The Green Architects Chat With John Straube
The renowned Canadian professor shares his views of building science and green building
Phil and I have long been fans of building science guru John Straube. So we were very pleased to have him as a guest on our podcast, and to bend his ear a bit on some of his views on green building.
Unfortunately, because we were unable to schedule a good time to record during the evening, we recorded in the morning. So the live libation of cocktails is absent from this episode. Sadly, the satisfying clink of our glasses has been replaced with a pathetic clunk of our coffee mugs. But not to worry—we've still managed to maintain our casual demeanor and include a cocktail and a song.
John was a real pleasure to interview. As a professor and author, he has a natural talent for communicating technical issues across the many disciplines and levels of interest that the GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com audience will enjoy. Thanks, John, for hanging out with us.
Limoncello-gin cocktail. We did not consume these cocktails while we were podcasting. (It was 10:00 am on a workday.) But I've tried this at home and I stand by the drink as a good choice. I've made it once with the grilled thyme and once without. Both times it was good. The thyme adds that extra panache, which takes advantage of a grill that's slowly going out as it gets dark. It's not a sweet drink and is very martini-like. For many, many more cocktail ideas, browse Fine Cooking's cocktail recipes section.
How's the new book and what should we expect? John shares what led him to create this book and what it covers. It is focused on commercial construction in cold climates. I've just started to read my copy and it looks fantastic! So far, two thumbs up.
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Why is commercial building lagging behind residential in terms of high-performance building enclosures? In many respects, it has to do with the way buildings are bid, delivered, owned, and maintained. But times are changing. When asked about this being a good opportunity for builders to change, John states, "It's not an opportunity—it's a threat. If the building professionals do not respond to the new paradigm of expecting performance, they may not be working."
What are the standards we should all be hitting for our commercial buildings? John shares some great insight here, including Architecture 2030 , the GSA air-leakage standard ( 0.4 cfm/ft2 (2.0L/s/m2) at a pressure differential of 0.3 in w.g. (75 Pa), and also his own desire to place value on the intangibles—the quality of spaces.
Has John heard about the Pretty Good House standard, and what does he think of it? He loves it. It's "a good sign of maturity." Hear why.
John has been a "proponent" of gas as an energy source for our buildings. We ask, "Shouldn't we be getting off of fossil fuels altogether?" John makes some great points about the lack of cleanliness of our electrical grid, and how we should all be asking the right questions when we work with our fuel sources.
The "Click and Clack" of the building science world, John Straube and Joe Lstiburek: How did they meet and get together? Where do they disagree? John explains that they started like "two feral dogs circling around each other" and have slowly come together over the years.
Why do professionals, architects especially, get beaten up at building science seminars? We have a nice discussion of the roles of professionals and where the gaps lie.
What's going on in Waterloo? Working with both engineering and architecture students, are the gaps getting filled in? This starts a classic conversation about getting "real world" education in an academic environment.
Where do building science and green building overlap? For John, one is a set of goals, the other a set of tools.
We know that John has beaten up on PassivhausA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. in the past. What is his take on its primary energy use number and his views on planetary damage? A great conversation ensues that reveals what John believes is good, bad, and arbitrary about this European standard.
Be sure to visit johnstraube.com. There you can find links to his associations and affiliated institutions. I'd be remiss without providing a link to the BSC's Bookstore, where you can purchase a copy of High-Performance Enclosures. Be sure to check it out.
As usual, Phil shares a song at the end that he believes we should be listening to in the studio. This episode, it's "Lost Somewhere" by Tanlines. Good stuff.
Thanks for tuning in. Cheers!
Other Music Credits: The first bumper track is "Hurt Me" by Canadian supergroup Odds. The intermission bumper music is "Waterloo" by Swedish supergroup Abba. Sure, it's in here for the obvious connection, but also to make Jesse bury his face in his hands. C'mon, Jesse, you know you love it.
