We know two things are true: we need more housing—1.8 million more people are expected to move to the Puget Sound region before 2050—and our region is falling behind our climate goals, as evidenced by the fires raging across the West Coast and the smoke choking off our ability to breath.

Yet people are still moving here in droves, and why wouldn’t they? Washington State is beautiful, offers economic juggernauts in the form of companies such as Amazon and Microsoft, a continually growing tech community that is powering the innovations that will shape our future. Plus, with a temperate climate, we are likely to be able to deal with the effects of climate change for longer than many other regions.

With potentially millions more people on their way over the next 30 years, we need to build more housing–and if we’re going to meet our climate goals, we need to do so sustainably. Otherwise, we risk merely exacerbating our climate problems–concrete and steel production account for 14% of global emissions to date, and buildings in the US account for about 40% of our total energy use.

Mandating or heavily incentivizing more Passive House buildings in the Pacific Northwest might be the best way to do that, while also helping us to combat the air pollution risks posed by forest fires and other results of climate change.

What is Passive House?

Passive House is an energy standard for high-performance buildings that provides 100% fresh filtered ventilation, uses very little energy–40-60% less energy than a normal building–and requires almost no energy for heating or cooling, significantly reducing the ecological footprint of new buildings.

The five building-science principles that passive buildings are designed with are:

  1. Continuous insulation throughout the building without any ‘thermal bridging’ (places where heat can escape through the insulation
  2. Airtight enclosure, preventing outside air from infiltrating and minimizing conditioned air loss
  3. Balanced heat- and moisture-recovery ventilation that provides 100% fresh, filtered air–something that is critical to address as air pollution rises and the risk of wildfires increases due to climate change.
  4. High-performance windows and doors (triple-paned windows for our region’s climate) with correct solar orientation and shading–they should exploit the sun’s energy for heating purposes and minimize overheating during hot times.
  5. Minimal space conditioning system (e.g., the systems responsible for heating or cooling, or otherwise affecting the spaces in a building), enabled by smart design – this ensures that future work will require smaller and even more efficient systems.

When used together, these design principles result in buildings that are super energy efficient and tightly designed with no excess air or heat escaping. The heat gain from people within the building as well as the electronic appliances – even that of televisions and other low heat appliances–is accounted for and used to heat the space and keep it at a proper level. In conjunction with triple-pane windows, you get buildings that remain at comfortable temperatures year-round with little need for energy intensive heating or cooling. Another favorite feature of passive designed buildings for many tenants is the lack of external noise: the tight design of the buildings makes it so that the sounds of a city, whether sirens, roadways, or anything else are minimized. Add this to extremely low energy bills, and these buildings are a great place to live.

All in all, Passive House buildings provide both security against the impacts of climate change (healthy air, reduced emissions and helping regulate the temperature in case of spikes), as well as a solution to limit the carbon emissions that are driving climate change.

What’s stopping more Passive House?

If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’re thinking; this sounds great! Why aren’t we seeing more of these buildings?

Sadly, we’ve yet to incentivize Passive House design. Instead, Passive House buildings–energy efficient and able to help us reach our region’s climate targets while also providing the housing we need–are often bogged down in a time-consuming and expensive design review process with a ton of subjectivity. Homeowners who want to block projects from happening because they “disrupt neighborhood character” can easily bog down projects, making them too expensive to proceed and ignoring the needs of the city and the plight of renters.

In addition, many of the pieces that Design Review tends to prioritize such as use of brick, modulation, and lots of windows, make buildings significantly less energy efficient. This makes it extremely hard to get Passive House projects through Design Review with City staff and design review board volunteers who are unfamiliar with Passive House permitting.

One example of the challenge of permitting and building Passive House projects is Sound West Group’s 66-unit apartment building proposed at 320 Queen Anne Ave N. Located in the heart of Lower Queen Anne, the building is scheduled to open in January. The project is a Passive House design and was 35% above the Priority Green requirement for Seattle’s permit process in a highly walkable and transit-accessible neighborhood, the kind of project that we need more of to meet our housing and climate goals. The goal of the Priority Green Expedited program is to shorten the time it takes to get a construction permit as long as the building meets strict green building rating standards.

Yet the project spent years stuck in Design Review process before Sound West took over and faced additional challenges even after.

A white six story building with jutting windows.
Sound West Group’s rendering for their Lower Queen Anne Passive House building near the Seattle Center.

