KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid!)

Renovating Existing Building Stock - Remember KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)

... or, A Takeaway from the PHIUS Conference

I spent the end of last week in Washington DC at the PHIUS conference. The PHIUS conference was, as always, packed with a host of fascinating insights. This conference has a great group of people who are all pioneers or early adopters of Passive House in their fields, and who are bound together by that common vision. Many of us go there to recharge and be energized by a conference full of enthusiasts, who, like us, are anxious to raise the bar, even if it is only in the tiny slice of our sphere of influence. Being together with like-minded people is cathartic. The experience refocuses us and encourages us to go back into the trenches and try harder. We have all drunk the Passive House Kool-Aid; being together is validating and recharges us to go out and spread the word some more. 

It is clear that we as a community are feeling pretty confident that we have started to conquer understanding how to create energy efficient buildings and many of us are looking for what comes next. It is clear that the embodied energy of materials is the next frontier, the next shiny thing to learn about. We are realizing that saving embodied energy in materials is every bit as important as saving operational energy in buildings, but we are just now grappling with how to introduce this piece of knowledge into the work. We need to reduce energy use in all of our actions, including the specification of materials. This is the critical next step.  The conference keynotes given by Zack Semke and Jeremy Rifkin described the dire circumstance that we find ourselves in, but refocused us away from our fear, and back to the knowledge that we still possess the ability to turn this situation around with viable pathways forward.  

But the highlight of the conference for me came in a presentation by Marc Rosenbaum in the last time slot of the conference. I believe that the conference organizers place some of the rock stars in the last sessions to keep the attendees from leaving too early. Marc is one of those rock stars.  His talk was about a project – the Plainfield School in Plainfield, NH – in a community where Marc had lived. 

The original school was very poorly designed, complete with thermal bridges, moisture-and-mold-promoting wall assemblies, and overly complex and ineffective mechanical systems. There were 20-degree swings in temperature within the building, the envelope was failing, and the mechanical systems were at the end of their useful lives. The Plainfield School was the most important asset in a community that was not a poor community but was far from affluent. Marc and several other community members with construction expertise gave their time to turn this project around.  With a very modest budget, and armed with powerful insight and knowledge, they were able to identify the essential steps that needed to be accomplished. Without a fat architectural drawing set available, only detailed and relevant sketches from their informal team were handed directly to their workforce. The workforce was small, independent, one and two man outfits cobbled together from the community of carpenters and handymen. They were able, step by step, to radically alter the performance of the building, give it a new look, and recover the asset for the school all with a reasonable budget. It didn’t happen all at once, but happened over years in the summers while the students were on break. It was not a gut renovation and it didn’t rise to the level of any certification. Marc didn’t mention an energy model. He was able to do the necessary calculations that were warranted in the work. They used a blower door and a smoke machine to ferret out the myriad of existing problems. It is important to realize that this project represents the work of highly skilled and experienced professionals, who were able to target issues with a laser focus.  

Marc reviewed the new details with us, pointing out where the thermal bridges remained, and where the details were improved, but they were far from perfect. They did the best they could, with what they had. Let me repeat that ... they did the best they could, with what they had. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t glamorous, it isn’t award winning, it isn’t for the magazines, but that was just the point. By combining their expertise and keeping it simple and stealth, the team was able to make a huge impact on the community and significantly turn the school around for a very modest amount of money. They bypassed architects and general contractors. They worked on one building component at a time, over years. But at the end of the process they had turned a liability into an asset and changed its environmental profile. The school is perfect, in its imperfection. It is the model for how we need to consider many of the renovations in existing building stock. 

What is significant about this project is not the end result but the process and approach. As someone who has been an advocate for the need to address the energy efficiency of existing building stock it has often seemed like an overwhelming prospect. Take a look out the window of an airplane and wonder how in the hell we going to retrofit all of those buildings, and yet that is exactly what needs to happen. Can we do a set of architectural drawings, create an energy model, and get permits for each one of them? Can we vacate them and refurbish their envelopes with a general contractor?  We all know the answer… and that is what scares us. We need to do things differently. We need to keep the process simple.

My retrofit projects have all been gut renovations, and let’s face it, we are not going to empty every existing building in the U.S. to upgrade it to be a high-performance building as we did in those projects…so how do we do it? While we keep on our unending quest for increased knowledge and perfection in all of our design decisions we need to keep in mind that we simply do not have the time to perfect each one of our existing buildings. There are countless buildings out there that can benefit from taking a step by step approach like the one that Marc used at the Plainfield School. There were no bells, no whistles, no awards, and no certifications, and we need to be okay with that. There was only ingenuity, knowledgeable and exacting decision making, a stealth team, and cooperation toward a common goal. There was an intention to keep it minimal on all fronts. There was not an ounce of overreaching; there was much self-restraint. This project is not going to wind up in anyone’s portfolio. It was, however, the most effective approach to the retrofit of existing building stock that I have ever seen, and I believe that it represents a germ of an idea for a viable pathway forward for existing buildings. Marc concluded his presentation by saying this is what needs to happen – and he is right. 

Marc’s presentation reminded me about a comment Phil Dole, one of my late professors from architecture school, made to me. In studio one day Phil wrote KISS on one of my drawings. The drawing was admittedly overdesigned and overwrought. I couldn’t imagine why Phil would write KISS on my drawing and with his famous blue-eyed twinkle he looked at me and said, “Keep it simple stupid. Simple solutions are always the best solutions Laura.” I have realized many times how true those word are. Marc is essentially saying the same thing. Keep the process and the solution simple. 

As I headed back home to Pittsburgh from the conference, I imaged a future that allows us to tackle the challenge of existing buildings by implementing KISS. I can imagine a group of stealth decision makers identifying the needs for each structure and implementing the lessons of restraint, laser focus, and minimalism from Marc’s presentation. I can envision a world where teams of professionals examine the buildings in their communities and arrive at solutions to solve the pressing problems for each building owner in manageable phases over time. Think of the possibilities that come from training part of the workforce in carpentry and the other essential skills of the building trades so that they can be part of the teams that dedicate their time to retrofitting the buildings in their community. Perhaps common solutions will emerge for retrofitting the mistakes from the past without breaking the bank, and these can be shared and adapted for different regions, building types, and climates. This might even help bring us together and heal some of the divide that we feel in our communities as we work together toward a common goal. This grass roots approach to existing buildings is exactly what we need. Marc’s presentation gave me hope about an approach that we can take to get where we need to go. If we become mobilized over the next few years there is an amazing amount that can be accomplished over time. With a little help from local legislation and supportive policy decisions we just might be able to do it.