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Green Architects' Lounge

Getting Schooled on Passive House

After designing two Passive House schools, the Maine architects share what they've learned about educational facilities

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Phil (left) and Chris (right) perform a mic check (and make sure the applesauce is handy). Maine Coast Waldorf High School in Freeport, Maine, was designed by Briburn and built by Warren Construction. Friends School in Cumberland, Maine, was designed by Kaplan Thompson Architects and built by Warren Construction.

Phil Kaplan and I have not been active podcasters for a while. (The last couple of years, life had other plans for us.) But we’re back and committed to a new season of the Green Architects’ Lounge for 2019! We’ll be issuing about one episode a month this year.

It all started back in November when we were asked if we’d host a cocktail hour and record a live episode the evening before the PassivhausMAINE Fall Forum. We had a blast and talked about a subject dear to both of our firms, Passive House Schools. Phil’s firm, Kaplan Thompson Architects, completed the nation’s first passive house middle school (certified through PHI), and our firm, Briburn, completed the nation’s first passive house high school (certified through PHIUS). Both of us learned a great deal from our experience and we thought it would be good idea to share the good, the bad, and the costly lessons we learned along the way. So we blew the dust off of our equipment, created a custom cocktail, and recorded a podcast in front of crowd of (lightly inebriated) passive house enthusiasts.

The Highlights

The Cocktail: a Portland (A Maine take on a Manhattan)

  • 2 oz. Old Overholt Rye
  • 1 oz. Cynar
  • 3-4 dashes Coastal Root pine bitters
  • Garnish with blueberries

Some themes

(1) Two different schools, two different flavors of Passive House (PHI and PHIUS). Is there really a difference?

(2) Why do a Passive House School?

  • Reduce long term burdens (maintenance and  operation costs)
  • Lead by example
  • In line with owners’ values

(3) Why NOT do a Passive House school?

  • Cost! We poll the audience. How much more does a Passive Building cost? Is it 25% more? 15%? 10%? 5%? 0%? Is it all lies?

We found some stats: “According to School Planning and Management’s 2013 annual school construction report, median school construction costs in New England are among the highest in the country. Elementary schools cost $306.34 per square foot, middle schools cost $213.33 per square foot and high schools cost $303.03 per square foot.”—Seacoastonline, Feb. 9, 201.

 “In 2014, the median elementary school in the United States cost $211.55 per square foot to build… The median high school cost… per square foot was $235.29” — Spaces4learning, School Planning and Management 2015.

Passive House school costs:

  • Waldorf school: $249/ft2 excluding massive site work, $292/ft2 including massive site work.
  • Friends school:  $282/ft2; Kaplan Thompson ran numbers and concluded that it was a 3% increase to make Friends school a Passive House (beyond a net-zero-ready building).

(4) How were the clients/owners convinced it was worth it?

  • We were sneaky. Net Zero was the goal; the step to Passive House from there was easier.
  • Stealth Passive House!

(5) What’s different about these schools? What do we really have to take into consideration?

  • Occupancy — Annual, Daily, Assembly spaces
  • Zoning Issues — double loaded corridor
  • Ventilation — 3x per hour vs. 1/3 per hour (a factor of 9!)
  • Process! Committees!
  • Durability — Entrance doors, all doors, kids!, all their stuff
  • Size — Bigger is easier

(6) How did we do it?

  • Orientation and building design — Passive Solar — Simplicity
  • Building Envelope:
    • Wall types — Maine Coast R-51/61, Friends R-46.
    • Roof types — Maine Coast R-55, Friends R-88 /100.
    • Slab — Maine Coast R-17, Friends R-57.  Lots of bridging attention with both schools.
    • Windows — Maine Coast and Friends: Intus triple-pane. Typical Uw installed= 0.16 (R-6.2).
    • Entry door are tricky!
    • Airtightness — Maine Coast 0.04 cfm50/ft2 (or  0.41 ach50),  Friends 0.32 ach50.

(7) Performance: How are they doing?

  • Not as good as modeled
  • We advocate for energy monitoring!
  • We advocate for commissioning!
  • We advocate for post-mortem meetings

Then we take questions from the audience.

Six Digit Idea!

  • Chris shares his six digit idea: Pressure-resistant doors!

Closing Song: “We Are Going To Be Friends” by The White Stripes.

Never miss an episode and take the podcast with you! Subscribe to the Green Architects’ Lounge on iTunes or from wherever you download your podcasts. The show’s Theme Music is Zelda’s Theme by Perez Prado. 


[Audience applause]

Chris: All right. Hey everybody! Welcome to the Green Architects’ Lounge podcast. This is the Passivhaus Maine Fall Forum Social Hour pre-forum event. I’m your host, Chris Briley.

Phil: And I’m your host, Phil Kaplan. Chris, great to see you again! It’s been a while.

Chris: It has been a long time…

[Directed to the audience] And please, be seated. Be seated.

Phil: [Laughs] For those of you who can’t see, we’re in a huge auditorium. Oh, they’re starting the wave. I can see it in the back. [Directed to the audience] No, not yet guys.

Chris: No, no waves.

Phil: [Laughs] Wait, wait. There’ll be a time for that.

Chris: Please be seated. … And it’s been a long time. For those of you who don’t know (and I don’t blame you if you don’t know because we haven’t been on the so-called air for a while, and so…), we’re back! We’re back finally and we’re committing. We’re putting it on the airwaves now that, for 2019, we’re going to do one episode per month. Most podcasts actually do it more often, but we have day jobs.

Phil: Really? What do you do?

Chris: I’m still figuring that out.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: But that’s why people like the podcast — it’s because we actually come together. We actually (mostly) know what we’re talking about. And today, we are going to talk about Passive House Schools.

Phil: Chris, are we qualified to talk about Passive House Schools?

Chris: Yes? No, we are. And the reason is that our firm has done one.

Phil: Our firm has done one.

Chris: There you go!

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: Honestly, how many are there in the country?

Phil: Ah… approximately a handful.

Chris: A handful? That is an approximate number.

Phil: Yeah. From what I understood, when Friends School first got pre-certified, it was the third Passive House School in the country.

Chris: You’re the first middle school, aren’t you? In the country? Maybe?

Phil: Yeah, that sounds right. I’m going to go ahead and take credit for that.

Chris: And I think ours is the first high school in the country, which is something.

Phil: Yeah. [Directed to the audience] You can clap for that. That’s cool, right? Yeah, this is Maine. Maine’s awesome!

Chris: In Maine, we have this great Passive House culture. (I don’t know if you guys have gotten out anywhere. If you travel, if you go to the Midwest…) When I’m talking with my college friends, they say: “Oh, so, Passive House. Tell me about that. What is that? What is that?”

Where have you been? You know?

Phil: So, how do you usually explain it to them, quickly, Chris? I often say it’s a 90% reduction in energy use.

Chris: That’s what they say we should say. When we talk about residentially, there’s always a hair-dryer thing. You can use the same amount of energy to run a hair dryer in the dead of winter. You could heat your house with a hair dryer and that sounds impressive. But when you’re talking about a school, it’s five hair dryers or something like that.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: Six? I don’t know.

Phil: That doesn’t sound quite as cool when you explain it that way.

