Interested in becoming a Certified Passive House Designer/Consultant? Check out NAPHN’s upcoming training schedule!
*Available in various locations across the nation and every other month in NYC!
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About Buildings and Beyond
Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit www.swinter.com.
Next up on Buildings and Beyond…
Victor Calise, Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities
Kelly: 00:01 Welcome to buildings and beyond.
Robb: 00:09 The podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment.
Kelly: 00:13 By focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health.
Robb: 00:18 I’m Robb Aldrich.
Kelly: 00:19 And I’m Kelly Westby.
Robb: 00:22 For this episode I talked with Jesse Thompson who is a principal at Kaplan Thompson architects in Portland, Maine. I saw him present at a conference about a year ago. It was a great session called stealth passive house or something along those lines. And the idea was people can be intimidated about passive house they can hear about r-100 roofs or very expensive windows. The certification can be complicated, so quite a few people are put off by it, but in a lot of his work in multifamily buildings, Jesse really integrates a lot of the key, the core components of passive house into the projects, namely air sealing and ventilation. They’re really fundamental to good buildings and by incorporating these elements on the sly as it were, a lot of his projects perform very near passive house levels. So it was a great conversation. I started out asking him about air sealing, but Jesse wanted to start with ventilation
Jesse: 01:29 Over the last few years I’ve felt like we were inside the home performance industry or whatever we call this, there was this phrase that was rattling around called “build tight and ventilate right.” And we’ve gotten really sure over the last couple of years that we had that a hundred percent backwards. That what we should have been saying is ventilate right, and then you can build tight. That we you know, start with the fresh air, start with good ventilation, and then after you’ve got people happy and healthy inside of the building, then you can get to work air ceiling.
Robb: 02:03 So what is good ventilation for these projects? What does it consist of? Usually.
Jesse: 02:11 It usually has a fully ducted heat recovery ventilation system. You know, a box maybe on the roof. Maybe at the end of the hallway, maybe inside each apartment. And that machine is bringing in fresh air and it’s exhausting all of the pollutants from the kitchen and the bathroom. And it’s capturing the heat. So the heat isn’t leaving the apartment, but all the nasty stuff is and there’s always fresh air coming in and supplying it. It’s a balanced system always in a passive house. And it’s always has heat recovery and that heat recovery is way better than we thought we needed 10 or 15 years ago. It’s at least over 80% of the heat recovery. It’s a really good heat recovery device.
Robb: 03:00 And they’ve been around for a long time.For the 20 years that I’ve been in this industry and I have seen some repeated problems with getting systems installed, operated and maintained to keep up with that. Even on day one, it’s doubtful that the system has the performance you want without some tinkering or retrocommissioning or something. Are you finding that these systems work, that contractors are getting used to them so that they do work more reliably and I guess I’ll ask you about maintenance after that.
Jesse: 03:48 Yeah, I think this is a, this is the big challenge is that the boxes are easy to buy even though you always have to do some sort of pitched battle over buying a good enough box. But these are complicated things that weave their way through buildings that we may or may not be used to doing well. And I think that is one of the areas where we feel like passive house and energy star have done incredible work at getting people to really test the systems and find out where they really working or not. There’s a lot of sort of faith-based construction in our industry where you know, the game is to cover things up as fast as they can and move on to the next building. It’s not to test to see if it’s working and to really see it. Most people are just trying to get onto the next one. 5So that’s just an industry endemic across the board. And then you combine it with a kind of system that maybe folks aren’t quite as used to doing well. And then you have all these weird things, you know, exhaustingly systems aside, like we, you talked to folks in, you’re starting to talk about a building and you’re talking to, maybe it’s a mechanical engineer you haven’t worked with. Maybe it’s a contractor and it’s okay, we’re gonna put the air in the middle of the living room and then we need a heating coil to heat the air up cause it’s gonna be cold coming in from outside. So we have to buy a heating coil and then we have to pay attention to where we put it. And then we’re going to dump it all in the living room and extract from the kitchen to save money.
Jesse: 05:16 And so even then you get these systems that frankly probably don’t work very well. And then you get someone who complains about it and then the owner says, boy, I don’t know why we did that. Let’s stop doing that. Let’s go back to the bath fan way. At least we didn’t get complaints there.
