Chicago Architect September/October 2014 : Page 34

THE PASSIVE-IST FRONT 34 Chicago Architect sept | oct 2014

The Passive-ist Front

Dennis Rodkin



Bassett-Dilley is the architect of the metropolitan area’s first fully passive home, a 3,800-square-footer in River Forest. Its super-efficient resource use and handsome updated-traditional looks have made it a minor celebrity. Bassett-Dilley now has at least three more passive homes in the works, in Oak Park, Geneva and Downers Grove.

Klingenberg, a German import who designed her own home and a few others in Urbana, Ill., in the passive model, is a founder and the executive director of the Chicagobased Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). An advocacy and standards-setting group, PHIUS’ ninth annual conference in San Francisco on Sept. 10-14 is expected to attract as many as 500 participants this year. The 2015 conference will be held in Chicago.

Between them, the two are making a yeoman effort to move resource-sipping homes and other buildings into the mainstream. The projects they support are what Bassett-Dilley calls “homes that their owners can believe in. They contribute to a global energy solution.”

“The paradigm of passive building is a different way of thinking about your thermal enclosure, ventilation and building enclosure,” Bassett-Dilley said. Those aspects are among the first considerations during modeling of a future project, he says, as opposed to having the architect start with a strict focus on function and aesthetics, “and then handing it off to the contractors to size the systems that will go in it.”

He acknowledges he’s over-simplifying his description of the alternate way of doing things to make the point that the passive house conception is one that flip-flops the design priorities. “We’re trying to avoid needing a giant machine to energize our designs,” he said.

For her part, Klingenberg notes that even with recent “exponential growth” in interest from all corners of the architecture, building and construction-supply realms, “we are still a very small market.” Since PHIUS started certifying in 2008, about 700 people have completed the process, she said, and as many as 1,000 more have gone through training without becoming certified—either because they didn’t take the final exam or because they didn’t pass it.

PHIUS also certifies projects and recently started verification of products. Klingenberg said about 100 projects have been certified and another 100-plus are pre-certified, pending completion of construction. In all, they contain more than 400 residential units, and span the nation from New York to Oregon.

One notable project is the 2013 conversion of a historical YMCA building in McKeesport, Penn., near Pittsburgh, a four-story masonry building that got a thorough passive-style retrofit as it was being converted into 75 small rental units for low-income tenants. The building’s annual combined energy bill reportedly dropped from about $65,000 a year to somewhere in the $20,000-to- $25,000 range.

It’s the possibility of savings on that scale that has made multifamily projects the biggest growth category for PHIUS, Klingenberg said. Although few Chicago developers and architects have shown interest in using the passive house model, according to Klingenberg, several have gone other energy-reducing routes.

“It’s interesting that we haven’t seen more interest from Chicago yet,” she said. “It might be because so much of [the architectural work] here is focused on the big buildings, and the passive house is understood as only being residential. But the principles can be applied to big buildings and concert halls and swimming pools.”

Both Bassett-Dilley and Klingenberg point out passive architecture thrived in the United States—and in particular the Champaign-Urbana area in central Illinois— in the 1970s in the wake of the country’s first major energy crisis. But the epicenter shifted to Germany and other parts of Europe when the U.S. lost interest a decade later. “My subscription to ‘Solar Age’ that I had in high school vanished when Reagan was elected and the oil embargo ended,” Bassett-Dilley recalled.

In the late 1980s, what’s now known as the German concept of the Passivhaus, which can reduce a home’s energy use by 80 percent from conventionally built homes, was developed by Wolfgang Feist of that country’s Institute for Housing and the Environment and Bo Adamson, a building science professor at the University of Lund in Sweden. From the first row of four townhouses completed in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1991, by 2010 there were an estimated 25,000 certified passive structures in Europe, and 13 in the United States.

Because of the enormous volume of passive projects in the Old World, several reports say that it now costs no more there to build passive than to build conventionally. Klingenberg said that stateside, the passive method’s premium is now at about 15 percent. While specialized materials may come at a larger differential, there’s compensation in the cost saved because of a dramatic reduction in the size of the heating equipment such a building requires. (Completely eliminating mechanical heating in a cold climate like Chicago’s is a quixotic dream, both Bassett-Dilley and Klingenberg said.)

Bassett-Dilley’s first-completed and best-known house, the River Forest home of Corinna and Rodrigo Lema, was completed for an estimated $175 per square foot, he said, in line with conventionally built homes. He said the project entailed a tightly knit team of planners, including Eric Barton of Biltmore Insulated Concrete and Brandon Weiss of Weiss Building & Development.

The home has exterior walls that are 18 inches thick and made of layers: foam-insulated concrete forms, more foam, an air cavity and siding made of SmartSide engineered wood. The clients, he said, “wanted something very strong, very resilient because of what’s happening with our weather.”

Airtightness is crucial to the success of a passive house, so the team worked closely to come up with a design that eliminated all thermal bridges, or places where the insulation barrier is penetrated. Just by adapting the design process to that principle, Bassett-Dilley said, “you end up learning a lot about building science.”

Because airtightness can turn out to be its own worst enemy by trapping air in the home, “the passive house needs to breathe,” he said. An energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system can capture 85 percent of the outgoing heat and 40 percent of the incoming humidity, “and make use of all of it,” Bassett- Dilley said.

Although much of the technology can be locally or at least domestically sourced, for windows the team had to tap into European supplies. As of yet, “there’s no American wood window that has a thermally broken frame, so you get these huge thermal losses,” he said.

Training through Klingenberg’s organization gave Bassett-Dilley other keys, he said. Based on principles that have been developed in Europe but tailored to meet American standards, the PHIUS training “gives an architect a whole menu of things to be real careful about,” Bassett-Dilley said.

The contractor, too, has things to watch. Most notably, he said, contractors have to be vigilant about the materials subcontractors use, because of materials’ role in enhancing or degrading indoor air quality. On the River Forest project, “Brandon shone,” he said. “He’s the most conscientious contractor I’ve ever met on air quality.” Rather than risk letting subcontractors unwittingly undermine the goals of the project, Weiss supplied all caulks, adhesives, finishes and paints, ensuring they all meet the standards of the project.

“You don’t want to inspect later and find out they used something else, hear them say, ‘Oh, it’s too late to change it now,’” Bassett-Dilley said.

Klingenberg is excited about the projects coming out of Bassett-Dilley’s Oak Park studio, but she said the larger field of opportunity in Chicago residential architecture is in retrofitting the enormous stock of existing housing.

“There is so much fantastic building stock,” she said. “There is so much capital already in it, but when we renovate, we renovate only a little and we leave savings on the table.

“We really need to get as many buildings as possible as far as we can get them.” CA

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