Proof of concept takes a long time in the construction sector, especially when it comes to big buildings. They take a long time to plan, construct and evaluate. But it has to be done in order to advocate for solutions to be incorporated into code and eventually pave the path to go mainstream. 

By 2015, Phius conceives a new standard framework, gets it peer reviewed, and the methodology is published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Phius’ partnership with the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Zero Energy Ready Homes (ZERH) program is now well established, and the energy efficiency staircase concept from Energy Star up to ZERH to Phius CORE and then ZERO is starting to be widely promoted. Early advocacy and policy work starts to show results as early as 2014. By 2022, 18 housing agencies across the country are incentivizing Phius projects in one way or another. Codes across the country begin to include Phius as an alternative compliance path.

First in 2010, New York City and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) add incentives for training to build professional capacity to design passive projects. Once capacity has been built, the agency changes its strategy to cash incentives per passive unit certified. A couple years later, Massachusetts and other Northeastern states follow suit. They copy more or less the same strategy with the intention to accelerate the uptake through code inclusion. 

By 2018, Phius passive building certification square footage begins to increase exponentially. More than 20 million square feet of Phius passive projects have been certified and submitted as of this writing, and if the growth trend holds, we’ll cross the 30 million mark soon. 

In 2022, Massachusetts is the first state to release a special opt-in energy code that makes passive building code for multifamily buildings larger than 12,000 sq. ft. and for certain commercial building typologies. Municipalities that represent more than 20% of the Massachusetts population have already adopted the special opt-in code, including Boston.

None of this happened overnight. Both States, through NYSERDA and Mass Save, held proof of concept competitions to evaluate the additional cost and actual performance of multifamily passive projects. Both published actual construction data for about 48 Phius projects in New York State and 8 projects in Massachusetts. It is important to note, that the Mass Save proof of concept competition included Phius projects only and resulted in an average cost premium of 2-3% for Phius projects specifically. (It should be noted that no PHI projects were part of this study. The two programs are not equivalent and lead to significantly different design solutions and cost premiums. Therefore, the Phius cost margin from the Mass Save study should not be expected for PHI projects).

Maybe the most high profile and most successful Phius certified project to date is the 425 Grand Concourse 26-story affordable housing development by Trinity Financial in the Bronx, which was one of the winners of NYSERDA’s Buildings Of Excellence Competition. The project team chose the Phius Passive Building Standard path because the approach of cost, climate and building typology optimization made sense to them. It meant a project that was most affordable, efficient, with optimal comfort in winter and summer. Integrated best practice quality assurance through alignment with the DOE programs assure performance as much as possible. 

A couple years of planning, building, occupying and measurement later, the results of 425 Grand Concourse are stunning so far. The cost data has been collected and published by the third party NYSERDA as proof of concept. The project was able to keep additional cost for the improvements over code to 2.3% while meeting all Phius goals. The measures required under the Phius program reduced the projected operational cost per kWh by two thirds while also increasing comfort and indoor health in the building significantly. The monitored data up to this point shows better than predicted performance.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, we are now up to 11 multifamily projects fully certified and occupied, 55 design-certified and under construction and 27 multifamily projects have recently been submitted (this includes residence halls). In addition, we are expecting about 100 multifamily projects within the next year out of Massachusetts alone.

We are now well on our way to make good on our promise of making passive building mainstream. We will soon know what disruptive power passive building holds when applied on a large scale. 

The murder mystery might intensify again, because we will challenge the status quo further, disrupt well established power structures, interests, and money flows of existing industry heavy weights, utilities, big oil and gas. But fossils are just one industry that is obviously being challenged. This will ripple.

Are we done yet? Will there be further groundbreaking developments in the future? 

I’ll echo William Shurcliff here who made his predictions for the future in the 80s: the technology is mature, and further improvements he foresaw actually happened almost exactly. The story was about refinement. 

I believe in the next 10 years we will see another wave of refinements – maybe even another push to use less energy by revisiting passive technologies such as thermal mass and phase change materials and cooling paints. As passive building increasingly establishes itself as the building code of the future and the best path to zero, its prevalence in the market on a large scale will have a profound impact on the greater context of the grid. The benefit will enable yet another disruptive technology while passive buildings, now at the core of the new renewable grid, will act as capacitors for the whole system.

Communities of the future will be based on passive buildings and they will be organized in islandable micro-grids, making the overall grid more reliant and our dwellings much safer and more resilient.

Passive house is about mitigation and adaptation, tapping into the many synergies between adjacent systems...and with that…fundamentally about world peace.