Chris Briley: Hey, everybody, this is Chris Briley and Phil Kaplan. This is the Green Architects’ Lounge, everybody. Welcome. How’re you doing, Phil?
Phil Kaplan: I’m doing great, Chris! How’re you doing today?
Chris: I’m doing fantastic. And I’m excited.
Phil: I know why you’re excited.
Chris: We have a great guest coming up: John Straube. I can’t imagine you know who we are, yet don’t know who he is. It’s going to be ridiculous that I’m going to do an intro, but I’ll do a proper one anyway.
Phil: We’ve been listening to this guy and reading his stuff for years. At the last NESEANorth East Sustainable Energy Association. A regional membership organization promoting sustainable energy solutions. NESEA is committed to advancing three core elements: sustainable solutions, proven results and cutting-edge development in the field. States included in this region stretch from Maine to Maryland. www.nesea.org Building Energy conference, I managed to get in line after one of his lectures and get his attention. John does a podcast on GBA, so I asked him to do one with us — so we could we dig a little deeper and find out about the man and the legend — and he was interested.
Chris: Fantastic. Lucky for us. And you got his autograph, right?
Phil: I had a big chunk of moldy Sheetrock that I was getting him to sign, but the Sharpie just wouldn’t take.
Chris: Well, we’re excited. I’m off my game a little bit because it’s morning, so we’re not drinking cocktails. Cheers! [The guys clack their insulated coffee mugs together.] I’m a coffee addict. But I’ll tell you what we will be drinking later. We have a relationship with Fine Cooking and Mr. Boston — although that’s a loose relationship — so we’ll be doing the Limoncello Gin Cocktail with grilled thyme. And when we’re done interviewing John, we’ll go out with your song, Phil. What is it?
Phil: This will be your new favorite album, Chris. The band is called Tanlines, and the album is Mixed Emotions. Guess where they’re from, Chris?
Chris: If you say Brooklyn, I’ll punch you in the arm.
Phil: I secretly want to live in Brooklyn. Yes, they’re from Brooklyn. The song is called “Lost Somewhere.”
Chris: Tanlines — I love that. It sounds like summer all over — or at least in some places. OK, stay tuned, because John Straube is coming up. John, how are you?
John Straube: I’m excellent.
Phil: Thanks for joining us, John.
Chris: If anyone out there knows who we are, they have to know who you are. But I’ll officially introduce you anyway. He recently received a lifetime achievement award in building science education from the National Consortium of Housing Research Centers. And you’re not that old, John!
John: I’m honored. I’ve only ever been in this business. I’m not a reinvented physicist or a reinvented software engineer. I’m not a reinvented builder or architect. I have been working on this type of stuff since my first high school summer job.
Phil: We were wondering if, when you were a baby, you were lying there looking up at a moldy ceiling, and something just hit you …
Chris: “… I know what I’m going to be.”
John: It did take a little longer than that, actually, I have to say.
Chris: Okay. Let me finish my official intro. He’s also a faculty member in the department of civil engineering at the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He’s also a founding principal of the consulting firm Building Science Consulting, and the Canadian partner to the infamous Building Science Corporation, and a popular contributor on Green Building Advisor. If you put John’s name into a search engine, you come up with hundreds of results of people referencing him in their comments.
Phil: That’s because it’s too hard to spell Lstiburek.
John: Yeah, it’s easier to spell and say my name. Funny thing is, my parents dropped the “L” off our name.
Chris: He’s also co-author of the book Building Science for Building Enclosures, and is the recent author of High-Performance Enclosures, which is hot off the press.
Phil: Congratulations! Tell us about the new book.
John: I’m hoping it’ll be really useful to commercial architects.
Chris: And it’s for cold climates, is that right?
John: Yes, basically Zone 4 and up. But I think we need to make another book from Zone 4 and down. This one is for places where heat loss is important, and condensation in the wintertime is more important than in summertime.
Chris: Do you cover load-bearing masonry?
