Passive House consultant Bronwyn Barry has noted that “passive house is a team sport” of architects, engineers, and consultants. At the beginning of Chapter 4 in the Midori Haus book we knew we needed a team of people, but we didn’t know how to choose them, how long it would take, or how much it would cost. We asked a lot of questions to reduce uncertainty and gain confidence in choosing team members. The most important questions, however, were directed at ourselves.
Q: Is this your forever house?
Q: What are you goals and priorities?
A: 1) Very green remodel focused on energy efficiency with Passive House; 2) Honor the look and feel of classic Arts and Crafts style; 3) Keep cost within our budget.
Q: What are you willing to do and what skills do you have?
A: See excerpt from Midori Haus book below.
We could have gone with a design-build firm and left it up to them to pick the people from their network. This choice makes the design-build firm the single point of contact accountable for the results. While it means paying more for project management services, we would only have one neck to choke if something went wrong. Had we been short on time due to demanding careers while raising a family, this approach would have been very attractive. Or if we had the hard core do-it-yourself streak in us, then we could have gone down the owner-builder route and become our own general contractor and done everything ourselves.
We happen to fall in the middle of this spectrum. We knew our own strengths and limitations. We would actually be miserable swinging hammers and using power tools. We have neither the talent nor the experience, so we’d make unnecessary mistakes and it would take longer and the outcome would be questionable. On the other hand, we are quite good at doing research and asking questions. We knew that we could apply our respective career experiences in hiring people, team building, and managing projects to our home-building project.
When we met with architects and contractors, we asked questions from a list we had prepared to see if we wanted to hire them. Their responses, and more importantly how we felt during the conversation, answered the main questions we asked ourselves: “Is he or she a good fit with our goals and priorities?” and “Is the chemistry right?” After all, we know there will be problems and challenges during the project. When it happens, we wanted to be partnered with someone who could rationally solve a problem rather than increase our stress.
Some of the most useful conversations took place with homeowners who were the reference clients of the architects and builders.
The best person to give information about the performance of a house is the person who lives in it. We found homeowners to be more than willing to share their experience and lessons from their house projects. They understood the value of the reference visit. The homeowners we visited were the beneficiaries of helpful others in their journey. They were now paying it forward by sharing their experience to those of us who were starting the renovation journey.
As with the architect interviews, we went in with a list of prepared questions. Our intent with the homeowner interviews was to build rapport with the homeowners in the first few minutes so that they would volunteer information as if they were talking to a friend. This was the closest we would get to test driving the construction experience, and we wanted to know what it really was like. We wanted to be exposed to things we hadn’t thought about. We weren’t trying to ferret out dirt about the builder or the architect, but we wanted to know what “gotchas” were lurking around the corner in a recent construction project and maybe avoid making that mistake.
Building rapport is key to shifting the homeowner from the place of representing the work of a certain builder or architect to helping a fellow homeowner by sharing their lessons learned. Before getting into the “Where did you get those lovely tiles?” types of questions, I like to find out the context behind the remodel to understand why they did the remodel in the first place. I can easily judge a house or a feature based on assumptions in my head, but my interpretation could be completely off base. Plus, asking questions like, “What problems were you trying to solve?” or “What drove you to do the remodel?” opens the conversation in a way that allows the homeowner to tell their story. After asking such questions, we we practiced active listening and then asked clarifying questions.
We talked to many people: architects, builders, and homeowners. We gathered information on products and materials used in their projects. We also gathered information on the process they went through and the lessons learned. After a while, I ended up with more ideas than we could practically implement. At these moments, it is just as important to release a dissonant idea as it is to embrace a brilliant one.
While interviewing architects and builders, we tested some of our pet ideas. We soon learned that a brilliant feature we saw at someone else’s house could not be incorporated into Midori out of context. It is just as important to release a dissonant feature as it is to embrace an unfamiliar logical concept. We needed to do both to move forward. So we thanked the architects and builders for the interesting exploration and moved on.
