Actively Passive

Actively Passive

Studio exterior.
Ty Cole / OTTO

The boxy artist studio at the end of a dirt path in the town of Orient, Long Island is the first structure in the New York metropolitan region, and one of about a dozen in the United States, to be meet the stringent environmental standards of the Passivhaus Institute, based in Darmstadt, Germany.

With its rough-hewn dark brown wood cladding, the studio does not advertise its high tech features. However it uses 90 percent less heating energy than does a typical house in this country. Compare that with the average house built to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system: Studies show that LEED-certified homes generally save less than 25 percent in heating energy over typical U.S. construction.

Lower energy bills are only one of the selling points of Passivhaus, or Passive House, construction, which is becoming widespread in German speaking countries and in Scandinavia. “The principal reason that people get these houses in Europe is that they are so incredibly comfortable,” says the studio’s architect, William Ryall, principal in Ryall Porter Sheridan Architects. “You have fresh air and humidity control all of the time and because of all the insulation, they are extraordinarily quiet in urban settings,” says Ryall.

Exterior and interior views of the studio.

The fresh air in the artist studio comes from a compact energy recovery ventilator (ERV) made by Zehnder that is used in conjunction with a small split-system unit for heating and cooling. The ventilator changes the studio’s air at the rate of 0.6 changes an hour by sucking outside air inside, filtering it and removing the humidity. In addition, the unit recovers heat from the interior air that is discharged in winter and it recovers cold from the air that is discharged in the summer.

The studio’s key energy saving features include a highly airtight building envelope and super thick walls, which help keep the building cool in the summer and reduce heat loads during winter. Ryall collaborated with building envelope consultant David White, of Right Environments, on the project. Orienting the building to maximize solar heat gain in the winter and reduce it in the summer is also a major part of the strategy.

Studio exterior showing screened in porch.

The adjacent house, which was gutted and rebuilt using the same Passive House methods, achieved an extremely high degree of energy efficiency, but it does not qualify for Passive House certification largely due to solar heat gain from the expansive windows on its northern exposure, which were installed to capitalize on the stunning views of the Long Island Sound.

The artist studio cost about $500 per square foot. Ryall says that much of the expense came from imported materials unavailable in the United States such as the insulated Pazen windows from Germany that come with an R-value, a measure of thermal resistance, close to 11.

It is challenging to attain Passive House certification, which evaluates a building holistically rather than on the basis of a point system such as the one used by LEED. “With LEED you could put in worse windows and make it up with a bicycle stand in the basement,” Ryall says, “Here there is no room for negotiation—this is about absolute standards—how much energy is needed for the building.”