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Construction Corner: Is the passive house standard viable?

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Is the passive house standard viable?

The passive house standard has been with us for a while now, but there remains plenty of skepticism about whether it can be applied to large buildings, especially in northern climates.

A handful of houses have been built using the standard, but now there is news of a 26-storey apartment building being planned for Cornell University’s Cornell Tech campus in New York City.

It will house 530 graduate students, faculty and staff beginning in 2017. Part of the reason for building it is to prove that designing to passive house standards is possible for large buildings.

Like all passive house buildings, it will reduce energy demand by 60 to 90 per cent compared to conventional construction. That will be thanks to an airtight building envelope, with 15-inch walls and triple-glazed windows.

The prefabricated metal façade will act as a sort of thermal blanket. To keep indoor air fresh, the building will have an energy recovery system that uses waste energy for heating and cooling.

The building will not be static. It will be a living thing. The sunny side of the building, facing southwest, will have a louvre system that extends the entire height of the building. It will act as "gills" that house heating and cooling equipment, so the building system will be able to "breathe."

All that sounds good (and expensive), but there is another constraint. Designers have a US$115 million budget — necessary to keep the apartment below market rental rates.

Handel Architects is designing the building. Once it has been certified as meeting passive house standards, the firm plans to show it off to other developers and institutions to demonstrate the viability of building to the passive house standard.

As a warming world forces us to think about better buildings, we keep hearing about ways to build them.

We have net-zero energy buildings.

We have a Living Building standard, which is more rigorous than green certification schemes such as BREEAM, in the U.K., and LEED, which is used by many countries.

Sponsored by the Cascadia Green Building Council, which is a chapter of both the U.S. Green Building Council and the Canada Green Building Council, the Living Building standard was launched in 2006 and the list of buildings built to the standard has grown slowly.

In Canada, the standard has been applied to such diverse projects as a child-care centre on the campus of Simon Fraser University in B.C., the Van Dusen Botanical Garden Visitors’ Centre in Vancouver and the Jim Pattison Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Building Technologies on the campus of Okanagan College in Penticton, B.C.

Do you see a pattern there? In Canada, the Living Building standard has gained some traction in B.C., with only a tiny scattering in the design stage east of the Rockies.

Arup, a British based multinational design firm, has taken a look at what tall urban buildings might be like in 2050.

A skyscraper built then won’t be static as many of our buildings are today. In the future, they will produce food, energy and other resources.

They will have "intelligent" systems that adjust to the needs of a building’s occupants, respond automatically to variations in weather, and could be reconfigured by robots and produce more resources than they consume.

Much of the building in 2050 will be modular. Depending on what’s needed, robots could swap in or out components that provide food — meat, poultry, fish and vegetables.

The report, called It’s Alive, makes interesting reading. It was published early in 2013, but isn’t out of date.

In fact, it seems more pertinent now than it was when it was first published. Visit to download a free copy of the report.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to

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