Robb: 05:28 And what a big premium, what a big cost premium. Installed costs of an ERV or HRV versus a bath fan.
Jesse: 05:35 So yeah, that’s where I appreciate where the passive house folks got much more rigorous where they said, no, we will make sure there is fresh air into bedrooms. Like when the teenagers in there with their doors shut, they’re still getting fresh air. We’re not gonna put fresh air in the living room and pretend that magically somehow works its way into the bedroom where the person’s in there have their door shut. Like, no, we’re going to put fresh air where people sleep. And you’re just going to do that. You’re not going to cheap out and you’re going to do such a good heat recovery box that you don’t have to add a bunch of electric coils all through the buildings and add a bunch of costs. You know, you don’t need to do that kind of thinking. We’re going to both make sure it really works and make it simpler. So those have been refreshing and they definitely take some pushing though. But there’s also this bizarre thing where I think multifamily buildings have these systems that never worked, but are code legal, I think the bath fan exhaust system, it kept buildings from rotting out. It kept moisture out of bathrooms, but by no means got fresh air to where people were. And so there’s a funny thing where I think we have a code that prevents people from rotting out building but doesn’t make people healthier. And there’s a whole code path that’s very inexpensive to do. It’s legal, but it doesn’t work.
Robb: 06:51 So yeah. And oh my god, there’s a huge debate about that everywhere, even within our office. I mean, there are people in our office that are pushing strongly for, for mandating unbalanced ventilation in multifamily buildings. Balance doesn’t necessarily mean heat recovery, but once you go to balanced, might as well push on to energy recovery. But personally, my biggest hangup is that I agree that exhaust only ventilation has some big potential problems. Some big potential question marks. It’s better than no ventilation, often, maybe even usually, but there’s no rigor in guaranteeing that fresh air gets to occupants.
Jesse: 07:45 Yeah that funny thing where it’s like, we will build it just tight enough that code says we don’t have to have balanced ventilation. And so we’l leave just enough holes. I mean, no one is putting the holes where the people are first of all. And you know, there’s no pretending that it works. And there’s funny thing where, you know, the passive house folks have this reputation for crazy air sealing. And when I go around every American city, I see peel and stick membranes on every building. I see, you know, Blue Skin and Carlisle products on everywhere. So people are building incredibly tight buildings everywhere.
Robb: 08:26 Way more. Yeah. Way more.
Jesse: 08:29 Just the building products are so different than what you were doing 20 years ago. So that to me is a little wacky where we’re, we’re still pretending that those buildings are not airtight. When I’m looking at those products saying they’re an inch away from being a passive house, they just haven’t thought it through and the air’s coming from The parking garage and the elevator shaft.
Robb: 08:47 I totally agree. Exhaust only doesn’t work.
Jesse: 08:53 Totally. It doesn’t work to make people happy. It keeps the buildings from rotting. I think it’s successful at that part.
Robb: 08:59 But are you finding that your ERVs or HRVs are working? Are they installed, Commissioned? That’s hangup cause I see bad installations so often. And then lack of maintenance. These systems require more maintenance than exhaust only.
Jesse: 09:17 Well that’s the hard thing is, we’re in one of those step changes where we’re making our buildings perform a lot better and they’re getting more complicated at the same time. And we’ve done this before, like we do these moments when you go from a two by four wall to an engineered system or we start rain screening or all the other things that we’ve done in buildings that make them work better, but sure they’re more complicated and it’s, yeah, it’s hard. You do have to put a bunch of effort effort in when you’re at that transition point and you have to figure out what to push on. And that’s kind of grinding work, you know, making sure someone made their fresh air system work, like that’s not very glamorous.
Robb: 10:02 But you’re finding you’re finding that are succeeding?
Jesse: 10:07 After people put a lot of effort into them. Our very first passive house building we couldn’t get certified for I think it took, it took a while because one kitchen exhaust louver, the duct wasn’t connected to the grill and it just took so long to hunt it down. Like it took multiple testing. It took a person getting access to an apartment to go look into realize that, Oh, that thing isn’t connected to that thing. And we didn’t get certified for quite a long time because of one kitchen in a 45 unit building. But, you know, if the client hadn’t tried to be passive house, it never would have gotten found. Right. No one ever would’ve fixed that kitchen. Yep.
