Decades before “sustainable” was a buzzword, entertainment executive Tom Silverman (founder of music label Tommy Boy Records) was espousing the virtues of consciously selecting environmentally friendly building materials for his offices. Apparently, Silverman had quite an impact on his architect at the time, Wayne Turett, because nowadays The Turett Collaborative is known for designing sustainable commercial, hospitality and high-end residential projects in the ultra energy-efficient Passive House style.
The Greenport Project
Turett not only designs according to the Passive House method for others. He lives by those tenets in his family’s house, in the harborside village of Greenport on Long Island, N.Y. As Turett told Connected Design, “I think of my house as a laboratory for myself. And so, the idea is to try things out on myself before I push them onto clients.”
What is Passive House?
In Germany, the Passive Haus movement was adopted as a highly quantifiable way to build with substantial energy savings in mind. According to Turett, “The “passive” part really refers to orienting the building so that the low sun in the winter can enter and heat the house for free; and the high sun in the summer gets cut out by overhangs and whatever you use to block the sun.” In that sense, you don’t necessarily have to buy anything to save money on fuel. But there’s much more to the picture than simply facing an edifice in a particular direction.
Sealing the Envelope
The more “active” aspect of Passive House design is creating a virtually impenetrable thermodynamic barrier around the building. In his house, it starts with a robust infusion of fiberglass insulation between the frame and studs. Outside that framing is an air barrier formed by zip sheathing, fully taped off and sandwiched by four inches of rigid Polyisocyanate insulation. Combined with typical sheetrock and siding, that affords about 12 inches of protection from thermal bridging. In other words, you’re exponentially less likely than in a typical house to lose heat in the winter.
Given such a fanatically tight seal, indoor air quality is also a strong consideration. That’s where the Energy Recovery Ventilation unit comes in. The ERV continuously exhausts the air out of your bathrooms and kitchen—no switch needed—and automatically injects fresh air into each of the other living areas individually. In particular, the Zehnder ERV that Turett has installed in his house uses a series of flexible insulated tubes that fit within the space of a 2 by 4 wall, allowing it to provide fresh air with over 90 percent energy efficiency. It’s able to serve up warm, highly breathable air in wintertime, rather than having to waste energy reheating fresh air as it enters the home.
Unmasking Your Audio
Triple-glazed windows are the last piece of the insulation puzzle. Of course, in addition to letting in lots of natural sunlight, they offer energy-saving properties; but as a side benefit, they also create an incredibly quiet listening environment. And that plays a big part in removing the masking effect. As Blaine LaCross, an electroacoustic engineer for Headphones.com explains, “A lot of people think that outside noises can only distract us from small details and quiet parts of sounds, but due to the way our cochlea works, they can literally stop us from hearing them entirely.” Thus, these three-paned windows not only allow listeners to enjoy lower volumes, but also to hear everything better at any volume. And to compensate for acoustic reflections off the glass, Turett recommends that A/V integrators design sound dampening window treatments.
The Greenport House is all-electric, which includes lighting, cooking, laundry, hot water, charging an electric car, air conditioning and heating—a small subset of which is sparingly using radiant heating under the wood floors in his bathroom. Having closely tracked his total energy usage for a few years, Turett seems to be averaging 944 kilowatt-hours. Although he doesn’t use solar panels, he did find through his research that the ideal supply for his house would be a 7.2-kilowatt system.
Powered by Wi-Fi supplied from T-Mobile for just 50 bucks a month, Turett has tested a wide variety of smart home gadgets. He’s a big fan of Lutron for controlling lighting and shades. In his case, he champions their Caseta brand of switches, which he assures are an easy, affordable, robust and reliable way to control devices from a phone or keypad. He’s also adopted Wi-Fi locks and video doorbells. And naturally, Turett is a big proponent of smart thermostats such as Nest, for their ability to save energy by adjusting the temperature based on programmed conditions teamed with artificial intelligence. But not all smart devices are simple DIY projects. As Turett warns, “The one thing I will say is that all of these things take a little bit of tech knowledge. So, either you have to have somebody install it or you have to work through it yourself.”
Other Caveats to Keep in Mind
Although energy savings, superb air quality and scads of bright natural light are strong benefits, Passive Houses aren’t no-brainers. In fact, just the opposite, adhering tightly to the method obsessively accounts for every little detail of a house’s structure and materials. So much so that Turett says the resulting complex formula requires a computer and a dedicated Passive House consultant to solve. But you don’t have to go “all the way.” You can take some steps in the right direction. As Turett reassures, “It’s better to do something than nothing.”
Those initial steps might be integrating petrochemical-free insulation, sealing in an air barrier and replacing your old, thin, inefficient windows. Additionally, you’ll want to carefully consider your appliances. For instance, dishwashers are generally quiet and efficient, but the carbon required to produce and ship them from factories might substantiate simply washing your dishes by hand.
Turett also warns that—because a passive house is well insulated and sealed—you’ll want to select a smaller size heat pump than in a traditional (non-Passive) house. And while the savings are the true reward, it also may mean that it takes longer to cool a warm house. Similarly, heat pump dryers (though effective) tend to be noisier and take longer, so he advises that you do your due diligence in researching units before you buy, for example comparing the Energy Star ratings between appliances you’re considering. And as a generalization, Turett notes that appliances from Europe tend to be more efficient since they’re typically held to stricter standards.