The Passivhaus standard from Germany casts something of a shadow over the environmentally friendly building sector. No matter how much solar PV or insulation developers install, no matter whether wastewater heat recovery systems are installed, no matter how well sourced the materials are; the suspicion remains that nothing they do is good enough when held up against the Passivhaus standard.
It really is the gold standard in many ways. To get Passivhaus certification a home or building must perform highly in four general areas: space heating and space cooling energy demand; energy usage, which must be mostly renewable and less than 60kWh per square metre; airtightness as measured in pascals; and thermal comfort for the eventual residents.
Despite being both voluntary and extremely demanding, there are currently more than 30,000 Passivhaus certified homes across the globe at the moment, and it is the fastest-growing environmental certification standard in the world. The next big frontier for Passivhaus may well be in the USA.
At present, the predominant environmental standard for buildings in the USA is LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a rating system created by the United States Green Building Council. LEED certification is currently acknowledged in 167 countries and territories worldwide, and the number of buildings which fall under its scrutiny runs into the millions. Passivhaus is a more thorough standard but it has a lot of catching up to do.
The tide appears to be turning a little, however. New York in particular is becoming a hub of super-environmental design with almost 80 buildings in the city already Passivhaus-certified and a further 27 in construction, according to City Realty. Buildings with triple insulation, strategically positioned windows and innovative heat exchange systems are only going to become more popular in a city which is making a name for itself on the front lines of the climate change fight.
One company making particularly interesting strides is Synapse Development Group which is actively trying to give New York proof that the Passivhaus concept can be achieved in a cost effective manner. Its recently-completed development Perch Harlem is a fine example of Passivhaus on a large scale. This seven storey apartment complex in the Hamilton Heights neighbourhood of Harlem is nothing less than a window into the future for New York.
Justin Palmer, the founder and CEO of Synapse, is on record saying that he is aiming to be the Tesla of building development. By this he does not mean simply creating an environmentally friendly product; the goal is to do that in a fashion which removes the excuses for making a non-environmentally friendly product. If you can simply and affordably build an apartment complex which adheres to such rigorous standards, then why wouldn’t you? It is the same logic which dictates that if there is a cheap electric alternative which outperforms traditional fossil fuel-powered cars, then why would you not want it?
In this way, Palmer and his company are focussing on much more than simply the intrinsic value of the buildings they develop. They are pushing the extrinsic value of what they are doing in order to inspire others down the same path, and thereby they hope to change American cities for the better in the future.