Robb: 10:47 Yeah. No ventilation from that kitchen at all. Right.
Jesse: 10:50 So yeah, it was incredibly hard to get it there, but we got it there and that took rigor.
Robb: 10:57 Yeah. And that’s something that I’ve been involved in. Just measuring the performance of systems when they’re installed, and especially new systems especially, you know, especially if it’s new to the contractor or new to the builder and the developer, there’s a learning curve with all of it for everybody.
Jesse: 11:17 The building industry is a really strange industry where our quality control standards, compared to the automotive industry, or any product industry where they make thousands of the same thing, they have quality control that is rigorous, that checks everything, you know, and that has a way of chasing out flaws. And here we are in this weird business where every single one we do is different. Every building’s a prototype. You know, and we don’t have rigorous quality control standards quite frankly.
Robb: 11:48 So for you, are you and your projects are getting to a point where every Building is not a prototype, that there’s enough, I don’t want to say standardization, but similar systems that it’s getting easier?
Jesse: 12:05 You’re getting back to the talk you saw about the stealth passive house and that’s what we were really talking about is that, so here we are, we’re architects. We aren’t building scientists, we aren’t researchers. We aren’t on that field. We’re trying to design beautiful buildings that our clients love. And then we got into this, trying to make better buildings technically, and I would say yes on the multifamily buildings. We tried out a bunch of things four or five years ago and we’ve settled into for buildings of a certain scale, a thing that kind of works. And it has quieted down where we’re starting to draw the same wall every time. We’re starting to think the ventilation systems are probably pretty similar, and it’s allowed us to focus on architecture a little bit more again, because we maybe are a little bit over that technical hump where we can, yeah, it is funny. We can look at a building if it’s in the two to four stories tall, wood frame, four to five stories tall on in the Northeast like Oh we can make that, we can get that to passive house. Throw a six, eight, 10 story building at us and we’ll be pretty lost. We arent big city architects. But if you’re in wood frame five stories max, Yeah, I could probably rattle off the five things we need to do to make a building a passive house.
Robb: 13:27 Could you rattle off the five things you need to do to make your building a passive house? Y
Jesse: 13:32 Right. There’s a test, you know, in the Northeast we build out of wood, we are probably a two by six wall with exterior installation. That’s about two to three inches thick. There is probably a roof that’s about, you know, r40 to 50. We are stringently air sealed. We have a heat recovery ventilation system that is either on the roof or at the end of the hallways that’s doing a block of 10 to 15 apartments in one unit and it’s got at least 80% heat recovery on it. Triple glazed windows. Probably if we’re in affordable housing, it’s fiberglass or vinyl. If it’s in a nicer building, you know, it’s just, it’s a nicer triple glazed window. I would say that right there gets us 85-90% of the way. You know, if you’re in a peculiar orientation where you’re all facing West and we’re starting to look really carefully at air conditioning issues, that one is really a tricky one.
Robb: 14:36 Yeah, I was going to ask you about heating and cooling. Is there a standard for that, for this kind of building typology?
Jesse: 14:44 Well, if you’re doing a really, really good building, I think one of the things that’s been so funny for us is you know, these intricate technical programs like passive house are hard to kind of get your arms around. And one of the ways I think that was really, really effective for us was I, I went back to kind of some of the first stuff I ever learned and they said, Oh, passive house, it’s a heating load of one watt per square foot. And that kinda stuck for me. I was like, okay, wait. All right, I get this. Like a bedroom is a 10 by 10 in affordable housing, a hundred square feet. So a hundred watt light bulb, heats a bedroom on the worst day of the year. Okay. I can get my head around that. Like, yeah, you’ve got a 600 square foot apartment and you need 600 Watts of heat. Yeah, okay. That’s like that little portable heater they use on construction sites. or you might use in your attic like, Oh 600 watt heater. Like that’s the heating system for that apartment. And that was kind of this radical thing of what’s the thing that can keep an apartment warm? And that gets you down to this funny realization that you can do it with electric resistance. You know, electric baseboard like they did in the Pacific Northwest works pretty awesome in a passive house and it’s super simple. And how’s the thermostat? But you know, it doesn’t air condition your building, but that’s the territory you’re in. It’s just this crazy jump down. But that was funny for me was having this thing stuck in my head of, Oh, it should be about one watt per square foot. Like I can talk to a mechanical engineer about it and I’m not a mechanical engineer, I’m just an architect.
