This story is featured in the October issue of Seattle magazine. Subscribe here to access the print edition.
In 2013, Sloan Ritchie chose Tony and the traditional Madison Park as the launch pad for an ambitious building science experiment.
He and his wife, Jennifer, have deliberately chosen a bold exterior design for their brand house, to which the neighbors have turned collective noses.
One of them went so far as to tell Ritchie that he didn’t like what he was doing with the house. Ritchie, an environmentalist, later wished he had replied that he didn’t like what the man was doing with his furnace.
“I think we as Americans are overly consuming resources. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, ”says Ritchie, whose home was the first in Seattle to be built to certified passive house standards.
Neighbors came when they learned more about passive house technology, as did Seattle, which is the epicenter of a booming movement started in Germany in 1991 and widely deployed across Europe.
Proponents describe passive house technology as one of the last big chances of mitigating damage from climate change, as buildings account for around 40% of all CO2 emissions. Heating and cooling inefficiencies are the cause of most of these emissions.
A passive house is both waterproof like a tick and cozy like an insect in a carpet. Thoughtful design, high-tech windows, an impenetrable mantle and triple insulation produce a structure that uses 80% to 90% less energy than the average home and 50% less than current Washington energy codes for new construction .
A radio frequency engineer by training, Ritchie switched channels for a career in construction. He was dismayed to learn that the vast majority of Seattle builders do not exceed the minimum energy code requirements.
As the owner of Seattle-based Cascade Built, Ritchie went on to build the city’s first certified passive house townhouse. The company was also the general contractor for the 32-unit Pax Futura, the city’s first apartment building certified by the Passive House Institute US, or PHIUS.
Cascade Built recently completed Ellie Passivhaus at 320 Queen Anne Ave. N., the largest certified passive house project in Seattle to date.
Ritchie was the only builder to testify in favor of the improved energy codes passed by the Washington legislature in 2018.
A wide range of building organizations and lobbyists have aligned themselves against him. These new codes, which improve energy efficiency by perhaps 10%, won’t come into effect until 2024, and only then because Gov. Jay Inslee stepped in and forced implementation, Ritchie says. “I am happy that the new requirements have been met. It’s something. It is important. I just hope it’s not too late.
Ritchie’s house sips store-bought electricity with its little finger in the air. The efficiency of a passive house is such that solar gain, body heat, light bulbs and ordinary appliances produce much of the energy needed to keep it warm even on the most unpleasant winter’s eve.
The house is sealed for freshness. In winter, a mechanical recovery system takes heat from the exhaust air and mixes it with incoming fresh air which is distributed throughout the house via small, discreet vents. The process is reversed in summer to cool the house.
Mechanical systems remove moisture from Seattle’s humid climate, creating a mold-free environment. Residents of passive houses report a variety of other health incentives, ranging from reduced joint pain to asthma remission.
“I haven’t had any allergy issues since moving here,” says Ritchie, who discovered another benefit when he inserted a special filter to remove pet smoke last year.
Ritchie built pioneer Green Built and Platinum LEED homes before settling on a passive house for his family. He started construction with typical 2 x 6 wall studs and I-joists attached to create a 15-inch cavity for insulation.
From a builder’s perspective, a big part of the challenge is learning how to use various materials such as special sealants and gaskets to mercilessly end air penetration and other thermal bridges. A passive house has 10 times less drafts than most new houses.
It might sound intimidating, but Ritchie insists it’s not a complex system. The biggest obstacle to the wider acceptance of technology is fear of the unknown.
“The barrier is in the mindset, having the courage to do it and stick with it,” says Ritchie. “The technical challenges are not that great. “
Cascade Built ensures that all passive house projects are certified.
“Green laundering” is a problem in the construction industry, with contractors who have done little or nothing beyond the minimum code making false claims, Ritchie notes. “The term of the day could be ‘super efficient’ or ‘super green’. You also see projects advertised as “built using passive house principles,” but when you ask for details, they can’t come up with anything specific. “
Interest in building passive houses “is growing exponentially,” says Tadashi Shiga, founder of Seattle-based Evergreen Certified, which provides third-party verification for PHIUS. “It’s really booming. There are five multi-family projects going on in Seattle right now. “
In addition to green building support services, Evergreen performs the fogger door and infrared camera tests necessary to certify that a building envelope is truly sealed. The demand is such that the firm recently opened a second office in Tacoma.
