Seattle Passive House Respects The Environment
Passive House in Ballard treats the environment with respect
By Sean Meyers January 5, 2023
Rade and Eli Trimceski didn’t set out to save the planet when they commissioned their new home in Ballard, but the planet sent its regards anyway. Designed and built by First Lamp Architects of Seattle, the project was named the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS) National Home of the Year in 2020.
Billed as “the fastest path to zero carbon,” Passive House technology was formalized in 1991 by two German scientists. The concept has grown tenfold in fewer than five years in the United States as record drought, heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, ice storms and other climate emergencies have lashed the nation.
“Living in the house is amazing,” Rade Trimceski says. “It’s everything we wanted and surprisingly a lot more.”
The couple wasn’t familiar with Passive House technology when they began discussions with First Lamp, but quickly and enthusiastically got on board, recalls architect Taylor Callaway.
“An overriding goal of ours for this house was to break any stigma that deep green homes must compromise exciting design and architecture,” Callaway says. “Hopefully this project can speak to some folks looking for high concept and timeless modern homes that also respond to our current climate crisis.”
With 14-inch-thick walls stuffed with insulation and an ultra-tight building envelope, Passive Houses can cut energy use by 90 percent. Two winters ago, the family turned off the heat when they left for a vacation. The indoor temperature was 72 degrees. Outside, it was only 32 degrees.
The heat recovery Zehner ComfoAir 200 air circulation system, armed with F7/MERV 13 filters and tested and tuned after installation, clicked on each hour, refilling the house with a complete volume of fresh, clean air from the outside. Such high-performance systems are a certification requirement, in part to mitigate the condensation created by breathing humans and pets. When they returned after 10 days, the internal temperature was 66 degrees.
Solar panels were installed last April, helping the household exceed net zero in some months — even when calculating the Trimceski’s transportation system, which includes two electric cars. For the May 15 to July 15 billing period, the family of six (including two kids and two grandparents living in during the pandemic) paid just the minimum $11 service fee for electricity, and sold Seattle City Light 600 kW of electricity, which will be paid back as a credit in colder months.
An electric, ductless mini-split pump heats and cools the home as needed, eliminating wall units and greatly reducing the need for duct work.
“We made more electricity than we used for living and transportation this summer,” Eli says.
But wimpy utility bills are just a bonus for this family, which was seeking a higher quality of life in committing to the painstaking Passive House certification process.
“Surprisingly to many people, energy efficiency wasn’t our first and primary motivation. We wanted to build a home that was consistently warm or cool throughout the year,” Eli explains. “I don’t want to be cold when I’m lying on the ground in the living room playing with the kids next to the sliding doors in December for the holidays.”
The air system successfully filters out plant pollens, an expected bonus for their 7-year old, who has allergies. Interior air quality remained high during the wildfires — when later pulled for inspection, the filters were pitch black with smoke particles.
For the Trimceskis, who spent years living in the Denny neighborhood and Ballard, a key Passive House advantage is noise abatement.
“When the windows and doors are shut, you can’t hear any noise,” Eli says, “even when there is construction of row homes across our street, as is the case right now.”
Ballard Passive House required a premium of just 8% above typical costs, an economy achieved by forgoing luxuries found in many new homes, including a double-car garage, fireplace, media room, basement and Jacuzzi tub.
“It was a great tradeoff in hindsight,” Eli says. “The comfort of living afforded by a Passive House far exceeds the extra construction costs.”
That premium may reduce to perhaps 3% to 5% as Washington state’s new, more stringent energy codes kick in, Callaway adds. “A very complicated design with multiple jogs and cantilevers, etc., would increase the costs more than a house with a simpler exterior,” which is why many Passive Houses have a blocky frame.
Costs may also come down as Passive House technology and materials become more widespread domestically, such as the 14-inch fasteners required to put the exterior walls together. “It cost us thousands of dollars just for screws,” Callaway notes. “Just one manufacturer makes them, so they can charge what they want.”
Windows imported from Europe were deemed a necessary expense. The windows are better at creating thermal breaks, lock tighter and have greater clarity than those available domestically when the home was built in 2019.
The first certified U.S. Passive House was completed in 2005 in Urbana, Ill., constructed by PHIUS cofounder Katrin Klingenberg, who said her organization sought to “create a carbon-neutral, healthy, safe and just future for everyone by mitigating the climate crisis.”
“We are a sword and a shield against climate change,” says PHIUS Associate Director Lisa White. “A sword to slash emissions, but also a shield against natural disasters.”
To gain certification, a Passive House must be “resilient,” or able to stand on its own during natural disasters. The Texas “snowpocalypse” storm in February 2021 claimed 246 lives and caused $200 billion in property damage, including many homes destroyed by burst pipes. A certified Passive Home in Dallas managed to keep its interior temperature in the high 50s and above during the ice siege, which shut down the power grid.
As of Jan. 1, 2018, there were just 1.7 million square feet of fully certified single-family or multifamily projects in the U.S., totaling 1,500 units. Today, there are 17 million square feet and 13,800 PHIUS dwelling units.
The Northeast is the epicenter of PHIUS construction in the U.S., with Boston and New York City leading the way, largely due to cash incentives from utility companies. In Seattle, 23 PHIUS projects have been completed or are under construction. One is a school, and of the remainder, two thirds are single-family and one-third are multi-family homes.
Seattle was among the first cities to adopt the technology.
“Seattle’s doing pretty good for a city that doesn’t have strong incentive programs behind it. It says something about the will of the city,” White says. Ballard boasted one of Seattle’s first two Passive Houses a decade ago.
About 90% of PHIUS structures are new construction. The organization is working on calibrating new standards for retrofitting existing structures, devising metrics that calculate carbon required to operate the building, the carbon embodied in the construction materials and the carbon cost of labor.
“We’re looking at it a little more holistically,” White says.
Callaway believes the Ballard project is the first — or one of the first — Northwest homes to use 4-inch-thick Gutex wood fiberboard insulation on the exterior of the home. Gutex requires very little embodied energy to manufacture, provides a very stable substrate for siding and is easy to work with.
Most of the Ballard home’s exterior is finished in Western red cedar stained with lifetime wood treatment. Low-maintenance corrugated metal, installed vertically to jog the eye, and white HardiePanel complete the exterior ensemble.
It was necessary to push the home site uncomfortably close to the northern property line on the 5,000-square-foot lot to accommodate solar harvesting on the south. In response, a “pinched” main entrance was created to increase privacy, safety and security. Once caught by this chute, the visitor is released into a spacious living room with elevated ceiling.
To keep living space costs down, Ballard Passive House makes clever use of the world’s most efficient net-zero environment — the great outdoors.
A cozy, very private 400-square-foot courtyard is where the outdoors-loving family spends much of its time. The back of the garage was beveled to create another hour of sunlight for the treasured space.
When it comes to the environment, this and all Passive Houses are very aggressive.
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