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Getting Loaded: Loadingdock5′s Passive Williamsburg Townhouse Back In Spotlight

Here at gbNYC, we are officially on the record as fans of Passive House 1, the (yes) passive house at 174 Grand Street in Williamsburg. Since we first wrote about Passive House 1 back in October, the project has — as you can see above — come a long way. For one thing, they painted the front door pink (Curbed has owned that particular story). For another, more important thing, the place is pretty much finished — Loadingdock5, the architects and developers behind 174 Grand Street, has some photos of the shined-up interior on their blog. But perhaps most notably, given that the ultimate goal of Passive House 1 is to get someone to live in the space, the project has gotten a ton of attention of late. In our meta sort of way, we’re contributing to that now, but few green developments in New York City deserve the attention more, and given the inherent difficulties of small-scale green development in New York, it’s nice to see that Passive House 1 getting some help.

A virtual photo spread in Inhabitat — which also provides some updates on just how spectacularly energy-efficient the building is — is nice, but a recent feature on WNYC is the biggest press exposure that Passive House 1 has yet enjoyed. Unsurprisingly, Passive House 1 comes off well. Perhaps more surprisingly — and this is a good surprise — the WNYC report puts Passive House 1 in the context of the rising tide of PassivHaus-compliant construction in New York.

“A few years back, the architects would have needed to import nearly all of the materials to build in the Passive House style,” Kateri Jochum writes at WNYC. “But as interest has grown along with rising energy costs, so has the market for energy efficient building products like insulation and windows. The architects said the savings on the other side will make up for it. Across the country, there are dozens of Passive House buildings under construction, but after coming late in the game, New York seems to be taking the lead.”

I’ve written extensively about PassivHaus-related things here at gbNYC, albeit somewhat schizophrenically. As impressed as I’ve been with individual passive house developments such as Dennis Wedlick’s Hudson Passive House in Claverack, NY, I have been stubbornly (and maybe a little strangely) skeptical of passive building in general in the past. “Given the urgency of the present moment, and given how important it is (to gbNYC and, we could argue, in general) that green building become accepted as simply better and more contemporary building, rather than a luxury good for the green-minded… well, given those and a bunch of other things, there’s an impulse on my part to look at things like net zero construction as something of a stunt,” I wrote back in September. “A well-meaning and praiseworthy and generally admirable and ethically blameless stunt, to be sure, but something very much like a stunt all the same.”

Which… well, have you ever read something you wrote and been unable to figure out why you wrote it? I understand what my issues were, I guess: it’s a sub-section of my frequent argument against what I see as LEED Brain-y green building dilettantism. But I also think I overstated that point — a lot. PassivHaus, because it’s so rigorous a standard and because it does (unlike more familiar green construction) cost more than the average project, may not be the sort of thing that is going to sweep the nation. And given that I’d love to see green construction techniques replace brown construction techniques, that’s something of an issue for me.

But it doesn’t have to be either/or. In Passive House 1, the New York Passive House movement — and the organization New York Passive House, to which Loadingdock5 belongs — has created something real and impressive in the heart of New York City, where everyone (especially those going to Iona or Bruar Falls) can see it. My frustration with passive construction can be traced back to my wish that green building be accepted in the mainstream as Just A Better Way of Doing Things, and to my anxiety about whether passive construction makes green building seem too fancy, or too different, or too much a Rich People Thing. It’s fundamentally an issue of optics, and like most optics-related issues, that means it is dancing on the border of abstracto-BS. Which means that Passive House 1 could serve as the best possible rebuttal to that argument. In the United States, PassivHaus has a long way to go, cost-wise, before it will be acknowledged as Just A Better Way of Doing Things. But there’s nothing wrong with being Just Plain Better, either.

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2 Responses to Getting Loaded: Loadingdock5′s Passive Williamsburg Townhouse Back In Spotlight

  1. Tom Bassett-Dilley March 22, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    David,
    Thanks for covering the Brooklyn Passive House project. As a recently certified passive house consultant, I’d like to share some info that should convince many that PH doesn’t have so far to go cost-wise in this country. In training, we looked at cost models factoring in energy savings, inflation, interest rates, etc. (all very conservative); when you amortize a 10-15% initial cost increase for PH construction measures over a 30-year mortgage, you’ll find that you’re money ahead in the first year–$800-1,000 ahead in the models we studied. Clearly cost-benefit needs to be looked at case-by-case, but the general rule is that, when considering overall cost of ownership (mortgage+utilities) it’s advantage PH. And if the last few months are any indication, energy costs are going to increase way faster than our cost models assume.

  2. David Roth March 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    That’s a good and helpful comment, Tom, from an informed perspective that I (as a dilettante-y sportswriter) am not plugged-in enough to have. What I meant by “long way to go cost-wise” had more to do with up-front construction costs — which, unlike those of more standard green building methods, are not essentially interchangeable with regular ol’ brown building — although the idea of coming out ahead in year one does indeed do a lot to close that gap. One thing I’m curious about: are construction costs on PH projects appreciably lower in Europe, where such projects are more common? I know that’s how the market is supposed to work, but I (as per usual) am kind of skeptical about whether it can/will be allowed to do so here in the U.S.

    (Oh, and thanks a lot for reading)

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