John: I do. And there are some details on interior insulation retrofits and also new construction. But it focuses on new institutional and commercial building types.
Chris: I think that’s really timely. There’s a lot of info out there already out there on houses — deep-energy retrofits, Passivhaus, net-zero energyProducing as much energy on an annual basis as one consumes on site, usually with renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics or small-scale wind turbines. homes — while commercial projects are just doing the best they can. There’s a huge industry out there interested in maintaining the status quo.
John: That’s actually what really what drove the book. While there are still lots of questions and lots of confusion in the residential market, both new build for high performance and retrofit, there's a lot more conversation — as evidenced by GBA, there are a lot of intelligent people with experience talking about this, and there are books written about residential construction. But the commercial side is still trying to play catch-up with the residential side. We don’t have anything like a Building America program for commercial construction, or Passivhaus for commercial construction (although they'll call it the same, there are differences). ASHRAEAmerican Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). International organization dedicated to the advancement of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration through research, standards writing, publishing, and continuing education. Membership is open to anyone in the HVAC&R field; the organization has about 50,000 members. 90.1, the commercial energy code, has really upped the bar recently, and so there’s quite a vacuum. There needs to be the same sort of paradigm shift that happened in the home-building industry taking place in the commercial building industry. This book is trying to address that.
Phil: Why do you think it’s taking so long for the commercial industry to get on board with this?
John: It's complex. The people who build the buildings don’t actually own them — the same as in the residential sector — and many people who pay the lease don’t see the energy costs. They’re lost. No one has a sense of figuring out how much they should cost. If the homeowner is spending $600 a month, that’s a lot of money and they know that. Whereas in a commercial building, the people who pay those bills don’t talk to the people who do the leases. Also, the people in different buildings don’t compare their buildings. It’s never been important to the owners or the occupants to care much about energy consumption. They’re really being driven that way by non-economic reasons: codes, societal expectations, carbon foot-printing for their company, that's what's making them do it.
Phil: Do you see this as a big opportunity for building professionals?
John: I'd put it another way: It’s not an opportunity; it’s a threat. If the building professionals do not respond to the new paradigm of expecting performance, they will not be working. It may take us 25 years to get there, but the real push now is we want you to deliver buildings that meet an airtightness target, meet an energy target, and provide more quality space. It used to be you had to be on time, on budget, and on code — and even the last one was kind of fuzzy. But now people are saying you also have to get a LEEDLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED for Homes is the residential green building program from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). While this program is primarily designed for and applicable to new home projects, major gut rehabs can qualify. accreditation. "I have to?" Yes. That’s a whole separate performance requirement. That’s what started to open the floodgates. Now, if you build for the U.S. government or the U.S. military, you have to meet strict airtightness requirements, and you have to prove it through testing. Suddenly, we’re requiring the design team and the construction team to deliver a measurable performance. And that’s just going to accelerate. LEED was just the first crack in the door. Now we have airtightness, and we're going to add a whole bunch of other things, like required energy and carbon targets. The teams that can actually predict the performance of their buildings and then deliver it are going to be the only teams that are busy — both in construction and design.
Chris: What do you think are the pretty good standards to meet if you’re building a commercial building, like a veterinary clinic or doctor’s office? What's doable?
John: I would look toward Architecture 2030 as an energy target. Architecture2030.org has these nice lists for different areas and different building types. They start with a 50% reduction over 1993 buildings. That’s a great start. You should be able to meet that without spending a single dollar. There’s no reason to increase the cost of construction. For airtightness targets, I would use the Government Service Agency’s airtightness targets of 0.4 cfm per square foot at 75 Pascals. In commercial building, we don’t use ACH because of the wide range of building shapes. So, those would be good starting points. And once you demonstrate you can do that on a project, let’s ratchet it up a bit. Let’s go for 60% or 65% of the Architecture 2030 targets. Let’s go for the Army Corps of Engineers airtightness target of 0.25.
