The Architecture of Passive House as Regional Archetypes

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From the the NAPHN Conference 2016 Booklet Passive House Accelerates

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Jonah Stanford of NEEDBASED in New Mexico and Andrew Michler of Baosol in Colorado both designed and live in the first certified Passive Houses in their states. While their climates are similar, they took very different approaches to their designs, provoked by their respective locations. In contemplating these North American Passive Houses, Michler poses the questions: How do these buildings look and work relative to the climate and culture they are in? And how do they add to the conversation of contemporary architecture?

Michler calls this process hyperlocalization: designing an environmentally responsive building by implementing contemporary knowledge and vision while leveraging local assets. Because Passive House is inherently climatically adapted, it serves as a core component in developing the overall massing, transparency, and perforation of a building. Yet, says Michler, accompanying the process of designing in tandem with energy modeling is the multilayer responsibility of crafting a project that reflects social and personal goals and pushes the boundaries of new design possibilities.

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In Santa Fe, Stanford designed his urban infill home and office within the setting of a city made of adobe. His modernist forms and adaptive indoor and outdoor spaces extend the palette of the previous generations of buildings, even sharing the thick walls that define the Southwestern vernacular. But while heavy mass walls have failed to provide adequate comfort at this elevation of 7,000 feet, Passive House methodologies ensure an even interior climate in both harsh winters and dry and hot summers.

Stanford’s core lesson was to avoid what he refers to as the “golden fleece,” in which a wall system has just a few components that try to meet all needs in a high-desert climate of extremes. Instead, he emphasizes designing structure, weather barrier, air barrier, vapor control, finishes, and insulation as discrete elements in the assembly.

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In Colorado, Michler’s serene forest location provides a contemplative backdrop for this home that exemplifies the environmental capacity of Passive House. From the outset, his objective was to use a simple parametric form that both evokes the local foothills and maximizes solar gain. Using existing pines as a boundary, the wedge-shaped building meshes seamlessly with the site, even profiting from the shade the nearby pines provide in summer. Board-and batten siding has the appeal of a mountain cabin; under the skin is a foam-free assembly that is as environmentally significant as the energy savings. In building in the mountains, Michler’s choice of the tempered triple pane windows and highly fire-resistant envelope is well suited for a region likely to experience wildland fire conditions. The elimination of foam greatly enhances the survivability of the building when the inevitable fire comes roaring through.

These are just two examples of how Passive Houses have gone well beyond the Central European vernacular and are very much shaped by their environs. The new generation of Passive Houses is a clear signal that deep energy efficiency is hardly a constraint and instead is an opportunity to design extraordinary buildings.