Marianne Weber, the Development Manager for Sound West Group said Passive House projects face additional challenges on top of Design Review. “One of the biggest problems is that many contractors don’t know how to build to more rigorous Passive House standard and while the Priority Green process helped with the building permits, it didn’t help with right of way permit, which we needed,” she said.

Another example is Pax Futura, a 35-unit development in Columbia City’s retail corridor, and Seattle’s first Passive House apartments (pictured in the featured image). While this project was able to go through Administrative Design Review, it also took years to be permitted–despite consuming up to 80% less energy to heat and cool the units compared to traditional buildings. These delays add costs to development and disincentivize developers from striving to reach Passive House standards, which is already a challenge. Sloan Ritchie, Cascade Built Founder and Developer for Pax Futura acknowledged this problem: “Even Administrative Design Review with city staff took a lot of time, longer than it should have or than the architect advised us it would take.”

Worse, the Administrative Design Review process killed Pax Futura’s opportunity to be a net-zero energy building. “We proposed a net-zero energy building with about half the energy consumption of a code built four-story multi-family building,” said Ritchie, who is himself a Passive House contractor. “With 50% energy savings from Passive House design, we realized if we used the entire roof as solar panels, we could be net-zero energy. When we talked to the Fire Marshall we agreed to have the solar panels raised above the roof so that they could cut into the roof in case of fire – Administrative Design Review killed this and kept the building from being net zero—even though the building code allows for raised panels.”

All told, Ritchie said that the Administrative Design Review process delayed the project as much as a year and a half, creating additional costs for updated documents with each round of review.

How to incentivize Passive House design

We are in both a climate crisis and a housing crisis: we know we need to prioritize energy-efficient buildings while building a massive amount of housing in our region. One of the best ways to do this is to incentivize Passive House design in our region: we need to exempt Passive House projects from Design Review to achieve this. Developers will take advantage of this significant incentive, encouraging energy-efficient buildings within our region.

Six story gray building with yellow accents on street corner
The Height in Vanouver, BC, is a Passive House certified apartment building. (Creative Commons photo by Lloyd Alter / Treehugger)

“Removing design review would be a great incentive and allow us to build green projects faster and encouraging other developers who aren’t building Passive Houses too, they could save six months, eight months, and a bunch of unnecessary costs,” Ritchie said.

To further expedite needed green buildings, we can expand the Priority Green program. Currently, priority permitting applies only to the building permits and not the master use permitting, as in the case of the Queen Anne Ave project, which had their right of way permit delayed. For that project, Design Review started back in 2016, yet they’re not slated to open their “Priority Green” supported building until 2021. Cities should also consider permitting fast tracks and perhaps amending building codes as necessary to make it simpler for Passive House to meet code without exemptions–we need buildings with fully filtered air and incredibly low energy usage.

To really go all in, we can also look at low-interest loan programs or density bonuses for Passive House projects. Seattle and other municipalities can encourage this whole process by using their authority under local Green New Deal legislation to invest in training to expand our regional capacity for these buildings, as suggested by local Passive House architect Andrew Grant Houston. This also fixes the problem of understanding Passive House; one of the challenges with Design Review is that community members may not be aware or trained on Passive House design, adding to the time it languishes in Design Review. City staff, already familiar with design processes, can be more easily trained up on Passive House specific standards. Sound West’s Weber echoed this. “[The Queen Anne Avenue project] went through four rounds of building comments and I think part of the reason is that the city isn’t aware enough of Passive House projects,” Weber said. “We need to do education.”

The moment we are in is too great for us to allow red-tape filled processes to bog us down, these buildings will still have to meet zoning and permitting standards, but by exempting Passive House buildings from Design Review, we can ensure these projects become the standard for the region and that our new housing is built with energy-efficient design. With a rising need for housing and more energy-efficient buildings, we cannot afford to wait.

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Conor Bronsdon (Guest Contributor)

Conor Bronsdon is a consultant at Olive & Goose specializing in applying technology to social challenges. He serves as the Legislative Action Chair of the Washington Blockchain Coalition and is a former Executive Board Member of the League of Women Voters of Washington. You can read more of his writing at conorbronsdon.com.