Jesse: 16:18 But I can like ask them, are we close to that? And they, they should be able to give me that number. You know, that sort of plain talk has been part of it of like, Oh, these buildings should be one watt per square foot, which is radically tiny. I mean it just this minuscule amount of heat.
Robb: 16:41 Yeah. It’s a big game changer. It really, it really is.
Jesse: 16:44 It’s just so tiny. It’s hard to wrap your head around it.
Robb: 16:47 I agree. Yeah. And we’ve seen, you know, we’ve had success with really very efficient, very efficient buildings without needing to distribute heat, you know, a point source heater and a central space. You know, you turn on the light and a bedroom and the gains from a person being in the bedroom heats the bedroom. It’s a game changer.
Jesse: 17:07 And so that takes you to air conditioning. So if you can heat a building with a hundred watt light bulb, boy, it must not be that hard to overheat. Is it? Huh? Like point that window towards the sunset on August and yeah, you could probably get kind of hot in there. Even in Maine or Northern Vermont, right? Yeah. So even in Maine, you must be seeing more need for air conditioning in passive house. Yeah, and I guess of course it’s not just passive house. Everybody’s got air conditioners now. All my neighbors have air conditioners even in Maine now, and they didn’t in the 70s. So that’s just changed across the board where people’s expectations are different, I think than they used to be. But in apartment buildings in Maine with the worry that summers are going to get even hotter coming up. Yeah. I think we need to be planning for air conditioning in every apartment building.
Robb: 18:01 And are you? Even affordable housing where that has not been standard? Are they coming to a realization that maybe they need to?
Jesse: 18:10 They very much want to. There are pretty severe budget limits in our state that are, we’re still going without. But I think if you talked to any affordable housing developer in Northern New England and asked them, on your new buildings, are you running into overheating? And they will probably nod and say, yeah, we’ve had some real struggles like high humidity. I mean are you seeing it? This isn’t the passive house thing. This is just a new building thing in Northern new England. People are getting over heating in their apartment buildings.
Robb: 18:47 And so are you going to heat pumps? I’ve even seen some projects with window air conditioners, that are borderline passive house.
Jesse: 19:00 I mean, we’re definitely trying to do heat humps because they’re so much better. They use so much less electricity than electric resistance. We are a pretty frugal state. I mean people are being asked to build buildings in the $160 to $170 a square foot range for affordable housing. And today that’s pretty, pretty tough to build anything for that cost in our area. But it’s the best the target the state agencies are asking people to work for. So there are just these huge budget challenges in 2019 building anything. But so that aside we have heat pumps and then we’ve got these engineers we work with who are pushing us really, really hard to go back to hydronics and to go back to hot and cold water loops instead of heat pumps, which is kind of interesting.
Jesse: 19:50 well, what are their reasons?
Jesse: 19:54 Their reasons are interesting. One of their main reasons is they say, so the refrigerant, whatever we’re using now, and I don’t know what refrigerant we use now, they say we’ve been through like three refrigerant changes in the last 30 years and we’re probably got another one. So owner, you’re going to put a thing in your building where all the stuff that makes it work is going to be obsolete and probably illegal in another 10 years. So there’s a little bit of a planned obsolescence. They are also pushing us that they are saying, you know, these heat pumps might only be a 20 year life span. That they just aren’t expected to last very long as pieces of machinery. And when you have a 40 unit building and you’ve got a whole lot of these machines that can get pretty complicated and it’s hard to downsize them far enough still and refrigerant leakage, they, I mean, they sort of rattle off these reasons. And they’re pushing us to go back to the sort of very simple fan coil systems of a hot water loop and a Coldwater loop because they’re saying, okay, so you changed the box on the outside of the building, but you only change one of them and it, if it fails in 20 years, you put a new magic super efficient thing that didn’t exist when you design the building. But it’s still water running through the building. It’s still, it’s like it’s future proof is what they say. So that’s been kind of interesting push.
Robb: 21:09 We’re seeing that too. And there’s no silver bullet. I mean he pumps can work great. I have tested many. I’ve tested many that have not, I’ve tested many that have worked great. The durability, the long term viability, the refrigerant phase out, the refrigerant leakage. Those are all big question marks that I don’t know that anybody has a perfect answer to. But yeah, as far as, I mean, as far as first cost for heating and cooling, with a single system, it seems in buildings with very modest loads, it seems like, it seems like that would be appealing. Is, is that accurate for your clients?
