Ken Levenson, a New York architect who closed his firm to help launch a retail supplier of high-performance building materials, has been named the first executive director of the North American Passive House Network, its board of directors announced.
The move is part of the organization’s effort to increase its reach and widen the appeal of the German-based Passive House building standard, according to Bronwyn Barry, chair of the NAPHN board of directors.
Levenson, 53, has been promoting the Passive House standard for a decade and until late last year was the chief operating officer of 475 High Performance Building Supply, which carries a variety of products used by designers and builders specializing in high-performance buildings.
An architecture graduate of Pratt Institute in 1989, Levenson quit the business in 2011 to co-found 475 as he became more deeply involved in Passive House design. He was a founding board member of New York Passive House, and a founding board member of the Passive House Alliance.
More recently, Levenson has been a volunteer with a group called Extinction Rebellion, which describes itself as a global climate civil disobedience group. Its members believe in non-violent means to change the political system in the face of government failure to come to grips with global climate change.
He also has been volunteering full-time on the online NAPHN 2020 conference during the coronavirus pandemic that turned the tw0-day, in-person event into a six-week-long virtual conference.
“The conference ended up playing out not just during a pandemic but during the Black Lives Matter protests too, and both affected me deeply,” Levenson said in a written statement, “reinforcing the direct connections between climate crisis imperatives and what it means to deliver truly sustainable communities for all. In this context, I look forward to energizing NAPHN efforts, working with professionals, policymakers, and developers, to enhance our metrics of success.”
Levenson said he quit the boards of both NAPHN and New York Passive House at about the same time he worked out an agreement allowing him to leave 475 toward the end of 2019. “I just wanted to clear the decks, and clear my mind and see what comes next,” he said in a telephone call. “This was the farthest thing from my mind, to end up in this role.”
But as he became involved in Extinction Rebellion, he saw parallels between it and the Passive House movement. Both, he said, represent a “proportionate response to the climate emergency,” and both “have assertive action built into them.”
“In Passive House, it’s about challenging yourself, reevaluating how you’re building and how you are putting these things together and designing, and conceiving architecture in the context of this climate emergency,” he said.
He also sees similarities between Passive House and how white Americans confront the systemic racism at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In the construction industry we’re all part of the climate problem,” he said. “It’s not a matter of not being part of the problem. It’s how much you’re trying to be a part of the solution.”
Levenson said NAPHN is well positioned to help transform the construction industry, although he’s not yet certain what exactly he’ll do to strengthen the organization.
“I’m just starting to think about it,” he said.
But part of his effort will be to find ways to engage people, to “get into their guts,” in the same way that Extinction Rebellion has been able to impel individuals to act.
“That’s the challenge for Passive House,” he said. “It’s not just personal decisions. You’re operating in this much bigger and complicated landscape.”
NAPHN is one of two Passive House organizations in North America. The other is Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), led by its co-founder Katrin Klingenberg. PHIUS began as the U.S. offshoot of the German-based Passive House Institute, but the two groups went their separate ways in a public falling out in 2011. PHIUS now maintains its own building standard.
Levenson said he retains a part ownership in 475 and would remain on its board of directors.
-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer for Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.