Buildings are much more than energy and airtightness targets. How do we start measuring and targeting good spaces — spaces that feel good to the people who work in them? A combination of sound quality and daylightingUse of sunlight for daytime lighting needs. Daylighting strategies include solar orientation of windows as well as the use of skylights, clerestory windows, solar tubes, reflective surfaces, and interior glazing to allow light to move through a structure. — those are going to be harder because we haven’t yet started figuring out how to measure what we really want to get.
Chris: How do people measure the airtightness of a mall or a 50-story office building?
John: That’s actually a solved problem. People are doing it left, right, and center now. First, you build a tight building. Then you use a lot of blower doors. The Energy Conservatory has a very cool software and hardware setup where you run cables between your blower doors, and they all ramp up and ramp down as a single unit, in concert. Two nights ago we were doing a 25,000- or 30,000-square-foot Architects' Association building — a blower door test on this early-1980s building. We installed six blower doors, but we managed to get to our pressure targets with only three or four of them. We’ve done buildings of 750,000 square feet, and others have done buildings much larger than that. My colleague at Building Science Corporation, Kohta Ueno, did a 12- or 15-story building in Boston.
Phil: Let’s get back to residential for one second. Have you heard anything about the Pretty Good House movement? Is that on your radar? And what do you think about it?
John: Yes, and I love it. I love the concept. I don’t know much about the particular targets, but I think it’s a sign of maturity. Things like net-zero homes or Passivhaus show us how we can get to really high performance and low energy use. But that does not mean they are necessarily what everyone can and should build, or is able to build. We at Building Science Corporation have often had the opinion that we could go off and build 10 or 20 net-zero energy homes a year, but from the of point of impact on the environment, they are virtually nonexistent. Nothing happens. If you have 10 or 20 houses that are zero energy, who cares?
It only matters when thousands and thousands of homes are done. We’ve spent a lot of our time — and been criticized for it — making 5,000 houses a year that use 30% less energy. And from an impact on the environment, an impact on energy security, and carbon, that’s a much bigger deal. If we can demonstrate that 30% reductions can be achieved by three tract builders, well, then it makes everyone else look bad.
The fact that a bunch of highly motivated, well-funded zealots can produce net-zero energy houses — well, we know we can do that! Those net-zero energy and Passivhaus things are really about us learning where the extreme is or where the next generation is. They don’t necessarily inform — although they may inspire — the current generation or the next 10 years.
So, we’re constantly flitting between getting awful buildings to good, more so than getting the good buildings to great. Great buildings get much better press. But the real impact is making good buildings. If we could get the idea of a Pretty Good Building, or a Pretty Good Home, out to tens of thousands of people, that’s success. Then, over time, we could change "pretty good" to a lower and lower energy number or a higher and higher comfort number.
We need to try to avoid making these high-performance houses just technology demonstrations. It's like concept cars — I don’t care how many concept cars GM produces this year. What I care about is that the Sierra pickup gets 6 miles more per gallon this year than last year.
Chris: The Pretty Good House concept is being developed here in Maine. It’s not a set of standards with a certification; it’s really a philosophy and guidelines and best practices that everyone can subscribe to if they want to have a pretty good house. It’s doing energy-efficient and green building for the masses, not just for those who are striving for greatness — but for those who are striving for pretty goodness.
John: And not just striving for it, but achieving it. Not everyone can afford to build a custom home with an architect or designer. That is out of the reach of the majority of normal Americans.
Phil: We debate this in our Pretty Good House discussion groups. You talk a lot about still using natural gas in your seminars. Why don’t we draw a line and stop using fossil fuels altogether? Isn’t a Pretty Good House off of fossil fuels?
