Al Spagnolo: The Case for Passive House Design in Higher Education

by Katie Sloan

Now more than ever, colleges and universities are in a powerful position when it comes to sustainability. As long-term owners and operators of their building stock, they steward the entire life of the building from design to utilization — likely over multiple generations. As centers of information development, they can model their built environment to reflect the latest theory and practice in combating global climate change. As educators of the next generation, they can engage and inspire the best young thinkers of the future to creatively solve environmental problems.

Therefore, when it comes to undertaking capital projects such as new residence halls, I believe it’s critical to seek designs that not only meet specific institutional requirements and the needs of current students, but that also address the future of the campus from a sustainable lens. This puts passive houses high on the priorities list. 

What are Passive Houses?

A rising trend in academic projects, passive houses are intensively energy-efficient buildings that use 40 percent to 60 percent less energy than conventional buildings, while providing superior indoor air quality, resiliency during power outages and significantly reduced operational costs. Essentially, it is a rigorous building performance standard that is integrated into the architectural design process, which results in quantifiable and verifiable energy efficiency and thermal comfort.

Most importantly, passive houses offer a route to achieving carbon neutrality, functioning as a method for creating net-zero and net-positive buildings by minimizing loads required to be offset by renewables. Therefore, implementing passive house principles into higher education projects is one of the most impactful ways to address the exigency of the current climate crisis.

For example, in New York City, researchers have determined that nearly 70 percent of total carbon emissions stem from buildings. With city leadership recently announcing a goal to reduce 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by 2030, implementing passive house principles into new construction and retrofits has been identified as a key way to accomplish this.  

What are the Elements of Passive House Design?

The five basic principles of passive houses are:

  1. Thermal insulation;
  2. building envelope;
  3. ventilation with heat recovery;
  4. air tightness;
  5. and thermal bridge-free design.

Passive houses put limits on annual heating and cooling demand, peak heating and cooling load, airtightness, and overall use of a building. While the elements of passive houses aren’t exactly a new concept, they’ve certainly been gaining traction in recent years. Founder of the Passive House Institute (PHI), Dr. Wolfgang Feist, was the first to lead the passive house effort, building the first passive house in Germany 25 years ago. Co-Founder of PHI, Katrin Klingenberg, later introduced the principles into the U.S., which has now evolved into the rigorous PHIUS+ Certification that we strive to meet for projects.

Passive House Residences on College Campuses

At SGA, we’ve completed two residence hall projects that target the rigorous PHIUS certification, and the benefits of doing so are evident.

At Wheaton College in Massachusetts, SGA designed a 45,000-square-foot passive house project offering 178 beds of undergraduate student housing, with energy performance goals that are sufficiently aggressive to meet net-zero — or even net-positive — standards. Here, we incorporated high performance glazing, thermal insulation, thermal bridge-free design, air tightness, ventilation with heat recovery, low load HVAC and solar shading. 

At Williams College, also located in Massachusetts, we delivered a 40-bed, 16,500-square-foot residence hall that has a targeted Energy Use Intensity (EUI) of 28. To meet these standards, the building relies on passive ventilation and phase change materials for cooling, leading not only to energy saving, but also a predicted 50 percent to 80 percent savings in operating energy costs.

In accomplishing this, we also incorporated phase change materials into the walls and ceilings to mitigate heat on hot days, an electric radiant heat source that can be located off the floor to free floor space, and operable windows. Additional passive house elements include a structurally insulated roof panel, ERV system, high performance glazing, air tightness, PV panels, solar shading, thermal mass concrete, thermal bridge free design, salvaged wood furniture and repurposed roof slate. 

If one thing is certain, the benefits of passive house design on college campuses and universities are endless. Not only do they provide concrete solutions toward mitigating the climate crisis, but students living in these buildings learn that the character and design of their own living spaces can have a significant, positive impact on their world. These practices also respond to and support over 600 colleges and universities that have signed up for the President’s challenge to reduce carbon emissions. 

Passive houses should be the future of our campus residences. Be proactive, begin planning and join the fight in creating a more sustainable tomorrow. 

Al Spagnolo (AIA, NCARB) is founding partner with SGA.

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