Editor’s note: When Jeremy Avellino starts speaking the gospel of passive house building it is damn near impossible to stop listening. The founder and principle designer of Bright Common, a sustainable architecture and design firm, loathes toxic construction materials, thinks fracking and natural gas are dangerous scams, and believes that we can save the planet from the doomsday ravages of climate change if we reorient our approach to home building. Through zero energy principles (and shiploads of insulation) Avellino is certain that the passive house can save us from ourselves.
Bright Common’s projects run the gamut, from transforming the old Thompson Bathhouse under the EL into a youth arts and enrichment center–a recent Grand Jury Award winner of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s Preservation Achievement Awards–to deep energy row house retrofits to iconoclastic condominium infills that communicate, and not argue, with the existing fabric of the surrounding neighborhood. Their most recent venture, taking the ruined shell of an old dairy depot in Brewerytown and filling it in with a low rise apartment complex, is applaudably avant-garde and pretty gutsy.
Hidden City’s managing editor Michael Bixler dives deep into the passive house world with Jeremy Avellino with a discussion on resisting mediocrity, outclassing standard building practices, and bringing historic preservation into the 21st century with smart, sustainable design.
Michael Bixler: Tell me a little about the history of Bright Common’s evolution from a design-build practice to a sustainable architecture practice. There was an idealogical shift of sorts while you were working on the Pickle Factory in Fishtown, correct?
Jeremy Avellio: Yes. It was my first serious commission since I set up Bright Common as a sustainable architecture practice in 2010. I wanted to test some ideas I was researching about how to renovate old brick buildings with the intent of making them zero energy. I was lucky enough to find local photographer Jaime Alvarez who was open to experimenting. We pulled in my old friend Kurt Schlenbaker to be the general contractor and did our best to apply what we knew to be best sustainable practices back then: focusing on optimization, energy balance, durability, and comfort. We wanted it to be zero energy, but to do this explicitly with active systems like solar panels is very expensive and it takes up a lot of space, something buildings in the city simply don’t have. Plus, that approach alone does not provide for a comfortable, healthy space for people to live in. It just offsets inefficient, dirty systems with clean ones. We wanted to get rid of needing those nasty, old systems by reducing our dependancy on them. We did this at the Pickle Factory by adding lots of insulation and making it airtight. In the end, the homeowners are very happy living in a 4,500 square foot live/work studio spending under $200 per month for all utilities.
MB: To the layperson, retrofitting urban homes into passive and frack-free housing sounds complicated, expensive, and a little fringe in theory. It’s something you would expect to see advertised in the Whole Earth Catalog from the 1970s rather than Fine Homebuilding. But, in reality, it seems to be all about mindfulness, simplicity and, for a few dollars more, investing in smart materials. This is not million dollar LEED-certification, but it’s not your father’s mail order geodesic dome either. Explain.
JA: Ha! I’m a child of the 70s, and I see us doing this “back to the land” thing again, but this time it’s back to the cities. I was born in Philly and raised in the surrounding burbs. I grew up in shitty Toll Brothers housing that was falling apart from day one with the construction waste buried in the backyard. Sometimes I think I became an architect to go against that grain.
So, yes it’s about mindfulness. We talk about food this way when we reference the local, slow food movements. We’re beginning, thank God, to make connections between fashion and child slavery, between iPhones and conflict minerals, between fossil-fuels and invading impoverished, resource-rich countries abroad. But, as a society, we have yet to connect buildings to these same types of issues.
The built environment is the major contributor to climate change. The highest number I’ve seen, from Architecture 2030, puts the urban built environment responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. If we’re going to come anywhere close to keeping the planet from warming above two degrees Celsius, and stay under that magic tipping point number of 450 parts per billion CO2 in the upper atmosphere, we have to get all buildings carbon neutral by 2050. That’s 33 years away. We have all the technology we need right now to do it. Over one million square feet of passive houses have been built in the U.S. since 2010 alone.
We look at it simply: What are the major threats to human health and the natural environment? Fossil fuel addiction? Yep. Fracking? Hell yes. There’s nothing natural about “natural gas.” Call it what it is: methane, a non-renewable resource that is being sold to us as a homegrown fuel source. It’s not. Natural gas is the latest chapter in the same old story where extractive industries drill deeper and deeper in more dangerous ways, ruin the natural world, provide low-paying, temporary jobs, and move on when the well runs dry.
We challenge our clients to go “frack-free” and have only electric powering their homes. Is electricity clean? Well, no, but when our homes are entirely electric, and we get the energy requirements down to 90% below a normal home, we can add a very small solar PV array and take the house to net zero energy quite easily.
So, we started looking at ways to retrofit old brick houses that would be healthy and deeply energy efficient. The venerable Philly row house is such a good candidate to become a passive house.
MB: What is the cost benefit to retrofitting and integrative design, and what will it take to standardize sustainable building practices in U.S. like Germany and Scandinavia? What will it take to create a paradigm shift in how we approach rehabbing in Philadelphia with deep energy retrofits in mind?
JA: The cost benefit is a no brainer. Compared to a standard retrofit, we have seen construction cost increases of under 10% for custom one-offs, and the larger a building gets the smaller that upfront increase is. Even the worst scenario, say, a custom single family home, those up-front costs are paid off in five to seven years on average. And for larger buildings, like commercial or multi-family projects, we’ve seen one and two percent increase and sometimes down to zero.