John: Well, it doesn’t meet that common-sense bar. Sure, we can get off gas — but that causes damage to the environment, worse than burning gas. What is my alternative? Switching to electricity? Well, in America, electricity is still a very dirty energy source. And therefore, switching from gas, as a home heating or domestic hot water source, to electricity, essentially means significantly more pollution pretty much everywhere in America. The end game is clear: to avoid fossil fuels, including eventually natural gas. If you’re comparing it to wind energy or photovoltaics and you don’t have a power plant using fossil fuels to provide the electricity — then you would be right. But it seems like most people who are adamantly opposed to natural gas have no clue about where the electricity is coming from. Or believe they can draw a circle around the electrons that come from a wind turbine and distinguish them from the electrons that come from a coal-burning power plant. My position is pragmatic, and we still need to continue to push, but we are in a transition from fossil fuels to a true renewable future.
Chris: Once we can get the energy demand down on a house, and once we're using a very efficient ductless minisplit —
Phil: One with a COP of 2 to 3 —
Chris And we’re able to use the electricity efficiently —
John: I would agree. In my house, I use an electric-based air-source heat pumpHeat pump that relies on outside air as the heat source and heat sink; not as effective in cold climates as ground-source heat pumps.. I was able to do that because the peak heating loadRate at which heat must be added to a space to maintain a desired temperature. See cooling load. dropped to about 12,000 BtuBritish thermal unit, the amount of heat required to raise one pound of water (about a pint) one degree Fahrenheit in temperature—about the heat content of one wooden kitchen match. One Btu is equivalent to 0.293 watt-hours or 1,055 joules. per hour. But that is not the low-carbon solution. The low-carbon solution would have been to use natural gas, and a very little bit of it because I have just a 12,000 Btu-per-hour load.
By using an electric heat pump, I spent more money than if I had used a natural gas heating system. Using electricity costs more capital, costs more to operate, and produces more carbon. But I don’t have a gas pipeline running by my house.
Having an efficient house doesn’t change anything about the argument on an individual basis. It may change things on a system-wide basis, because if you reduce the demand enough, then you can actually retire all the dirty coal plants and end up with a cleaner electric grid — which means the electricity you’re using actually is a better choice. On the other hand, I don’t see any sign — other than the recent good news that we are shutting down some of the dirtiest coal plants — that people are making decisions on our grid infrastructure based solely on what’s cleaner. They’re doing it all on what’s cheaper.
Phil: People sometimes think of you and Joe Lstiburek as the Click and Clack of the building science world. How did you and Joe Lstiburek hook up, and where do you two disagree?
John: How we met? I guess we just kind of circled around each other like two feral dogs for a while. I clearly remember the first article of his that I read, about siding paint failures due to cellulose installation in Cleveland. Then, whenever I saw his name, I read everything I could. We met at a conference, Affordable Comfort or EEBA, we started hanging out at conferences, and whenever Joe and Betsy needed geeky technical stuff on measuring or monitoring for specific projects, I started working for and then working with Building Science Corporation, and then being subsumed by the Borg.
Phil: Where do you guys still disagree?
John: We don’t really disagree about building science — we debate subtle nuances. Do I really need an inch and a half air space to vent a 30-foot long 4-in-12 pitch roof? Or is an inch enough? Or maybe it should be 2 inches? But, about disagreements — maybe that wine is better for me than for him. I don't see why I would want to spend that much money on a German car. I can buy a cheaper German car. Those are the kind of things we debate about. And politics, of course.
[A short musical interlude.]
Phil: We’re architects, John, and we get pretty beat up. Builders dis us, and engineers dis us. Architects are the losers in the group.
John: Well, actually you only get beat up in the building science and construction world. In the design world and the wider world, you are held up as paragons of ideals: “Oh, the architects get to design these things, and they are so clever, and they have such great insights.” And that's perhaps somewhat telling. If you ask, "Why do people make fun of architects and where can they improve?," it really comes down to this: there’s an expectation that architects know a lot more than they do about how things are built.