Chris: Right. So, commercially, they say it’s 90% more efficient than your code-compliant house. I don’t know, that’s such a vague number, that’s just a lob-it-out-there kind of a number. But what we’re talking about is a building that performs way better, so that’s…

Phil: And not just a house. I mean, that’s a big part of the confusion. Do you run up against that? Do people say, “Passive House School?” Wait, what?

Chris: Yeah, why are you saying that? Well, PHIUS is starting to say, “Passive Building.” They’re trying to say Passive Building a lot more.

Phil: Smart.

Chris: Yeah, smart. Good on them. Yeah, so we’re going to talk about Passive House Schools.

Phil: And you know what else is really cool? I don’t know who else knows this, but we are actually working on a school together now.

Chris: That is right. It is called the Ecology School. We’re going to give it a pitch, because your firm has done a lot of Passive House work, our firm is doing a lot of Passive House work, and we’re also teamed up with Scott Simons Architects. This Ecology School project (which is going to be in Saco) is going to be a Living Building Challenge project. And that, of course is not just net-zero, but net-positive and super-green, and we’re going to be modeling it with WUFI just like we do for Passive Houses and using all the same stuff.

Phil: Right. So, there are incredible energy challenges and environmental challenges that we’ll have to meet, but maybe the biggest challenge is three architects working together on one project.

Chris: You’re damned right!

Phil: [Laughs] That’s a lot of egos in a conference room, I can tell you that!

Chris: It is. There’s a lot of ego just at this table.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: Before we start, speaking of egos: My God, you’re a genius. You should have a big ego for this one.

Phil: Oh, I thought you’d never ask about my cocktails.

Chris: Every episode, we start with cocktails and we actually do drink them while we record, because we sound better to ourselves.

Phil: [Laughs] We sound better to ourselves.

Chris: Cheers, Phil. And now you tell me what this is.

Phil: Cheers. [The guys jaw about this episode’s cocktail.]

Phil: So, one of the things that’s interesting is that: The school that you worked on and the school that I worked on were certified by…

Chris: Two different flavors of Passive House. Okay, we could get all… Oh, we should say this: When we were talking about this podcast, immediately it got really nerdy and numbers-y, and we started throwing out kilo BTUs per square foot per year and all this, and “What’s your school?” and “What’s my school?” And then we realized, no one cares. No one’s going to care.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: What a bunch of geeks. There are probably, in this room, a few people who will actually care.

Audience: Woo-hoo! [Audience laughter]

Chris: But there’s gonna be — So it’s a drinking game for us: If you catch us saying… (We’ll do it a couple of times because we don’t mind drinking a little bit — we have a podcast to do.)

Phil: If we specify the actual units…

Chris: Right.

Phil: …you call us out.

Chris: Yeah, if I actually say “kilowatt hours,” then someone yell and I will drink.

Phil: And everyone has to drink.

Chris: And I encourage everyone at home to do the same, and you can get hammered with me.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: And so, the goal here is so that we don’t get too far into the weeds, because it’s very easy to do with Passive House.

All right, so, backing up. Passive House: It used to all be just “Passivhaus.” It was a German-slash-Swiss-slash-international standard that only had to do with energy. And that was the beautiful part about it. It was very German. You know, it’s just one thing. Just energy. That’s it. Don’t clutter it up with all your other things.

Phil: Right. Don’t worry about renewables.

Chris: Hit it or not. Done. And people started hitting it with spray foam – copious amounts, ridiculous amounts of spray foam – and that has a global warming potential. Those particles [blowing agents] they use to spray foam things are, you know, carbon times 100. So, the global-warming payback of using spray foam is like a hundred years, and so why are we doing this? And so, you had groups saying, “We don’t want to certify buildings that are all spray foam.” And the Germans said, “That’s not in our purview. Then that’s something else.”

Phil: People were really gaming the system too. I mean, Germany really has one climate zone essentially.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah, it’s pretty mild over there.

Phil: Yeah. But here, Maine is a little different than Texas.

Chris: That’s right. So, there started to be these rifts and schisms and there’s other things and…

We had a whole podcast on why the divorce happened between the two, but the thing is, there are two flavors of Passive House. There’s the PHIUS brand (Passive House Institute U.S.) and PHI (Passivhaus International), which is everybody else. Like the metric system, we have to go be on our own thing.

Phil: And it’s important to note that Chris and I like both flavors.

Chris: We do. We are Passive-dextrious. [Audience laughter]

Phil: It’s a thing now.

Chris: It is a thing.

Phil: You just made it a thing.

Chris: Thank you, Phil. Trademark. Trademark.

Audience member: You swing both ways.

Chris: I swing? Easy down there, front row. You’ve got to watch out for the front row!

So the Maine Coast Waldorf High School, which is the school that we did — we’re going to be referencing that — that was certified through PHIUS. And then the school you did, the Friends School of Portland…

Phil: Yeah. PHA (Passive House Academy) was the certifying agency, but it was PHI.

Chris: Right. PHI. And so, the metrics are stable. They’re locked in for PHI. For example, just heating demand (because everyone knows that as 4,750 things…)

Phil: Drink!

Chris: I’m being told to drink.

Phil: BTUs per square foot per year.

Chris: Right.

Phil: Cheers. We might as well start.

Chris: Whereas the PHIUS metrics, they’re all…  So, for our project, it was 6.4. (I didn’t use units!) They were 6.4, and the reason is PHIUS has gone through huge machinations to put in financial efficacy into the equation. So that, there’s a certain tipping point where you are struggling to put…  You’re going to pay more money for the insulation to make your building a Passive House than you would to just buy more solar and make it net-zero and a better building for the planet. So, they start throwing that equation into it and then PHI lost their minds and arguments ensued, but PHIUS is continuing to push that.

So, the metrics that you have to hit for a PHIUS project are climate-specific because it also has to do with the financial efficacy of these energy-efficiency standards that you’re doing. Is that too nerdy?

Phil: It’s a little nerdy.

Chris: It’s a little nerdy.

Chris: I’m being told to drink again. Oh well.

Phil: [Laughs] Nerdy enough to drink. Okay, cheers.

Chris: I like hearing the shaker in the background, too. I hope that picks up on these mics.

Phil: [Laughs] The thing that’s important — we’re here to talk about schools again. One of the things that are very different is that big buildings, by the PHI standard, it’s much easier to hit Passivhaus with a larger structure.

Chris: That’s right. And PHIUS is the same way. The bigger buildings are easier to hit but, I think, even maybe more so. I think it’s a little bit easier on a bigger building to hit it with PHIUS than you can with PHI. I’m sure someone is going to email me and tell me I’m wrong, but the thing to really note there is, for PHI, you don’t have to hit the peak load for your mechanical systems. You have heating demand, and then you have heating load… All right, I’m getting nerdy again…

Phil: All right, I’m going to put some geek handcuffs on you right now.

Chris: No, no. No, not yet.

Phil: No? Okay. All right, you got one more?

Chris: No, that’s all right. So, load is what your building needs are at the worst-case moment, when it’s really, really cold out and the system has to be sized to that load. And with PHIUS you have to hit the metrics and with PHI you have to either do heating demand — which is the whole year (like, the amount of energy your building uses in a year) — or the load (the amount of energy it needs at that worst moment).