Jesse: 21:54 Yeah, the clients I think are pretty happy to have someone who seems to know what they’re doing pushing for something. And I think they do have, most people have hot water baseboard buildings that seem to work pretty well. They may not love the costs they get them, but they don’t think of them as failing. The buildings they own here in our area. And yes, a lot of clients want to not be using fossil fuels and they probably, you know, okay, I guess there’s a gas system running that and that’s not great.
Robb: 22:23 But For now. You know that that plant might be able to be replaced with a much more efficient, lower carbon emission device.
Jesse: 22:38 Yeah. Easier than retrofitting a 40 unit building and ripping out all the heat pumps.
Robb: 22:41 This is true. This is true. It’s, it’s not crazy.
Jesse: 22:45 So yeah, we’ve, we’ve got a building right now that’s a 65 unit building and we are looking at electric resistance heat and a cooling loop that runs through the whole building. And it, it’s only gonna air condition in the living room, living spaces. It’s not going to air condition the bedrooms. That’s how we’re going to keep costs down. And we’re gonna have one little tiny fan coil and the living room of every apartment. So it’s affordable housing. And so, you know, your living room will be nice and cool and if it’s a really hot night, you’re going to keep your bedroom doors open, turn on a fan. And I think, you know, we’re looking at, it seems to be like, ah, it’s like 320 it’s like $5,000 a unit to get this system into the whole building. And it’s definitely cheaper than a VRF fancy computer controlled commercial heat pump system.
Robb: 23:34 Yup. Yeah. And so there’s a central chiller, is there?
Jesse: 23:38 A central chiller. Yup
Robb: 23:39 Okay. So, yeah, totally viable. It’s frustrating to have loads that are so small and still still struggle to find really simple.
Jesse: 23:49 And the other thing our engineers love is like when you only need a tiny, tiny bit of heating and cooling, a water system can deliver a tiny little bit of heating and cooling. Infinitely small. I can just keep going and they’re persuasive folks and you know, okay. We’ll try it. But yeah, I mean it is. Yeah, you’re right. Cause it is this funny thing where you end up in these bizarre little rabbit hole conversations. The great thing is, is that we’re just seeing that the, if you can pull off these passive house buildings, they’re just so incredibly economical to run. Yeah. The first one we did that we have measured numbers and it’s like $60 per apartment per month, heating, cooling, hot water, and absolutely everything. All electric bills, like every single bit of energy, $60 a month to run an apartment. That’s, that’s amazing. Very happy clients. And they also say that the costs are much closer to the modeled expectation than all the LEED buildings and all of the other like performance programs they try, they’re saying it, you know, these passive house buildings are running closer to what the, the fancy design teams told them it might be than any other system. Much less variance, which I think is interesting. It gets back to that testing, you know that like, it’s about the only program that forces you to test the damn building and find out if it worked or not. And then if it triggers Energy Star, so you have to do all the energy star or the energy star stuff is the great stuff.
Robb: 25:28 So the energy star for homes, with the kind of the quality control throughout the construction design and construction process.
Jesse: 25:36 Yeah. Somebody like looking at the installation, looking at the building and staring at every wall. That’s, that’s the great testing. That’s where owners get hit. There’s so much money out of that. So much value out of that for the money they spend.
Robb: 25:48 And they appreciate that?
Jesse: 25:49 I hope so. It sure is about the biggest bang for the buck they’re getting.
Robb: 26:00 Did the owners see that or are they kind of a little bit divorced from that whole process where, you know, insulators are being called out or air sealers are being called out about something.
Jesse: 26:12 I mean, they’re definitely getting these memos that are usually saying like, Hey, somebody didn’t do something right and we caught it. You gotta appreciate that.
Robb: 26:23 We do a lot of ratings and some people are only in it for the incentive. Others utility incentives. So I have to hire a rater. Ugh. It’s like, you know, they’re not happy. But then we have some clients repeat clients who, who really do see the value in, you know, that layer of quality control that they’re not, they wouldn’t be getting otherwise. I mean, code building inspectors, they don’t, they can’t get into that level of detail. The code doesn’t get into that level of detail.