But, frankly, in the whole process of architectural education — I teach at such an institution, and a very good one — we don’t spend that much time teaching architects how things are built. And in professional work — in commercial more so than residential — the architects don’t get a chance to learn. So that's one of the reasons people make fun of them on a construction site. "What! How can you draw this! Of course I can't build this!" We've never taught them how to do that. The profession doesn’t provide a way for a graduate architect to spend, say, 30% of their first five years on a construction site — which would be a good way to learn.
The other part of it is that the science behind making technology decisions — which is what we call building science — no one teaches that to architects. Very few engineers get taught that either. At building science conferences, engineers get made fun of too.
Phil: As a teacher at the University of Waterloo, are you pushing back at this a little bit?
John: I wouldn’t say I’m pushing back. I’m responding to a need defined by the faculty. They wanted someone to teach building science, and I was available. But I’m one guy, and I teach a total of four courses a year. That’s the total amount of building science education at the University of Waterloo. Sometimes that is an infinite amount more than at most schools of engineering and architecture.
Chris: Since you’ve taught both engineering and architecture, on a scale of 9 to 10, how much better is architecture than engineering?
John: They’re just so different. Engineers teach analysis and they forget to teach design. And architects teach design but forget to teach analysis. We really need to get a little bit more design into engineering and a little bit more analysis into architecture.
Phil: When I was a student, those were the classes I tried hard not to fall asleep in. Now I wish I’d paid attention. What goes on with your students? Are they really design-focused?
John: Yes, they are design-focused. But because ours is a co-op school, students go out and work every four months with famous architects, so when they come back, they’re actually more aware. But you've hit the nail on the head. That’s the challenge and the culture of architecture schools: No one wants to tell the students that the majority won’t be doing concept design as a profession. The majority of them will be doing contract admin, site supervision, working drawings, meeting with clients to figure out exactly what they want, and maybe explaining why it’s not right. A very small portion of an architecture firm’s time is spent on concept design, and about 90% of architecture education is spent on concept design. The graduates and the faculty are not at all representative of what the job of architecture actually is. As a consequence, it’s hard for the students to learn what they need to, the building science presented to them, because they've decided it isn’t important. That’s the challenge.
Chris: We're on the Green Building Advisor site. Where do you feel building science and green building overlap?
Phil: This is the geeks versus hippies question.
John: I completely agree that building science and green building are not the same. Building science is a set of tools, skills, and knowledge that lets us deliver buildings that perform in a predictable way. I can use that for good or evil. I can use it to build a 20,000-square-foot mansion with all-glass walls facing west, and I can still manage to make the occupant comfortable. That isn't green, but that’s a classic application of building science. I can do stupid things in such a way that people will still be happy with the outcome.
Green building has a bigger, clearer focus: it's trying to minimize the impact on the planet. Sometimes I think it gets confused with healthy buildings, which are not good for the planet. Frankly, the more people we kill, the better off the planet is. So I think unhealthy buildings are, perhaps, green. That’s where pretty good buildings come in — we can be comfortable but still minimize impact on the planet and the use of resources. Building science is the toolbox that lets us try to achieve those goals. Building science and green building are different: One is a set of tools, and one is a set of goals.
Phil: I know you beat up on Passivhaus a lot. But Passivhaus takes on planetary damage. Love it or hate it — aren’t there some really good tools and metrics there we can use from PHPP and the whole Passivhaus certification process?
John: So, the 120 kWh per square meter per year — brilliant idea. It’s primary energy, and it’s a real number you can measure. Great. I don't have any problems with that. But where does the 15 kwh per square meter of site energy for space heating come from? And why did they choose 120 for primary? Why not 100? I mean, 120 — how non-German! 120? This number was chosen, like many of our performance targets, rather arbitrarily, to reach a certain goal with a certain probability. There is nothing more particular about it. And it was chosen for buildings, typically residential multifamily row houses, in central Europe.