Phil: Yup.

Chris: And so, no one ever hits the load here in Maine because it’s really high. It’s really hard to do.

Phil: That’s right.

Chris: So… Why, Phil? Why would you even consider doing a Passive House School? You’re doing a school — you’re a school system, or a private school entity. Why would you even do it?

Phil: Well, one big reason is to reduce the long-term burden of the school. And what if you could reduce or eliminate the cost of energy going forward from here on out? That’s pretty darn appealing. One of the biggest stories I love telling about the Friends School is the treasurer of the Board (yeah, of the Board) was really dubious. He didn’t like the idea of spending a lot more money on this project. He just thought it was a bad idea for something he didn’t quite understand. But now, every time I see him, he grabs my hand and shakes it ferociously. He’s very happy. He’s like, “I’m a convert. I see right now that our long-term building cost has gone down. We’ve made a smart move. We could never have seen it.” He’s thrilled.

Chris: That’s beautiful!

Phil: Yeah. It’s very cool.

Audience: Woo-hoo!

Chris: Yeah.

Phil: Yeah. That worked! [Audience applause]

Phil: That worked.

Chris: Yeah. I like to throw out this (I think I mentioned this on the podcast before, but…): The average cost, capital cost, of a building represents 11 percent of its cost over its lifetime. So, if you think about that, the amount that you spend up front is really tiny compared to what you are going to pay for the life of that building (or what the next generation is going to pay for the life of that building). And also, the other reason to do this: There’s a financial reason, especially if you are an institution, because you are going to own that building and the people who are making the decision (the board or the committee), they’re going to be gone in a matter of time. And then there’s going to be another committee and another board and a whole other generation, and that school is still going to be around. So, making that investment, you’re going to be looked at later. If it’s a crappy building, they’re going to say, “Those people really sucked. They were terrible, and that was a bad move.”

And then, the reason we always say is that we’re saving the planet. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Phil: Right. We’re trying to lead by example. The kids who go through these buildings, we hope, are transformed somehow by attending that school.

Chris: Yeah. I know that, for Maine Coast, that was one of their… They really want to be stewards of the environment, and model that for their kids. So, how can we build a new school if we’re telling them that they need to treasure each other and the planet, and think of yourself as just a piece of a greater community? And how can you do that and then design a building that’s just designed like a big middle finger to the rest of…

Phil: Right, right, right. [Audience laughter] Yeah, I mean, we’re lucky, Chris. We’ve designed these for two private schools…

Chris: That’s right.

Phil: …that had very specific values and there was great alignment with their values.

Chris: So, what’s the barrier to the public school, Phil? Or do you think that’s coming?

Phil: It’s coming.

Chris: All right.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: I wasn’t sure what you were going to say there, as a live answer. Is there a reason you think it’s lagging behind? Is it that capital cost?

Phil: Well, before we dig into that, I’d like to hear from folks. [Directed to the audience] So, if we say, “A Passive House school costs –” How much more? Throw a percent out there. (“X” percent more to build). Take a guess or throw out a number. Shout it out.

Audience: 20 percent.

Phil: I heard 2%. I heard 20%. Seven. Ten. Five. Less. All right, Barry says, “Less.”

What do you think, Chris?

Chris: I’ll tell you what I think. I don’t know. And I did a little research before the podcast. But, I think it’s regional. And I think it’s like, five-ish. I have numbers. Are you ready?

Phil: Yeah. Because that was a very unsatisfying answer. I want to hear a number. [Audience laughter]

Chris: All right. All right.

Audience: Drink!

Chris: Ah! I’m going to be hammered after this!

Phil: [Laughs] We have to. All right, go ahead.

Chris: All right. So, what is this from? This is from, if you go to, and this was published… Basically, the state of New Hampshire did a study on the cost of schools (and this was back in 2013) for perspective. And also, check the timestamp of this podcast when you’re listening to it, as all of our podcasts — Remember our windows podcast? Yuck! Stinkeroo!

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: Don’t listen to that one. It’s so out of date! It’s like… it is like Vermouth.

Phil: That’s right. It is officially our Vermouth podcast.

Chris: It’s a Vermouth podcast.

Phil: It’s an old Vermouth podcast.

Chris: Don’t go back in time to listen to that. So, they report, “According to School Planning and Management’s 2013 Annual School Construction report, median school construction costs in New England are among the highest in the country.”

“Duh!” says me to you, because we’re in New England.

Phil: [Laughs] That’s right.

Chris: Yeah, it’s high. “Elementary schools cost $306.34 per square foot. Middle schools cost $213.33 per square foot”– which is a big difference there, especially when elementary schools are $303.03 (that’s a lot of threes) per square foot.

Phil: Right. And high schools are $303.

Chris: $306.

Phil: So, I have a question, though. Middle schools are $100 less per square foot than elementary schools?

Chris: I know. Those poor middle-schoolers, man.

Phil: Okay so, middle school sucks. We already know that middle school sucks, all right? And for so many reasons.

Chris: It does suck. [Audience laughter] And maybe this is why.

Phil: That’s why! It’s a building problem! We’re spending $100 less per square foot on our poor middle-schoolers. Maybe that’s why they’re so angry at us all the time, Chris.

Chris: If there’s one thing to take away from this podcast: would you please…

Phil: It’s a revelation!

Chris: …Please spend more on those miserable middle-schoolers.

Phil: Now that all my kids are in high school, I’ve figured that out.

Chris: Yeah, exactly.

All right, I also have another one: In 2014, the median — and by the way, I’m going to talk about why they’re saying “median” and not “mean” — elementary school in the United States costs $211.55 per square foot to build. The median high school costs $235 to build. And that’s from And that was a 2015.

So we’re talking about… So here in New England, we’re in the upper $200’s to $300 per square foot.

Phil: So, how much was the Waldorf School?

Chris: All right, I have that right here. So, Waldorf — excluding massive site work (because we had quite a lot of site work, so that’s really hard as a big variable), excluding that, so just the building — was $249 per square foot. And with the massive site work was $292.

Phil: Okay, so you were saying a high school was $300.

Chris: Yeah.

Phil: This was a Passive House for $292.

Chris: Right. In New England.

Phil: Woo-hoo! That’s awesome! [Audience applause]

All right. They did that. They kicked it. That’s awesome. So, that’s not a 5%, a 10% — that’s a negative.

Chris: That was a negative, which blows my mind, Phil.

Phil: That’s pretty cool.

Chris: It blows my mind. And then, of course, it’s still all… I bet I could find another report from somebody else that says something different. It’s like, square foot cost. I think it’s a good anecdote that we’ve got costs kind of under reins here in a Passive House School. I think it’s not that more heroic, but you know when — and you know this — when you’re building, and you’ve got that budget and you’re hitting that budget ceiling, then it’s like, “Ah, why are we doing this Passive House thing? Can’t we just scale it back like all these other schools?” Or something like that.

Phil: Right. We don’t make the case to the boards, to the committee, that says, “Oh, average schools in New England are $303, so we get $303 per square foot. Right? Don’t we get that?” No, they don’t…

Chris: They’re like, “Here’s the budget.”