Jesse: 26:58 Yeah, it’s really interesting. And yeah, it’s been a funny journey over the last years, but we are definitely to the point where we’re starting to work on a lot of buildings all over. So we managed to have success early on in Maine with sort of a passive house building that was a decent scale. And now we’ve got calls from New Hampshire and Connecticut and Massachusetts and Maine and we’re doing projects all over and a lot of it is being driven by affordable housing and state agencies saying you know, we will score projects well in our competitive rounds that try that pledge to make a passive house. And so we’ve got folks calling us. So it’s pretty great because it’s seeing a lot of better buildings getting built really quickly.
Robb: 27:46 Excellent. So is really most of your business high performance if not certified or going in that direction?
Jesse: 27:56 Yeaah, yeah, it is. Absolutely. I think our business is I would say it’s half single family homes, new in renovation. And another chunk of multifamily. The multifamily is not the biggest thing we do. I’d really say it’s, it’s homes for people is the biggest thing we do. We also do a bunch of restaurant work and high performance restaurant work is, that’s a weird one. Yeah. So everything we’re doing is high performance.We have pledged to the AIA’s climate change goals and we’ve signed on that this idea that everything we do will be carbon neutral by 2030, which is a little scary cause that’s only 11 years away. But yeah, I think we know what looking at, we actually measure every project we do and we check it against the targets. And last year I think we had like on average 70% reduction over sort of the American baseline on projects across the board. We’re definitely getting some kind of amazing successes I think by this focus.
Robb: 29:02 That’s a pretty cool statistic right there. That’s awesome.
Jesse: 29:06 And you know, admittedly we don’t tackle the super hard things like college laboratories, you know, or hospitals, things that are crazily energy intensive. But We’ve definitely figured some things out. I think it feels like, and trying to spread the word.
Robb: 29:24 Absolutely. And your single family clients, did they come to you because they want high performance?
Jesse: 29:33 Well, it’s definitely something that we tell people we do. And I mean our tagline is beautiful, sustainable, attainable. So I’m sure we are definitely attracting folks who are looking for it. But yeah, I think to us, every house we do should be able to be net zero. If it isn’t, we must be doing something wrong. And honestly, the single family houses, I guess we were talking to a minute ago, multifamily is still in this really huge learning curve moment It feels like where a lot of people are trying a lot of things. And I hope in 10 years we look back and it’ll be a solved problem. To us, the single family is kind of looking like a bit of a solved problem. Like it’s not particularly hard to make a net zero home, a heat pump water heater, some air source heat pumps, make the walls r30 to r40 and air seal it well and you’ve probably got a net zero home. Like, you know, it’s nuts. Net Zero energy just isn’t very hard with single family homes. Solving the transportation, you know, there’s plenty of other hard things about it, but that, that part should be pretty easy.
Robb: 30:42 Yeah, yeah. I agree. Single-family new construction is one of the easiest things to do, yeah.
Jesse: 30:49 But 15 years ago it wasn’t, I mean it was a complete like head-scratcher. But in 2019, yeah, it’s like, you know, when I, when I’m out in the world talking or something and someone starts asking about like, well, what wall assembly are you using? And it’s like, look, it’s 2019, if you can’t Google five high performance wall systems, you’re not trying. Like you don’t need me to tell you what wall to do here. Just Google it.
Robb: 31:15 That’s cool to hear that, that we’ve gotten there. I mean I dont hear that enough, but I agree it’s becoming more and more understood. Well understood more and more. You know, you look at, you look at details, you look at sections, you see their ceiling. I mean that’s part of sets now. I mean that’s, people know that they have to pay attention to that stuff.
Jesse: 31:47 Go do what building science Corp says to do. Okay. Oh, you don’t want to use foam? Okay. Go do what the other people say to do. Okay.Yeah, there’s lots of resources out there in single-family world, but the multifamily is complicated. You have lots of different users with crazily different needs. You have urban sites, you have bigger scale. You’ve got different machinery. And yeah, and a really tough cost environment so it’s, yeah, it’s not quite a solved problem yet, but it feels like we’re getting closer.
Robb: 32:16 Yeah. You feel like you guys have your own method for a specific building type a, but industry wide you’re not seeing that become standardized?