An example of a dissonant feature we released was a Trombe wall we saw at a friend’s house. It’s a passive solar design feature that uses an internal wall (our friend used brick) to collect heat from the sun during the winter day to release them into the living space at night. Several people coaxed us out of this idea saying it wouldn't work well in our coastal marine climate. We're glad they did because it would have been aesthetically awkward and it would have been expensive to beef up the foundation and floor to support the extra weight.
In a previous post, I mentioned the importance of asking questions and shared our list of questions we asked architects, builders, and homeowners. You’ll find the same set of questions at the end of chapter 4 in the Midori Haus book.
We couldn’t look at houses the same way again after we learned about the internationally recognized performance-based energy standard in construction called Passive House (Passivhaus in German). In chapter 3 of the Midori Haus book you’ll read about another shift that happened to us. My mindset transformed from “looking for a tech gadget that made green magic happen at the push of a button” to “looking at the whole house as a system and appreciating good design and craftsmanship.”
Early on we thought green building consisted of different green components: something that used resources efficiently so that we didn’t end up consuming everything and leaving nothing for future generations; something that protected our health so that we didn’t get sick from breathing toxins or allergens; something that reduced waste and pollution so that future generations (and ours) could enjoy clean air, clean water, and nature.
I used to think, “Why not install photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roof to generate electricity from the sun and be done with it?” Solar energy is green, right? We could generate all the electricity we used in our home and sell some back to the utility so that at the end of the year our electricity bill would be near zero. It would probably pay back in about twelve years. I wondered why someone would go through the extensive calculation and install lots of insulations and perform extensive air sealing to save energy. It seemed to me that PV was easier and better. Eventually we learned that it depends on how you frame the problem.
The problem we were trying to solve was not solely about getting the electricity bill to zero. We wanted to live in a house that was comfortable and healthy. Covering the roof area of a ninety-year-old house with PV would not make it comfortable and healthy.
We first heard about the Passive House Standard in March 2010. We didn’t fully embrace it when we first heard about it from a green building consultant who came out to give advice on a property we wanted to buy.
On the surface there was nothing profound in what he had to say—better windows, insulation, minimizing air leaks, consider the shading from the trees. These all sounded mundane and pedestrian, perhaps because I was secretly hoping to get an insight into the latest tech gadget that makes green magic happen at the push of the button. Sadly, he offered no such gadget. The one thing that seemed to perk him up was discussing the Passive House Standard.
We didn’t dive into Passive House after our initial encounter with the consultant. Six months later, we were in a Passive House workshop. That’s when we finally embraced Passive House.
Chie and Kurt, ordinary homeowners, transformed into Passive House enthusiasts with a single realization: energy used to quickly adjust temperature, either to heat or cool a conventionally built house, can be eliminated if the shell of the building is constructed like a thermos. Keeping the indoor temperature constant and controlling ventilation could make our house comfortable and healthy. And we didn’t have to wait for some new invention to come about or spend extraordinary amounts of money to achieve a radical reduction in home energy.
The tools, techniques, and products to successfully build Passive Houses are available today. It requires the architect to use detailed modeling to guide the plans to hit the specific target for energy use. It requires the builder to pay careful attention to construction details and comply with the specific limit on air leakage. In other words, good design and good craftsmanship. This is Passive House.
Kurt summed up the appeal of Passive House Standard by saying, “It’s brilliant systems-thinking.”
… The green buiding certification programs we’d seen so far were like ordering à la carte from a restaurant menu: slap on a solar panel, get energy star appliances, get bigger windows to make use of day lighting, and so forth. Each component was green in its own way, but who knew if they would work together effectively to seriously reduce energy consumption. I didn’t want to wait until after we lived in our house to find out if the mishmash of systems resulted in comfort or heartburn. The Passive House Standard was geared towards achieving a very specific low-energy use with occupant comfort in mind…
We wanted more than a lower utility bill. Our focus was to follow our values and do the “right” things that would last a long time. We wanted to use more current sunlight and less of the ancient sunlight. We wanted the air inside our house to be healthy. We wanted the house to be pretty and pleasant and we wanted to be comfortable living there. We wanted to demonstrate and show others that an old house can retain its charm and have excellent energy performance. We wanted everything to work together nicely and within our budget. Passive House represented the path to achieving this. Simply install a bunch of PV panels on the roof without dong any of the other work did not.