Phil: They don’t care. At all. They basically said… yeah.

Chris: Yeah. “Here’s the budget and, by the way, you’re already over it,” is what they said.

Phil: [Laughs] Just by opening your mouth.

Chris: Yeah. Exactly. But I think, to both of these schools’ credits, they started… When we said we were over budget, the first things out of their mouths was not, “Do we really need that much insulation?” Or “Do we really need triple-pane glazing?” It was usually something else. And they started… It was really more like, “Does this room really have to be this big? Do we really need, you know… I don’t know… some other kind of room or something like that.”

Phil: Right. So, the values were aligned.

Chris: Exactly.

Phil: I think we’re very lucky. It would be a really great thing to say, “Oh, let’s do this for all schools going forward.” But, you know, private schools are the early adopters here. Let’s face it.

Chris: That’s right. So, with the Friends School… Well, maybe I should say with Waldorf School, their goal out of the gate was not Passive House. So, if I ask you “How do you do it?” — how did you convince the Friends School to… — Did you convince the Friends School?

Phil: There was no convincing. This was very interesting, because the same thing happened with Friends School. We had a building charrette – and the goal wasn’t net-zero energy, because that’s the thing that really reduces your future costs.

Chris: That’s exactly what Waldorf was like, too.

Phil: And we held out an option for Passive House, if that was the most cost-efficient way to get to net-zero.

Chris: How about that!

Phil: We modeled it in seven different ways, and we had our poor builder, who uses…

Chris: Oh yeah!

Phil: …And a brave builder who actually priced it in seven different ways.

Chris: Yup.

Phil: And we found out that Passive House and a superinsulated building were pretty darned close to the best path to net zero.

Chris: Yeah. We had a similar experience. Their goal was net zero, because in their minds… I think it’s easier to get your head around net zero because, you’re like, “Oh, then we don’t have energy costs! That’s amazing!” And so, when we did a net-zero building, we modeled it (as we model everything new like that in WUFI), and we’re like, “Hey, look at that! Look at all those green check marks! You are a Passive House, you know? Or, darned close to it. All you have to do is do the registration, certification and you’re a Passive House.” And they said, “Nah.” And we were like, “You’re there! Do you know how many schools would…? They have that as their goal (‘we want to be a Passive House or Building or something like that’) — and you are one.” And they were like, “No. We don’t need a certificate. We don’t need a… How much does that cost?” And we were like, “Oh, I don’t know… It’s like $10 grand to do the whole process and do the administration and all that.” And they’re like, “Nah. No.” And we’re like, “Wow! That is crazy.” And then we started looking into Advanced Buildings and, I think…

Hans, you’re here (Hans is in the back. I can see him.). He brought it up in our office once, “Why don’t you guys do Advanced Buildings?” And the Advanced Buildings – it’s a program in Maine where they actually pay you to be an energy-efficient building through the Efficiency Maine Program.

God bless them! Shout out to the Efficiency Maine people. Yeah, there you go!

Phil: Woo-hoo!

Chris: So, they took money from that and offset the registration cost to do Passive House. And we said, “Now, how about now? Do you want to be Passive House?” And they said, “Heck, yeah!” And then, now that they’ve been marketing it and winning awards with it and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is a great idea,” and it’s a very similar anecdote. They’re so proud to be a Passive House and be a leader in the country. And they’re the first high school in the country, and they can always say that.

And, I don’t know, everyone really kind of overplays firsts in my opinion — everyone wants to be the first something — but really, to be the second… I will make the pitch: To be the second something is more noble, because the first has already happened and now you’re continuing it. You’re picking it up and you’re moving forward. So, being the first follower, they say, is always…

Phil: And the third is really awesome! [Audience laughter]

Chris: And the third, because that’s what we want! We want a fourth and a fifth and we want a sixth. And so there has to be… Those are much more noble than the first. Though they get all the credit. That’s my own pitch there.

Phil: Yup, right. So, you were already there. And so, Friends School? We were under $200 per square foot.

Chris: Yeah?

Phil: $282, including a lot of site work.

Chris: That is super-impressive!

Phil: Yeah. But, even still, that was K through 8. Also kind of cool. So Chris, the numbers you and I are talking about are lower than these numbers.

Chris: Yes.

Phil: You know, when we first had to talk to the school about it and we actually priced this out, it came out at about 3% more to get to Passive House. That was the actual number we came up with. And even still, it wasn’t a no-brainer.

Chris: Right.

Phil: But, you know what this kind of tells us? If you’ve figured it out anyway — and our numbers were that close — we just don’t tell anybody. We just start doing this.

Chris: Right! [Laughs]

Phil: If we can meet these numbers, it’s our jobs as professionals to do the best buildings that we possibly can and not make this a conversation about, “Boy, let’s talk in detail about your wall section.” They don’t care.

Chris: Right.

Phil: They want it for their school.

Chris: And you’ve said it in the past…

Phil: They want to do the right thing. And they just want to hit the budgets.

Chris: Right. And how embarrassing it is to have a brand new school that’ll already be out-of-date the second it’s… The doors open and it’s obsolete!

Phil: Yeah.

Chris: Where no one would ever build it like that because it’s not energy efficient.

Phil: Stealth Passive House!

Chris: To Stealth Passive House, and we’re drinking again. Here we go!

Phil: Yes, yes. [Laughs] Drink to everyone! [Audience applause]

Chris: So, you’re saying, “sneak it in.” So, then the real question is: All right, how did we do it, Phil? Because there’s something different about… Before we talk about how we did construction different on the schools to make it happen, what’s different about schools in general? Because that’s a totally different thing. Most people, when they think about Passive Houses, they’re thinking about residential stuff, maybe they’re thinking multifamily, and that’s…

The bulk of Passive Houses are residential right now, and it’s just bleeding into commercial. So, what’s different about schools?

Phil: Right, right. Maybe we can go through these kind of quickly. Occupancy is very different.

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Phil: Nobody’s there in the summertime, and there are big assemblies, so…

Chris: They are not there at night, Phil.

Phil: That’s right.

Chris: Yeah, they’ve got those big assembly spaces that are empty. Then they’re full. And then they’re empty.

Phil: Right. There are zoning issues.

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Phil: Right. So, Passive House. We have had issues with our school because half of the buildings are on the south —  half of the classrooms are on the south side, and half of them are on the north side.

Chris: Right. You’re doing a passive solar house, or passive solar building (there, I made the mistake right there, on the air). You’re doing a passive solar building, so, of course, you’re orienting it so the big long side is on the south. That means one — and you’re usually probably doing for efficiency, a double-loaded corridor scenario, probably, you know, because that’s the most economical. And so, you’ve got one side facing south. The other side’s facing north. So, one’s in complete heat gain and the other is losing it in the wintertime. It’s a zoning nightmare.

Phil: Nightmare. This is the first thing I always tell people: It’s ventilation, too. That’s the…

Chris: Oh my gosh, yes.

Phil: That’s the… These are really about… They are ventilation-driven buildings.

Chris: I’ll do a tag.

Phil: So you didn’t believe me when I first said this out loud (It’s is the first time I said this out loud, when you and I were talking about this.)