Jesse: 32:27 No, I don’t think so. And I guess that’s why the stealth passive house talk, I felt like we were really trying to push people on a couple key things that were really eye opening for us. And one was that we’ve really been working hard to reverse this idea that passive house is about really thick insulation. And that’s why we’re so focused on really get the ventilation right and then work on the air ceiling. And honestly, you’ve probably done 70% of the heavy lifting at that point. And when we we’re doing these energy models and we first saw it and we were sort of turning all these dials, it was kind of this amazing thing that it was like the installation wasn’t doing the work. And I was like, I couldn’t really get it at first. And then I was sitting with a mechanical engineer. I said, okay, wait, so you’ve got like 50 cubic feet per minute in an apartment is like the ventilation rate. So you’ve got 50 cubic feet coming in, 50 cubic feet coming out, you’ve got a 40 unit building. Like okay, yeah, so you have 2000 cubic feet of air moving 24 hours a day, 100% of the time. I was like, that sounds like a lot of air. They’re like, yeah, that’s a lot of air. Like this is a tornado blowing through the building 24 hours a day, and then we first did these building, we stood next to the machine that was moving air. It’s like, wow, that machine is working really hard. Like you’re right. There was a lot of air moving through this building. It was like, and then it was this idea that apartment buildings have a lot of people living in close proximity and there’s a lot of air moving through there to keep the building fresh and healthy and there’s a wind blowing through the building. So if you have a really good heat recovery box, you are absolutely doing the right thing. Just cause the quantity of air moving. You know, that’s the biggest driving force and that’s why you have to have really, really good heat recovery stuff.
Robb: 34:17 Yeah Infiltration and ventilation. Certainly the biggest, the biggest pieces.
Jesse: 34:22 And after that, you know, make sure you don’t do them. Things like connects steel from the inside to the outside. Make sure you’re totally thermally broken with at least, you know, r10 to r15 to r20 and you’re probably getting there. And the other funny thing that we realized is that every project team is just used to fighting over insulation. I guess just this classic thing you do, like you designed the building, it’s over budget. You take all the insulation off the building, and it’s this ritual dance where like the contractor knows that you do that first and everybody’s used to it. And so we were kind of realizing that you can’t do that with air sealing. You can’t look at the owner and say we need to air seal it a lot less. We’re going to save you money because you know, if you look at them and you say, well, okay, so how much money and how much less better are you gonna make it? Or if they say like, Oh, all that air, something’s going to cost a lot of shit. Well what do I get for free? They don’t always have a good answer about what they get for free because most people can’t quantify it. So you get this very different cost reduction question when if someone says like, Oh, that passive house air ceiling is really expensive. It’s like, okay, well then give us only half passive house.
Robb: 35:46 What is that Jessie?
Jesse: 35:48 Exactly they don’t know either. So it’s been a different thing where everybody knows how to take triple glazed windows out of a project. Everyone knows how to take half the insulation off a building. Yeah. It’s like everybody’s good at that. So when you can do these buildings that have code levels of insulation, there’s nothing left to take.
Robb: 36:06 Right, right. Yeah. And I’ve seen it, you know, code levels of insulation with the rigorous air sealing and the excellent ventilation get you to passive house levels.
Jesse: 36:17 Yeah. Especially the bigger the building gets, right? The bigger the building, the more the forces are going in that direction. So yeah, it’s been really interesting for us. It’s been taking the focus off and that’s what I had been going, you know, if I’m talking to folks about one thing, it’s this, it’s like your, your ventilation equipment that your engineers doing is probably nowhere near good enough.
Jesse: 36:35 Like you really need really good stuff so that the folks aren’t freezing in their bedrooms. Again, someone explained to me, So if you buy a 50% effective ventilation unit and it’s zero out and 70 inside, the air coming into your bedroom is 35 degrees. That’s pretty cold. Like I don’t want to be 50% of the way to zero, but if you’re 85% efficient, you know, that air coming in the bedroom is at 60, Oh 60 that sounds a lot better. And those kinds of levers are things that are really worth working on that if you, cause if you stop at 50 and you do that standard stuff, you don’t get the benefits.
Jesse: 37:16 Yeah. That’s good. You’ve learned, you’ve learned the buttons to push a little bit too.
