Culture & Challenges of Passive House

We are working in our office on several projects that are Passive House retrofits of older buildings;
McKeesport Downtown Housing (a former YMCA into housing for people at risk for homelessness); a single-family houseHilltop Community Health (an adaptive reuse of a former school gymnasium into a community health clinic); and Hazelwood Library (another adaptive reuse of a former social hall into a library). In Europe the conventional wisdom for meeting Passive House in retrofits is to cover the building in an insulation sweater that separates all of the thermal bridges from the weather in one continuous layer. When Passive House caught on in Europe and people started applying the principles of super-insulation and air-tightness in older buildings there were some spectacular failures, leading to the idea that the best way to meet Passive House is to insulate from the outside. In the time we've been working on retrofits we totally agree with this approach, but we see that there are many problems using it in North America. In our four projects only the single-family house is being insulated from the outside and we happen to be the developer for that one so it's not a fair test. In Europe there is a rich and plentiful supply of older buildings; the idea of permanence and buildings that last for centuries is everywhere and there is a culture that is dedicated to producing high quality design. In the United States our market is driven by the bottom-line. Most buildings are considered primarily from the standpoint of budget. Longevity in buildings is seen in twenty-year increments and architectural design is not universally prized in buildings. When you have a brick building, at least in Pittsburgh, it is a hard sell to ask the owner to cover over a material that represents superior quality already. Covering limestone or brick masonry with foam and synthetic stucco in most cases is not going to fly. Budgets frequently do not allow for a new cladding if an intact cladding already exists. A new cladding can easily account for almost 5% to 10% of a modest budget and many projects do not have the resources for this choice. In addition, many of the buildings we are working on have a culturally perceived historic value. They may not be on the historic register but they are valued for their quality and detail. In some newer cities like Los Angeles or Miami this may not be as much of a challenge but it is definitely true in the northeast, mid-Atlantic, and mid-Western states.

So, we need to roll up our sleeves and get busy planning and reinventing methods of project delivery and schedules in evaluating these older and treasured structures.