Chris: Yeah.

Phil: …That a school requires 9 times as much ventilation.

Chris: Shut the front door, Phil!

Phil: It’s true! [Audience laughter]

Chris: It is true, it is true.

Phil: One air change every three hours for a house, and three every hour for a school.

Chris: Right. For a school.

Phil: That’s crazy.

Chris: And when you think about that, that’s a lot of air. And in fact, remember…

Phil: That’s a lot of hot air.

Chris: That’s a lot of hot air. Like this podcast. [Audience laughter]

Phil: You have to drink for that.

Chris: Fine. I can taste the pine bitters now.

Phil: Good.

Chris: I’ll do a tag back to that scenario where I’m showing the check marks. That was when we put in a very high-efficiency, beautiful Zehnder-type of ERV. Oh my God, when that number… So there’s all these dials you turn, right? — to tune your building, to make it a Passive House. There’s all these things you can change: the insulation, the orientation, the volume, and the ventilation, and your systems, and all that. The ventilation? It’s the biggest dial. We went from 90 to 70 and all those lines went brrrrrr, you know.

Phil: That was the one thing that almost killed our project. It was specifically about ventilation. Zehnder wasn’t available commercially then, and Ventacity wasn’t available then. We couldn’t get to these systems that are out now.

Chris: Right.

Phil: And it really would have made it a lot easier.

Chris: And so, I think — and here’s a good shout-out for transforming the marketplace, because you and I are calling up these people and we’re trying to get it in here — we’re starting to see that hit the market and that’s going to be way easier for these other people that do these buildings. So yeah, ventilation: Huge thing. Zoning: Huge thing.

Phil: Yup. Cool.

Chris: What else? Durability, Phil. Those kids, oh my God, they will beat up a front door like it’s…

Phil: They will shut the front door very hard!

Chris: They will shut the front door! [Audience laughter]

Phil: Over and over again.

Chris: I mean, you’ve got your house, you’ve got your normal traffic. When you multiply that times a high level of commercial use… Multiply that times middle-schoolers…

Phil: Ugh! Middle-schoolers! [Audience laughter]

Chris: And you are in trouble. With their… And you know, with Waldorf kids, they all have instruments.

Phil: That’s right! They bang their cellos. Thum-thum-bum!

Chris: They bang their instruments. Oh yeah, cellos. Don’t get me started.

Phil: [Laughs] Cellos. It’s true.

Chris: Yeah so, one of the hallmarks of a Passive House school (or a Passive House building) is that it is more durable. And a lot of that has to do with — because we’re all geeking out about the envelope and the humidity and the air quality and the comfort and all of that — just geeking out about that stuff makes the building more durable, and the materials that you use. So, that’s a plus.

Phil: Yeah. Quick talk about the specifics, Chris. How did you get there, in terms of airtightness? What did you specify? Lots of insulation. Do we need to get specific here? We don’t have to.

Chris: We don’t have to get too specific because we’re already 30 minutes into this thing.

Phil: I’m just trying to get you to say the units.

Chris: Ah! I see what you’re doing. [Audience laughter] Well, if I say R-values? Are those units?

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: R-values are not units, because you use U-values in your… You are trying to — you are tricking me!

Phil: 0.32? What did you hit, Chris? What? [Laughs]

Chris: Okay, no. I am going to get specific. So, in our walls… Let’s compare Friends and Maine Coast, because I’ve got the data right here. They’re just the stats.

Phil: Of course, you do!

Chris: I do. So, Maine Coast: The walls were R-51 and R-61, because the north wall was different. If we have time for that, I’d actually…

Phil: No, we don’t.

Chris: We don’t.

Phil: But it’s a good aside.

Chris: Oh, it’s a good story. It involves drinks and a decision. A decision over drinks.

Phil: One fateful decision.

Chris: Yeah, it was great. Anyway — and then our roof was R-55, generally, which is kind of low.

Phil: Yeah.

Chris: Lower than I thought, because I’ll tell you, after we modeled — we started doing some modeling, when we were realizing, “Oh, the ventilation is key” — we started ramping down the insulation. (“It’s barely moving those numbers, so we’re tuning this thing down.”) How many times? I haven’t done that on a building in a long time. You know, we have plenty of insulation on the roof.

What? Did that come out of my mouth?

Phil: That’s crazy.

Chris: That’s crazy!

Phil: And we didn’t do that. So, you got to… yours was 55.

Chris: Ours was 55. And look at the Friends.

Phil: 88, and then 100, because we kept going. We had an open cavity and trusses. It was loose-fill, so… How cheap is it to just dump another bag of loose-fill?

Chris: That’s cheap.

Phil: So, we really took advantage of that.

Chris: And good on you.

Phil: Thank you.

Chris: Yeah. Our slabs — and I’m loving this next one — ours were R-17. So, we’ve got some Type IX EPS under the slab.

Phil: Ours were R-57. Oops!

Chris: What? [Audience laughter] Why so much, Phil? You know that’s a constant… Builders, people against Passive House are like, “It’s got so much — There’s a mountain of foam underneath the whole building.” (Because that’s what they sound like, the people who don’t do Passive House.). “A mountain of foam underneath the building.” [Audience laughter]

So, I’m really curious about that decision. Can I push you on that, in front of everybody?

Phil: Yeah, how about those Red Sox, guys? That was a great World Series.

Chris: Oh, what a game, huh?

Phil: Go Red Sox! Yeah, what did you think? Yeah!

Chris: I heard they played a game.

Phil: [Laughs] No, you know, it…

Chris: I mean, I kind of know the answer.

Phil: Yeah, we were gaming the spreadsheet. We really, absolutely were. Is that the highest and best use of 12 inches of foam underneath that slab? No. But we had one chance to do it, and this was our first school.

Chris: Yeah.

Phil: Would we do it again? No. we know how to do it better.

Chris: All right.

Phil: But we didn’t take the chance, because if we didn’t hit our numbers, we would have been in trouble. So, we did 12 inches.

Chris: Well hey, 12 inches is better than…

Phil: I’m sorry to the world.

Chris: No, no, no. No, because, I mean, that happens. The reason why it happens on Passive House buildings is because you enter your building in the model, and you’re like, “Oh crap, we need a little bit more insulation. Where do we put it? Where’s the easiest place to add more insulation before the building is built?” Just increase what you have in the slab. It’s easy. You don’t have all these joints and things happening. It’s just, brrrrrrrrrrr, one big… Just make it thicker. And you make it.

Phil: Yup.

Chris: That’s all right, man.

Phil: Thanks. Thanks, buddy.

Chris: No, it’s a beautiful building. It’s great.

Phil: Can I get a hug from you later? I’m feeling a little down.

Chris: Yeah, later. Not in front of all these people, though.

Phil: Okay, thanks. [Laughs]

[Audience laughter]

Chris: That’s uncomfortable. Do you want to talk about entry doors? Because I kind of do.

Phil: I know you do. Yes.

Chris: Because you’ve had a pet peeve, and I share the pet peeve about high-performance entry doors. Because, we’re usually getting them from Europe, and the hardware is — And Steve Constantino, maybe he’ll — I know he’s in the audience; I see him in the audience.