It’s not that we’re opposed to using PV. Learning about Passive House clarified the sequence for us: First, do the improvement on the building envelope. See how it performs. Then later add PV when we’re ready to switch from gasoline vehicles to electric cars.
In the introduction of this book, I said that the most important thing we learned was to stick to our personal values, and that has guided us through buying a home and navigating options to make it green. Besides the personal benefits we’d enjoy by living in a Passive House, we set about on this renovation project to make a contribution to the greater community. Rather than wait for the government to institute regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions to retard climate change, we wanted to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that came from living in the house.
Learning about Passive House made a big difference in how we approached our home renovation project. Are you curious about the Passive House Standard? This short video will explain it in 90 seconds.
The stories I’ve written in the Midori Haus book chronicles dual transformation: one of the physical building and another of the mindset of the homeowners. In chapter 2, you'll get the feel of homeowner mindset transformation. Excerpts below illustrate two shifts that took place before we even started the design phase.
In 2009, we lived in a condominium. It offered limited ability to make changes to the building to increase our standard of living and lower our carbon footprint. Initially, we thought creating a green, sustainable home meant building a new house from scratch. There was an implicit assumption of green buildings being new and good. Over time, we shifted toward remodeling an old building . This was our first mindset transformation.
… the inventory of unbuilt lots in a walkable area was quite limited and it was just a matter of time before we shifted gears to looking at houses in the right location that could be remodeled. In a way that’s more green than building a brand new house because remodeling reuses existing materials. For example, the utility connections are all in place. These connection costs are not trivial. In our area, it costs over $11,000 to install water service at a new house built on a vacant lot. Charges for the water meter and inspection are extra. Then there is the labor and material cost to trench and install the pipes and fittings, which may be another $10,000 depending on the distance between the house and the water main. That’s just for water. Sewer, gas, and electricity each have their own connection fees and construction fees. So there are some savings from having existing infrastructure connections despite paying a slightly higher price for having a house on the lot.
Another transformation took place slowly, as we learned about due diligence before real estate purchase. We were quite naïve in 2004 when we were planning to buy some land to build on.
… buying so much land so close to downtown Santa Cruz for a price of a small house seemed like a dream. Back then we were rather naïve. Instead of doing due diligence with a soils report or researching zoning to see if the lot was buildable, we did silly things like driving out there late at night and sitting on a log to see if we would see the ghost lady that supposedly haunted the area. Getting caught up in Karsten’s enthusiasm, we were convinced that we could do this project fast and cheap. Because we didn’t know what we didn’t know, we floated in a nice dream for a while. It was a perfect escape from the daily grind of managing projects and people.
Our real estate education was greatly aided by a mentor. Gary Ransone’s unique combination of qualifications (real estate license, general contractor’s license, and construction attorney license) guided us to perform sophisticated due diligence.
… Gary went over and beyond what a typical real estate would do and visited the building department at the City of Santa Cruz to look up building permit records to see if the small addition containing a bathroom and a kitchenette was legit or not. This was a precautionary step to see if we would run into permitting issues when we submitted our plans for the remodel.
… Gary wanted us to have the property boundaries confirmed and have the records “clean” by confirming the mutual easement on the property boundary. This was prompted by the presence of a duplex garage and a shared driveway with the neighbor to the west.
You'll see a summary of lessons learned at the end of each chapter. One lesson I’ve often passed on to others is to have a general contractor look over the house before making an offer buy the house.
I would love to hear what you found useful in chapter 2 of Midori Haus book. Please let me know by commenting below. Thanks!