2 COMMENTS

  1. My house is nicer than your house, and here’s why.
    I don’t like high tech solutions to simple problems. In an area (Seattle) that seldom freezes or gets above 80° my non-insulated shed would be quite comfortable to live in most of the time. Campers on the street are spending less on energy than any homes I see. What can we learn from that?
    Small is better. Simple can work.
    Let’s just focus on reducing the cradle to grave carbon/energy total cost. That cost should also include comfort, less comfortable, higher cost. More repairs? Higher cost. More garbage? Higher cost. Less resources? Lower cost. Less energy? Lower cost. Safer? Lower cost. You get the picture.
    Example, design clothes driers with “direct vent characteristics” that is, pipe in outside air to the dryer, don’t use ambient air from inside the home. Simple to design and implement, cheap to manufacture. This legislation should have been passed decades ago. It’s an old tech idea but manufacturers have virtually no incentive.
    Tax inefficiency, reward efficiency. The details will sort themselves out if we have a clear accounting of all costs, financial, energy, waste, carbon, comfort and other ancillary costs.
    Tax inefficiency and use that revenue to steer the market. Subsidize (grants, no interest loans) design and manufacturing implementation of good test ideas. Push the efficiency of design heating and cooling units and reward longevity, mechanical robustness, low cost and simplicity. Reward cradle to grave low cost, including carbon.
    I see new houses with windows only on north side of house! Bizarre! Energy sinks! They meet code because code is too detailed and not holistic! No overall large scale measurable goal.
    I painted the south side of my house white (cheap) to avoid summer solar gain (plants were impractical, but would be the ideal choice), my solar panels shade the roof, less summer heat gain. My metal roof will never wind up in a landfill and has an extremely long life, and will be easily recycled.
    Outlaw composition shingles, they are a crime!
    My water heater is inside, I don’t notice it but it must contribute some heat in the winter! I open windows in the summer, I don’t need AC!
    I have large windows on south (with simple external eves to minimize summer solar gain, maximize winter solar gain). Same on west side for winter solar gain, Small windows on north and east sides.
    Air exchange should be passive, open a window yes? Less expensive to install, maintain and operate than an active system. Not dependent upon electricity.
    Don’t make buildings dependent upon machines to function correctly.
    Small residences and commercial spaces should be encouraged. The permitting system discourages small builds completely, change that. Encourage smaller builds for everything.
    In my neighborhood, 6000 square foot single family homes are going up! Tax those designs, a lot.Use that tax to subsidize design and fab setups to build small units. Seattle’s ADU incentive program is a disgrace. The pre-approved plans will never house the homeless. The builds will be much too expensive.
    “Simple” should encourage strategic shading, preferable with trees and low tech reliable methods of heating. Don’t mistake believing gas is a poor energy choice. My heat is a pretty, freestanding, very small gas stove, highest cost for whole house heat was $70 for one month. My friend in a subsidized section 8 small two bedroom unit at High Point spent over $200 per month for a weird system that uses a water heater to heat radiators under the windows! And they were cold all the time anyway! Our gird is an unholy beast that consumes the landscape just as quickly, and is less reliable than gas. Total energy and environmental imprint should be what we measure, not type of energy is irrelevant. Just use good accounting for all costs, long and short term, environmental, physiological and other.
    A good energy target are the large greenhouses (high-rises) we see in the city, which have massive solar gain that must be “fueled” back into balance. How did we ever let those get built? By pretending they are our economic salvation and that building is good.
    Create (I believe we have none) regulations limiting energy expenditure based on measure per cubic foot. Who cares how we get there, let the innovators figure it out, don’t specify the details. In this case, just measure the results. Take the holistic approach which includes the occupant! If I use a small gas unit to heat, and the cradle to grave energy/carbon/ imprint is less that “going electric”, it is good! When we all talk about electricity, remember it is not free, kill a salmon so I can leave my computer on all night? I see lights on all night in commercial buildings, for what? “Security? Pointless. In the long run, cheaper to pay the “bad people” to stay home! Thanks.

  2. While passive house design seems like a good idea somebody needs to go through the steps in the City’s design department to ensure that this type of building can be safe. What are the safety habitability issues? Are there fire codes that need to be updated for these types of buildings? Air quality standards so that mold doesn’t build up in a highly sealed building? Things like that.

    Also, the City has removed any requirement for builders to provide parking if they are in upzoned areas that are within 10 minutes of a bus stop. Thus builders have no requirement to put in plug ins for electric vehicles which could hugely impact green house gas emissions! We need to put in requirements for developers to include parking garages with electric vehicle plug ins now!

    Not to mention impose impact fees so that there will be enough money to upgrade sewer, water and electrical infrastructure to power all these homes so that it doesn’t fall on increase utility rates to pay for all this stuff.

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