Phil: Yeah, Steve’s company supplied the doors for both of our schools.

Chris: For both of our schools. And so it’s been a challenge…

Phil: And they were great, by the way. Great windows, great doors.

Chris: Absolutely.

Phil: But I know we heard his stories.

Chris: Yeah, he’ll share the stories. Maybe we’ll… We’re opening this up to questions, and maybe we’ll twist his arm and make him say something about doors.

We’re ordering very unique doors not really geared towards American hardware, and we have installers who are used to American doors, putting in these European triple-pane type doors that seal really tightly. And they have to operate like a commercial, aluminum storefront door, which is a dumb slab that people bang around and don’t care about as long as they go “click” and lock it.

Phil: Plus, we have this wild thing going on in this country now. There’s a lot of fear at our schools.

Chris: That’s right.

Phil: So, security is a really big issue. So, we have to deal with that in these doors.

Chris: Yeah.

Phil: These high-performance doors. Now you have to bake in a way to shut everything down if you need to.

Chris: That’s right. So, security is…

Phil: I wasn’t prepared to talk about this, when we started this school.

Chris: Oh yeah?

Phil: It didn’t — You know, that’s never come up with a project of mine before this.

Chris: That’s interesting because, well, ours was a little later.

Phil: Security. Yeah.

Chris: But, it was the same thing. We had a whole discussion about how we handle security and we have this vestibule that is seen by the administrative office, and there’s lock-down [equipment] and an intercom and all that stuff.

Phil: Yeah. And we were kind of guinea pigs trying to figure out the controls for this door. It was tricky.

Chris: So, it’s a little tricky. So, one of my pet peeves is — and I’ve got a six-digit idea about this later, after questions, I’ve got a six-digit idea I’m going to share — so I’m putting a pitch out there: We want more innovation in commercial doors. The other problem is: How many windows are in this school, or in a building? A ton! How many entry doors? A couple. A few. So, there’s not the incentive to really do the research in doors as there is in windows like we see.

Phil: Right.

Chris: Have we droned on enough about this? Should we open it up for questions or do you have more?

Phil: Well, before we jump into questions, I kind of want to know how the school’s doing.

Chris: Hmmm. How’s your school doing?

Phil: It’s doing really well, but…

Chris: Yeah.

Phil: There was… We had to go through some serious commissioning, and we learned a lot.

Chris: Yeah.

Phil: Because we botched a few things. We botched some stuff in the design. And I wouldn’t say “botched,” because…

Chris: I was going to say, that’s a pretty hefty word for an architect with a massive ego to say.

Phil: I know, I know, I know. Yeah, right. We did incredibly well, and it’s performing incredibly well, and I think the school’s very happy. But there’s a few things that, let’s say, we would have done differently.

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Phil: Yeah. So…

Chris: Not us! Ours is perfect. Completely perfect. No, I’m kidding.

Phil: No, but dumb ones. Like parking lot lights. We didn’t take into account the lighting in the parking lot.

Chris: Oh!

Phil: This is site energy, right? This all goes back to the school. That wasn’t in the PHPP modeling. Duh, right?

Chris: Yeah, you know what’s really…

Phil: And they were on all night. The timer wasn’t working. So, we went back and checked these numbers and were, “What’s going on?” Parking lot lights, Chris. Came on at 3:00 a.m. Just in case.

Chris: Oooooh!

Phil: For security.

Chris: Yeah, great!

Phil: Yeah.

Chris: Great. And by the way, thank you for making that mistake, because you’re working on the renovations to the community center of the same campus, and therefore…

Phil: That’s right.

Chris: …The parking of our building.

Phil: That’s right. We’re taking the parking load for you.

Chris: Thank you. Thank you. And doing it well, as opposed to…

Phil: Mm-hmm. [Audience laughter] And the other thing is that the PHI model underestimates the lighting and plug loads, we’ve found.

Chris: And I think that’s pretty well known in the people who are plugged…

Phil: Yup.

Chris: Every time I go to the PHIUS conferences, James Ortega’s up there with a slide showing, “Here’s how it was modeled and here’s how it performs,” and it’s this perfect (well, not always perfect), these perfect arcs that are like, “Oh, that’s well above — consistently by the same amount.” But, I get that — because you’re modeling an optimistic (well, maybe optimistic?) — you’re modeling this model behavior by the owners. Who’s going to have a perfect year of operation? No one.

Phil: Right.

Chris: Not even you and me if we were left. I mean, I’m sure we’re going to leave a light on or something plugged in. And the guy’s gonna be like, “You left your mics on” when we’re done. And, you know, I’ll be like, “I’m embarrassed.”

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: Not really. But, you know. That’s humans. That’s the nature of humans.

Phil: Right. And, you know, we fail upwards… right? I mean, the key is: We’re early adopters and we’re trying to tell people about some of the things you can do better next time around. So, the goal is that we’re getting better and better at these schools.

Chris: Indeed. And these errors you’re talking about, for perspective — we’re talking about — (the at-home audience can’t see my hand, but I’m going to raise it really high) — other schools, their energy use is way up here. Ours is way down here.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: And when we make that mistake, it goes way up here. (And I barely moved it.) It’s from here to here. There’s your mistake.

Phil: Yeah. It’s small.

Chris: From here to here. It’s small.

So, we have our own issues. I mean, Maine Coast is not performing as modeled.

Phil: Mm-hmm.

Chris: And, right now is when we’re doing a post-mortem on the whole thing. And we’re finding out how it is operating. We’re already finding huge mechanical errors — not mechanical design but, mechanical — either installation or performance errors. And we’ve found a reporting error of our own in terms of the amount of solar, or the amount of energy we thought. And shame on us, but we’ve got little modeling errors, but nothing to cover the amount of errors they’re seeing (or the difference).

So, it’s that — we’re blessed with good, I think, clients. They come back to us with this, “Hey, here’s how we’re performing. Let’s get to the bottom of it and try and fix it and work through it,” as opposed to those who are like, “It’s not performing like you said it would. You suck.”

Phil: Right.

Chris: “I’m never recommending you again,” or anything like that.

Phil: Which, honestly, could that be a danger in public schools?

Chris: Yes!

Phil: Yup.

Chris: Yes, it could. Because there’s that whole very competitive bid and process and, if you’re not delivering, well then you’re kind of blackballed. Or, you get that reputation and that’s maybe not fair.

Phil: Yeah. So, there’s this whole fear factor of getting more people to adopt this in the public realm.

So Chris, you know what I think would be really cool? To see if the audience has any questions.

Chris: All right. We have — like Donahue — we have Jenn. She’s going to take my mic. [Chris hands his mic to Jenn.] And then Phil and I will share. And if anyone has any questions, the lovely Donahue-slash-Jenn is going to take your questions.

Jenn: [Laughs] I’ll bring my Sally Jessy Rafael glasses.

Chris: Oh, Sally Jessy. Yeah.

Audience Question 1: Hey guys, thanks!

Chris: Hey!

Audience Question 1: Hey! My name is John.

Chris: Hi, John.

Audience Question 1: I work for a building company, Emerald Builders. And so, what I’m salivating over is: What were the wall assemblies in these schools? And this north/south wall thing: I want to hear about.