Developers can receive many incentives for building passive houses, including accelerated permits in some jurisdictions, and more or less long-term HUD loan rates, adds Shiga. In Seattle, multi-family builders can get permission for an additional floor.
“Passive houses are the best way to achieve net zero,” Shiga says of Seattle’s 2050 sustainability goal.
Most of Seattle’s passive house projects are not yet carbon neutral or carbon positive, in part because space is limited, which does not allow for large solar panels. This can come as new technologies are developed, such as cladding and roofing that incorporate photovoltaic capabilities.
Planning is the most critical step in building a passive house.
“As with everything important in life, make sure you pick the right team,” advises Shiga. “What you don’t want to do is design a house and then say, let’s make it passive. “
The Passive House Architect’s Quiver includes modeling software, building location and orientation, layout, window placement, thermal mass, shading and ventilation. Olympia-based Artisans Group Inc. has designed more single-family homes to meet the Passive House standard than any other US company.
“The excitement is building. We’ve gone from one to two website inquiries a week to two or three a day, ”says Tessa (formerly Smith) Bradley, director of Artisans Group and pioneer of the passive house movement in the North. Where is.
With numerous awards and accolades, her 100% female-owned business has proven that elegant design and cutting-edge building science can coexist. Many customers are drawn to passive house technology for lower energy bills and carbon footprint, but end up delighted with the unparalleled comfort and sense of well-being that result from a focused design. on the envelope, she said.
“It’s a bit like wearing a big wool sweater without having to wear a big wool sweater,” she adds.
Like Ritchie, Bradley has extensive experience in green building and LEED. But passive house technology stands out.
There are no cold spots in a passive house, even standing by a window on a freezing day. For example, a room with a 14-foot vaulted ceiling recorded 70 degrees at ground level and 69 degrees at the top, Bradley says. The thick shell filters out stressful noise pollution and the ventilation system provides a constant flow of healthy air.
“I hear a lot of comments like ‘My child has no more asthma’ or ‘I stop drinking coffee in the morning because I wake up more rested,’ ‘Bradley says.
“We keep talking about eating organic and playing sports, but we spend very little time talking about how the house we live in affects our health,” she notes. “Covid is pushing a lot of people to rethink this. We spend 90% of our life indoors. If you did nothing but live in a passive house, it would improve your health exponentially.
Many builders were initially scared off by passive house technology, which resulted in “wacky” offers, she says. As education and experience increase, builders and customers alike are turning to the pragmatism, longevity, ease of use and cost effectiveness of passive house living.
Several years ago, Belgium made passive house standards mandatory for all new commercial construction,
yet commercial buildings constructed to passive house standards are virtually non-existent in the United States. Passive houses are different from other eco-friendly building systems, such as Platinum LEED.
“Platinum LEED construction would most likely cost more because there is a broader approach to environmental stewardship, such as the emphasis on using recycled content and native plantations,” says Zack Semke, director of Seattle-based Passive House Accelerator founded in 2019.
“With passive house construction, there is a strong correlation between expected and actual performance, which is not always the case in green building systems,” Semke explains. “It’s a very effective way to improve energy efficiency. “
It only costs 3-7% more to build a passive house, as many of the inputs needed, such as additional insulation, are relatively inexpensive, Semke explains. Multi-family structures built to passive house standards cost only 3-5% more.
It has not always been the case. Like solar panels, passive house technology is increasingly affordable and efficient. Windows and special HVAC systems, previously imported from Europe, are now available in the country.
Each week, the accelerator attracts 200 to 300 passionate builders from around the world for its Zoom “Tech Tuesday” seminars.
“The faster we learn from each other’s mistakes and innovations, the faster we can contribute to climate resilience,” says Semke. “Policymakers and the public do not yet understand the magnitude of the benefits created at low cost. We don’t have a lot of time to let it go slowly.