Jesse: 37:24 Yeah. I mean, you know, half of it is these funny little like tidbits you just put in a meetings. I do think the big thing that’s going to change is when people start asking for great ventilation systems in their apartments. So when condo buyers start asking about like, Oh, so what kind of ventilation system does this apartment have? You know, that’s when the market turns inside condominiums when people really start asking. And I think it’s when people become really attuned about asthma and urban environments with their kids. And you know, that’s, that sort of health consciousness is what’s gonna really change. Another piece of construction in America is when homeowners and you know, that’s what I really would tell to every homeowner who’s even thinking about buying a house or a condo. Like, Oh, what’s going to get me fresh air in the bedrooms when my kids are sleeping? And is it going to be filtered?
Robb: 38:19 I’m not arguing that that would be a really a change. But are you, are you even starting to see that? I’m not sure that we see that in any scale.
Jesse: 38:30 I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think it’s coming pretty soon because we had a building recently. And it was a condominium project. So the realtor was in the building and you know, the team was really struggling. They were like, why do you keep saying we need to have this ventilation system. They really looked at us and they said, no one else in town is doing this. Why do you say we have to do this? And you say things like, cause it will work and the other thing they’re doing doesn’t work. And they really didn’t like that answer cause they were selling the other thing. And finally the realtor did say, she’s like, you know, a lot of these buyers are really health conscious. She’s like, I think I can sell that. I can tell people that there’s a feature that you have fresh filtered air in all the rooms of your apartment. And I think people will buy this over the other thing.
Robb: 39:15 So she like came around just in one, in one kind of meeting with you.
Jesse: 39:21 Oh no it wasnt one, it was like 6. Six of us trying every single trick we had to try to convince them to do it, but it was, that was the one where she finally said like, yeah, that I can do. That we’ll get that will bring people around. Cause she just had two young kids and she was thinking about it, but she was thinking about her own house all of a sudden. So yeah. But it is person by person. Yes. A giant marketing campaign would be wonderful by the American Fresh Air Society or someone.
Robb: 39:45 That’ll be a big step. SoI usually wrap up with like asking, you know, what are we going to see five years down the road? But you already started us on this line of conversation. Do you think that, you know, that we’re going to see more high performance as far as efficiency, as far as sustainability, as far as carbon emissions being driven by health concerns on the residential side?
Jesse: 40:15 I don’t know, cause I’m no sort of trend master or anything like that. I do know that all the health stuff sweeps through everybody, you know, like gluten free sweeps through the country. You know, these things do catch fire. I think the work in the affordable housing community and the take up of passive house is really amazing and it’s, it seems to be happening really quickly, where, yeah, it’s changing an industry really fast and I think we’ll get some really good buildings coming out of the next 5 to 10 years in that sector. And then I think other building owners, I think university dormitories are happening pretty quickly. They’re jumping on it as well. Yup. People who own buildings a long time are hearing that there’s a thing out there that seems to be working pretty well. So that group of folks I think is catching on pretty quick. Cool. Yeah. Cool.
Robb: 41:15 Thank you Jesse. Thanks very much. If you want to hear more from Jesse on this and you can make it to Portland, Maine later in October, Jesse’s going to be talking about the IAQ and energy conference on October 31, Halloween 2019 I’ve been to that conference a several times and it’s a really, really good conference. I will probably be there. There’s a link on our website or you can go to IAQ and energy.com everything spelled out, a N D spelled out. Also, if there are any multifamily ventilation geeks listening, there’s a proposed amendment to ASHRAE standards 62.2 that’s the standard that deals with residential ventilation and this amendment would limit where exhaust only ventilation could be used in multifamily buildings. The idea is this would get more fresh air getting to dwelling spaces more consistently. That amendment is open for comment until October 21st I believe 2019 we’ll put a link on our website or you can find more details on ashrae.org thanks.
Speaker 4: 42:31 Thank you for listening to buildings and beyond. For more information about the topics discussed today. Visit www dot [inaudible] dot com slash podcast and check out the episode show notes. Buildings and beyond is brought to you by Steven winter associates. We provide energy, green building and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment our professionals have led the way since 1972 and the development of best practices to achieve high performance buildings. Our production team for today’s episode includes Dylan Martello, Alex [inaudible], and myself. Heather Breslin, thank you for listening and we’ll see you next week.