Chris: Okay.

Audience Question 1: I want to hear the nerd-out on that.

Chris: All right. Both these schools had the same builder, which is really great. It was really great for us because we got him second. So, the Friends School went first with this builder. And so, they really knew a wall system, which was an outsulation approach.

Phil: Right.

Chris: 2x8s or 2x6s?

Phil: 2x6s with two layers of…

Chris: Two-inch polyiso on the outside (that’s the core wall), and then the finishes are different on either side.

Phil: So, seven of the eight exposures of the two schools were that.

Chris: Yeah, there you go! And then, there was a camp in the design team — maybe it’s me. Maybe it was in our firm.

Phil: [Laughs] It was you.

Chris: …that is very fond of vapor-open assemblies, which the outsulation approach is not. However, it models fine in WUFI when you model it. However, the vapor-open assembly models even better. And what we’re talking about is a Larsen truss, which is a 2×6 wall with sheathing, and then you have I-joists on the outside, and then you have a weather-resistant barrier — in this case, it was Siga — on the outside of it, and then that is filled with dense-packed cellulose. And then you strap and do your siding, or something like that. So, you have a very thick cavity.

And this builder, of course, had never done that before. And so, there was myself and a board member who was very fond of the vapor-open assembly who said, “Listen, let’s just go have drinks and talk about it.” So we went to Novare Res[Café]  — shout-out for them, because it was great — and we talked about how simple it could be if done well and done right. And I have talked to builders who have done both, and they’re like, “Yeah. It makes a lot of…” And here’s the takeaway of it all: Would we ever have those two assemblies on the same building at the same time? No. We wouldn’t. But what we did was, the builder agreed — “Oh, we’ll do the north wall, which has fewer windows, fewer boogie-woogie.” (Much less boogie-woogie, I should say.)

And did they get it absolutely right? Actually, no. The funny thing is that they had lots of extra layers because, instead of Zip, “Let’s do plywood and Siga.” And that flew through the administration process. We were like, “Yeah, that’s a fair substitution. Sure. We’ll take plywood and Siga over Zip System any day if that’s your preference.” But then it was like, “Well, that’s another trip around the building,” and then they did the Siga again. So, there’s two weather barriers and there doesn’t need to be, but — I’m sharing way too much!

The point is, there are two different wall types and they’re both great. One that the builder is still way more comfortable with, as he was in the beginning. But both are great.

Phil: The lesson is, when somebody comes up to you and offers to buy you a drink and says, “Hey, you want to try something really interesting?” Say, “No.”

Chris: Yeah. [Audience laughter]

Phil: That’ll cost you a lot of money.

Chris: That’s probably true. Should we keep drinking?

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: All right.

Phil: Anyone else?

Chris: Any questions? Yeah.

Audience Question 2: I just want you to work in “boogie-woogie” into this answer again, Chris.

Chris: What’s that?

Audience Question 2: Boogie-woogie. If you could…

Chris: Boogie-woogie! I will add more boogie-woogie to this answer, sure.

Audience Question 2: Yes, if you could include that in this answer again? Yeah.

Chris: I will figure out how.

Audience Question 3: So, my first question is: Have either of you ever been involved in doing a public school before doing a private school? So, that’s kind of one question. And then, how might they be different, between private schools or public schools, other than just the procurement process? And then the second question is: Are there any things that you’ve learned doing schools that might be transferable to, say, the next big hurdle: office, or retail?

Phil: Hmm. Okay. So, public schools. We have not done public schools. We have not done one.

Chris: Well, no. As Briburn, we haven’t. But, everyone in our office (well, the higher-up people in our office) have all done public schools. I’d say one of the big differences is usually the public school has this rigid bidding process. You have to have your drawings done and then it goes out to bid and there’s a whole process for that. And with both schools — I know in our office (I’ll speak for myself, and you chime in) — for the Waldorf School, we had the builder on board. They were on board even before we were. So, that’s a huge advantage to talk through these assemblies and what our goals are, and then they act as sort of a check and balance. They act as the construction management arm of the whole equation to watch for the costs.

Phil: Yeah. It’s a crazy luxury. It’s kind of unfair, but again, we’re Robin Hooding this thing. You know? We’re hoping these schools can teach us how to do these more efficiently, more cost-effectively. And I think the first couple of public schools are going to come down to Stealth Passive House. We’re just going to have to say, as designers and builders, “We’re in this, and we’re going to find a way to meet your numbers. And not talk about the wall section.” I think that’s how we’re going to have to start. And I think, eventually, when numbers start building up, that they’re realizing that the operations and maintenance costs are lower, then they’re going to start advocating. And it’s going to start getting built into the codes more and more. I don’t think Maine’s going to be a leader on that, but that might be the only way that I can see of it really getting into public schools. Or having really strong advocates that are basically involved in the school.

Chris: Yeah, and I think they’re more cautious.  They’re less, maybe, courageous to go out and be on the front line and try out all that boogie-woogie.

Phil: And they’re not playing with their own money. You know?

Chris: Right.

Phil: Another question?

Audience Question 4: I’m still not clear on the exact reason why the price was so dramatically lower per square foot. Could it be that, because public schools might require union or prevailing wage jobs, the labor was higher? Or was it downsized mechanical systems? What exactly accounts for such a drastic change?

Phil: Why the cost per square foot was different in the numbers that we gave versus the build? Yeah. My theory is that because it’s New England — and it’s not Maine — is that we’re talking a lot about Massachusetts buildings. And I think if you were going to take the average of Maine schools, we’d be about $160 per square foot, but not $220.

Chris: Maybe. I could not find…

Phil: What do you think?

Chris: Yeah. No, I think that’s right. I tried before this podcast (in my limited time before we got here) to try and find numbers that were Maine-based. I couldn’t. Maybe we can publish them if we get them.

Phil: Okay. All right. One more, I think.

Chris: Yeah, we’ll do one more.

Audience Question 5: Well, I just wanted to answer that question a little more. I mean, I think it’s unfair. I think both of those schools, neither have kitchens.

Chris: Oh, that’s a great point. Thank you.

Audience Question 5: Yeah. I think that might be a big chunk of that difference of cost.

Chris: That is true. They both have great rooms that are community spaces and there’s no gymnasium. And there’s no…

Phil: And there’s no kitchen.

Chris: …kitchen. Which, by the way, also really helped us meet the Passive House standards.

Phil: [Laughs] Yeah.

Chris: The Ecology School that we’re working on right now? It has a kitchen, it has a dining hall, and — my gosh! — that’s where a lot of that energy is.

So, is that all of our questions? Are we done with questions?

Phil: I think we’re done with questions.

Chris: All right. I want a big round of applause for…

Phil: Chris, that says applesauce, not applause.

Chris: The applesauce is intentional for everyone who gave a question. We have applesauce for you, so we’ve got some…

Phil: Oh, a parting gift!

Chris: A parting gift. The lovely Jenn Whitley will be giving you some applesauce.

Phil: [Laughs]

Chris: This segment of our podcast is sponsored by Motts. [Audience laughter]

Phil: [Laughs] If only, right?

Chris: If only! Okay. [Audience laughter] All right.

