Is it time for passive house design in New York?

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The writing is on the wall: Over the next few years, contractors in New York State will likely stop building new gas- and oil-fired homes.

As politicians write the fine print of the 2022 state budget, one of the major battles looming is over the banning of fossil fuels in new construction. With most state Democratic lawmakers on board with some climate action, the fight isn’t whether to do it, it’s when. Governor Kathy Hochul said she wants a ban to take effect in 2027. State lawmakers sponsoring the All-Electric Buildings Act—Emily Gallagher in the Assembly and Brian Kavanagh in the Senate—want this to happen from 2024. New York City is already moving on this front, with the recent passage of a local law that begins to phase out the gas connections in new constructions in 2024.

It seems that a phase-out of fossil fuels in new buildings is coming sooner or later. Either way, Hudson Valley passive house design expert John Loercher needs to grow his business, and fast.

“A few months ago we started hearing all these statements, like [Hochul’s] State of the State address, talking about a much more aggressive rate of decarbonization,” says Loercher, who is the founder of North East Projectsa passive house design company based in the town of Hillsdale, Columbia County, and an instructor for the national Passive House Institute USA (PHUS). “I was like, ‘Wow, I have to find a new business model here, because there just aren’t enough professionals right now to handle that kind of volume.'”

I sing the electric building

Passive house design, a philosophy that took root in the wake of the energy crisis of the 1970s and 1980s and took on new life in the climate-conscious years, revolves around one fundamental principle: most a home’s warmth should come naturally. With super-efficient insulation and design ideas from building science to make the most of natural temperature regulation, a well-designed and certified passive house needs little additional heat beyond that generated by activities of ordinary life within its walls.

According to NYSERDA data, energy consumption from building heating and cooling currently accounts for more than a third of New York State’s greenhouse gas emissions. If widely adopted, passive house design could boost New York State’s decarbonization goals in more ways than one.

Credit: hammer and hand
Passive house design principles in action.

As more industries begin to transition to cleaner sources of heat and power, inefficient buildings are increasingly becoming a problem, and not just because they create greenhouse gases. tight. The more energy our buildings waste, the more industrial electrical infrastructure we will eventually need to build in rural areas of upstate New York.

“If at this exact moment we were to snap our fingers and take every home that uses gas and oil off of these fossil fuels and put them on electricity, our grid would go down. He wouldn’t be able to handle that,” Loercher says.

Over the next few decades, New York’s climate law will require every state agency to work to move away from fossil fuels in every sector of the economy. If all New York had to do was replace half of its electrical grid infrastructure – the half currently powered by fossil gas and the transmission lines that currently carry electricity from fossil-fuelled power plants – it would be an enormous task in self. But the work is much more important than that.

Electric vehicles are increasingly on the road, creating a new demand for electricity. In homes and buildings, electric heat pumps that double as air conditioners in the summer will gradually begin to replace oil and gas furnaces, a technological shift that promises to dramatically increase the efficiency of heating and cooling homes. houses, but also to exert greater pressure on the grid. Around 2040, New York Independent System Operator analysts predictElectricity peaks in New York will no longer be in the summer, when millions of old and inefficient air conditioners are running at full blast, but in the winter, when the heat pumps are working the hardest.

2040 is also New York’s target date for a zero-emissions power grid, and reaching that goal will require massive construction of new renewable energy, as well as new transmission lines to transport it to areas of high demand. The higher the winter peak, the more New York will need to build zero-carbon energy to ensure the lights stay on during the coldest part of the year.

“What the ‘passive house’ tries to do is meet the grid in the middle,” says Loercher. “By building to the passive house standard, you achieve a significant reduction in primary energy consumption.”

Energy flow

Energy efficiency is getting more attention from state policy makers lately. In the early days of the passive house movement, Loercher says, it was not uncommon for a well-designed passive house to save 90% on energy bills compared to a conventional house of similar size. But as building code catches up to the physical realities of climate and energy, the gap between “ordinary” construction and passive house design is narrowing. Another bill that is part of Governor Hochul’s proposed executive budget, and which could become law this year, would further tighten building code and energy efficiency standards, bringing the status quo one step closer to the State of the lofty ideals of the passive house movement. .

If increasing standards for the rest of the construction industry ultimately means that the passive house toolkit will no longer be special, well, that’s sort of the idea. Evangelicals of the movement believe that with advances in building science as well as more widespread adoption, passive house design will eventually “fulfilling its promise and becoming the market standard for consumer design and performance in North America.” We’re not there yet in New York, but we’re getting closer.

This article also appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Upstate home.

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