The idea of choosing a number for primary energy use is exactly what we should be doing. Frankly, I think that would be a great energy code right there. Done. But I don’t see why space heating should be broken out. It leads to rather odd allocations of resources. Why 120? So what should it be? People propose that Passivhaus is the ultimate or most stringent standard. But zero energy is less than 120, the last time I checked. So is 90. So why do we dis the 120 number? Because it is an arbitrary number, no more superior than any other numbers that could be picked. It has been proposed as a rock-solid, chiseled-in-stone number.
Chris: Well, the building shell is a permanent thing...
John: The building shell is only one of two components that affect space heating. The other is climate. That’s conspicuously absent. That's the problem with it. What is the metric being used, the process being used, to come up with 120 or 15, so you can understand it and potentially modify it for Kansas or International Falls or Miami? It just a number that just came down from on high, and we were not allowed, until recently, to ask these questions. It was considered horrible that I would even ask the question, "Why 120?"
Chris: Well, PHIUS is considering rethinking their metrics.
John: They have actually sent out e-mails saying they’re willing to reconsider. Hallelujia — this is great. Now that we have more experience in the country about Passivhaus, we should be able to have a good reasonable discussion that leads to consensus — as opposed to somebody importing a rule we have to follow.
I worked in Germany in 1990 and 1991 when they were developing the Passivhaus standard, and I continue to travel to Germany every two or three years. The perception that people have of what led to Passivhaus — the supposed scientific rigor and absolute clarity of the Passivhaus standard — simply isn’t supported by the facts. It is a very good energy standard that tries to also include comfort. But there are other very good programs that deal with indoor air quality, or other programs that are good at addressing energy use by tract houses — like Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners.. Energy Star Version 3 is not for the weak-kneed. It will save more energy next year than Passivhaus times 50.
Chris: That’s because of the number of houses it affects.
John: Right. Energy Star isn't the be-all and end-all. If someone tells me, "I'm building a low energy house and I want to save the planet, and I just spent one million bucks and it was Energy Star," I’d say, “That’s it?” By the same token, Passivhaus doesn’t need to apply to low-income housing in Berkeley. These are programs that focus on specific things and not others, and aim at specific markets and not others, as opposed to saying, "There is one standard above all." You know the first commandment: "You shall have no other standards but Passivhaus."
Chris: What’s the next great technological innovation that we’re waiting for, that we are on the cusp of tackling?
John: There are a bunch of things that are emerging as important technologies, but none of them matter. Because what is missing is not the technology; what is missing is the desire. What is missing is the knowledge. What is missing is the process by which we would regularly build good houses or great houses. We have repeatedly demonstrated how to build really good homes. Some of these houses have been built by people across the country, without new technologies. What’s changed in the past five years is that the people who care about energy and buildings are not just the true believers. It’s expanded much more widely.
Phil: Because it makes sense financially?
John: That’s the worst reason in the world. People make all kinds of crazy decisions about buildings that have nothing to do with finances. Finances will not make the difference. It helps. Doubling energy prices would really focus the attention. But it's not going to make the difference. There has been enough of a discussion about energy, environment, and national security, and problems with fracking and Syria and Libya — these are what change things.
Chris: What's the craziest dumb-ass thing you've seen in a building?
John: That's tough. Most of the crazy dumb-ass things are actually narrow mistakes. In terms of the big picture, oh-my-gosh-they-completely-blew-it things — I don't have much. But I am regularly concerned when I look at buildings — I say, "Oh my gosh, how could they possibly have done this?"
Chris: What is your current beef? What's bothering John these days?
John: I'm pretty happy. Progress is being made in our industry. There are lots of short-sighted policies out there. I wish we had a really good long-term plan. I wish we could stop the polarizing debates about no fossil fuels, or all fossil fuels. Those are the kinds of things that are frustrating on a macro level. But on a day-to-day basis, we are doing better. The ideas of good building have diffused more and more. That is good news. We need to keep working, and it won’t happen suddenly in two years. We’re going to keep working at it for the next 20 years, trying to make it better.
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