Phil: Chris, do you have a six-digit idea?

Chris: All right, yeah. So, the six-digit idea. We have things on this podcast, we usually have, “What’s bothering Jesse?” He’ll come on and just complain about something.

Phil: He complains about stuff. He’s got a whole list.

Chris: He’s got a list. It doesn’t matter when we grab him. It happens. And then, we usually have pet products — things that we’re really fond of. And six-digit ideas — things that we think are great ideas.

Phil: We give you $100,000? Is that the minimum?

Chris: Six-digits! Minimum.

Phil: That’s the minimum. Possibly more.

Chris: This one may be five.

Phil: Okay.

Chris: Maybe five.

Phil: What is it, Chris?

Chris: All right, so I’m walking up to the Maine Coast Waldorf School doors, post-completion (but, they’re still working out the bugs of everything), and I’m walking up to the door and I can tell the ERV is on and going because the door is just agape. It won’t close. And as I reach my hand, I can feel this jet of air. This building is so tight, and the ERV is just slightly out of balance — the building is pressurized — and these doors won’t close.

Phil: Ah, yes.

Chris: So then we, of course, had the ventilation system checked, rebalanced, and then, every once in a while, it’s still pressurized. There could be a draft on the other — There could be a nice breeze on the back side of the building and all of a sudden, the pressure increases in the building and the doors won’t close. So, here we are: These fancy doors that we spent a lot of money on, that we’ve worked on the hardware for, all this jazz, and, hey! Just hover! And so, let’s crank up the — Now they’re these heavy doors to move and operate, and they still sometimes don’t close.

So here’s the six-digit idea: How do you solve that? You have a door that is this two-part door. Imagine (I’m going to kind of animate this — you poor people listening and you can’t see it! — as the door closes, there’s this vent component to it at the bottom or the top or something like that, so then…

Phil: Chris is gesticulating wildly.

Chris: Yes. [Audience laughter]

Phil: Right hand in the air, ready to strike.

Chris: So, these vents are open on the door, so the door closes and it latches, and then they go, “Thoomp!” Then they close. Like a secondary mechanism. It closes, it triggers this closing. So the air can just pass through it and so that air can just jet through the door and then, “Boom!” Then it closes. And I think, that would ripple through… Then our houses would be the same way, and all this stuff. It would be like a cool door.

Phil: Except for middle-schoolers, maybe it’d be nice to give them a good whack out the door as they walk out.

Chris: Yeah. And these things are hitting people in the head…

Phil: Yeah. Probably not really good.

Chris: Dumb design. Six-digit idea.

Jalousie doors? Yeah, all the glass, louvers. Yeah, yeah. Really energy efficient. The Jealousy doors.

Phil: Thank you. I’m in. I’d love to specify that door someday.

Chris: Okay. I think we’re done! So, all we have left is your song, right? So, the other thing of our podcast is Phil always has a song that we go out on that you should be listening to in the studio. But I think this one you’ve chosen is something special.

Phil: Yeah: “We’re Going to Be Friends” by the White Stripes. It’s a classic song. It’s about a boy and a girl in a school and it’s just innocent and sweet and kind of cool and we’re going to go out on that.

Chris, it’s been a pleasure.

Chris: Phil, always a pleasure to do a podcast with you. And thank you all, Live Audience, for…

Phil: Cheers! Thank you all so much! [Audience applause]

[The episode closes with a song by White Stripes: “We’re Going to Be Friends.”]


  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    Since you and Chris are always having such a good time laughing and drinking together, it's sometimes hard to know when you are joking and when you're serious. I'm hoping that you were joking when you said, "I often say [when explaining what a Passive House is] it’s a 90% reduction in energy use."

    And a little later, Chris says, "They say it’s 90% more efficient than your code-compliant house."

    Joke, right? See this article: "Does a Passive House Use 90 Percent Less Energy?"

    1. Christopher Briley | | #3

      Joke? Yes, sort of. I hope that comes through to the listeners/readers. That 90% statement is an often repeated statement about the efficiency of Passive House buildings and is not founded on anything tangible. There are so many factors to what makes a project energy-efficient and no one has done an exhaustive study to prove out this claim. (To my knowledge) There is always a challenge in communicating how much more efficient a passive house is than a "regular" house or "regular" school. What we SHOULD have said is that it is about 5 times more efficient. We get this number by taking our EUI for Maine Coast Waldorf School (which is 14.3 kBtu/ft2 without solar PV contributing) and compare that with the average EUI of an average k-12 school according to the DOE which is 48.5. So.... 70% more efficient.

      1. Christopher Briley | | #4

        And yes, that is a MODELED EUI. Reality is another thing. So 70%ish.

        1. GBA Editor
          Martin Holladay | | #6

          Thanks for the clarification. And welcome back! Great podcast. Congratulations to both of you for your accomplishments with these schools. They are impressive.

      2. Kevin_Henry | | #7

        As Martin points out in his article, the appropriate comparison would be to a contemporary code-minimum building. The data you're citing comes from a survey of all existing commercial buildings, not just new ones. In fact, a look at the source data [1] reveals that more than 20% of the Educational buildings used in that survey were built before 1960!

        So, unfortunately, I don't think claiming 70% greater efficiency is justified either.

        At a quick glance I didn't see any summary tables breaking down energy use by year of construction. But it should be possible to figure out the EUI for new-ish buildings only, which would provide a better point of comparison.


        1. GBA Editor
          Martin Holladay | | #8

          Thanks for backing me up -- and for making an important point about Passive House building performance claims.

      3. Markiz_von_Schnitzel | | #9

        Sorry, newb here.. But.. Why would you be comparing the new passivhaus built school energy usage, to the already built old school energy usage?

        When trying to convey how much more passivhaus is efficient, should you not compare it to a new, code built school?

        That would be like saying to the potential buyer "Tesla costs per mile are 90% less" than the old Corvette (or whatever old inefficient car). When in fact, this customer is not actually considering buying an old Corvette, but is contemplating between a Tesla and say a BMW series 5?

        1. GBA Editor
          Martin Holladay | | #10

          Kevin Henry made the same point in Comment #7.

        2. Christopher Briley | | #11

          And it's a very good point. Drawing general comparisons always seems to get me in trouble. It's way easier to say that a school is modeled to consume 49,000 kWh annually with an EUI of 14.3 kBtu/ft2. and leave it at that, but usually 75% of the people we're presenting to have no frame of reference for those numbers. I will work a more accurate comparison for future articles/presentations. Thanks for keeping us honest and accurate, guys. Cheers.

  2. Expert Member
    RICHARD EVANS | | #2


    I learned SO MUCH from the podcasts and enjoyed the banter. I even loved the Cuban style intro...

    The last podcast ended with a song from Phil. I don't recall much about it.... But I do recall that the song featured a curious chorus: "I am going to stab you in the eye with a foreign object".

    These were the last words uttered in the Green Architects Lounge series of podcasts that had come to love so much. I remember thinking; wow... So this is how it ends....

    Glad you guys are back! :-)

  3. Christopher Briley | | #5

    We couldn't let it end that way. ;)

    Thanks for listening and the kind words, Rick. We're happy to be back!


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