Its not standardized because the building industry is a dinosaur with too many interests connected to a dying, fossil fuel industry. There is active pressure on Pennsylvania’s legislature to pass new building energy code laws, which haven’t been updated since 2009, and those are embarrasing low and barely enforced.
My hope lies in the people. If we demand passive houses, we will get them. Builders and developers will trip over each other if we demand zero energy homes en masse. But we don’t. We put up with such terrible houses that are not cheap, and my hope is that demand will change.
MB: Putting the tools of zero energy building and renovating into the hands of contractors sounds easy, but tradition, and limited budgets, presents challenges. From what you have said, folks in the trade largely respond positively to the idea.
JA: We’ve worked with experienced passive house builders, but the majority of builders have zero experience with these ideas. Much of what they have learned is counter intuitive, but so is much of what I have learned as an architect. When we leave our egos at the door, and created a dialogue with shared goals, anything can happen, and thats what we are doing. This is building science, not rocket science, so really, anyone with an open mind can do it.
The breakthrough happens when a builder starts to see airtightness details the same way they would see fine woodworking. Seeing the whole building as one unit, not a chaotic mixture of many things. I’ve seen it happen and its pretty amazing. Once a blower door goes in and a contractor see that first test, they want to get the house tighter and tighter. At the end, when the homeowners are living in the most comfortable and inexpensive home to heat and cool, contractors can’t imagine building any other way.
MB: Historic preservation and deep energy retrofitting appear at odds by nature, but you have initiated successful conversations between the two with projects like PlayArts (the old Thompson Bathhouse under the El), House Askew, and the Pickle Factory. What holds preservationists back from understanding that implementing proactive sustainability practices in historic conservation is revolutionizing adaptive reuse and increasing the longevity old buildings?
JA: I think the up-and-coming crop of younger preservationists are much more open to a more realistic, hybrid approach to their work. They are seeing that working to save our beautiful historic building stock, along with a responsibility to mitigate the impact of climate change, are two sides of the same coin. The conversation is beginning to move away from strict preservation districts, with uber-rigid and narrow applications, to answering the question: “What should we do to all of our older buildings so we can collectively enter into a post-carbon future together?”
Retrofitting, or what my friend Juan Levy calls “future-fitting,” old buildings to be passive buildings is a win-win for everyone, especially preservationists. The way we approached a deep energy retrofit of a project like PlayArts, which just won a Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance this year, is to recognize that the old use is over and done and fit a new, creative use into the building. In this case we turned an old, 1920s-era public bathhouse under the El into a play-based arts and enrichment center for kids.
We pay a huge amount of attention when retrofitting an old brick building to long term durability. What the preservationists love is that we repointed the exterior brick of the old bathhouse properly and put in historically appropriate, divided lite wood windows. I’m more into radical reconstruciton that preservation, but, on this project, we were able to find enough common ground to keep the old bathhouse and put it to new use.
MB: On that note, we’ve talked about the idea of “post-preservation” where a decrepit old home or industrial building that has been abused by years of bad alterations, neglect, or deterioration presents the opportunity to do something new, a radical reconstruction, while designing with the original form in mind. I’m specifically thinking about Palmer Passive and the Milk Depot projects.
JA: Post-preservation might be a better way to visualize it. I think we’ve entered an era where we have to move beyond the old ways of preservation and work together to keep old buildings, and, sometimes, transform them into new ones. Our project House Askew represents the latest thinking about how to take a very typical, three-story brick row house with years of bad renovations out of the past and into a post-carbon future. Most people would tear shells like this down. We see it all over the city, especially with old warehouses and churches. But the buildings that are in the worst shape are better candidates for a passive house futurefit. To get it moving towards zero energy, or even carbon neutrality, you need a shell and you need to get it down to the sticks and bricks. These are often the cheapest buildings on the block.
We’re doing a project in Brewerytown at Wawa’s original milk processing plant in Philadelphia. It was left to fester for the last 60 years in an incredibly dangerous state of disrepair, literaly caving in on itself. But instead of tearing it all down as many devlopers might naturally do, our client decided to keep what he could and infill 17 apartments on top of it that will surround a green courtyard.
MB: You’ve said that clients often influence your approach to a specific project with surprisingly creative results. What are some standout examples and tell me more about the backstory of the Reid Haus project.
JA: We are lucky to have some seriously amazing clients. Reid Haus is indeed the standout example. Our client, a local developer who has done some really energy-efficient green building in the past few decades, approached us with the idea to turn a brick row house built in Bridgeport in 1915 into a senior housing project for three retired 80-year-old nuns.
The client wanted to make the safest, most durable, most regenerative, eco-friendly project possible, so he turned to passive house practices and found us through the Greater Philadelphia Passive House Association. We put an addition off the back so the house is half retrofit, half new construction, which allows us to test not just both old and new, but how they interact with one another.
We were able to almost completely avoid foam plastics on this one and, with the low energy loads, we cut the gas line too. The client was so excited and it further opened his mind to the kind of holistic thinking that makes these projects possible and affordable.
Changing minds is the hardest part on many projects, and the disconnect is not necessarily about additional costs. Helping people shift to a slightly different way of thinking about how to build can be challenging, but once they get it they really embrace it.