Glass Towers Are "Energy Vampires"

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Screen capture. Nosferatu, not in a Passive House

It's time to put a stake through them and build efficient Passivhaus buildings.

Architects and developers have been throwing up glass towers for years. It makes almost everybody happy. The architect gets to pick the facade out of a catalogue. The developer gets the most saleable space for the least money. The purchaser gets a glorious view. But as we have noted many times on TreeHugger it comes at a cost in energy consumption, in resilience, and even in usability. And once people move in, they quickly learn about comfort and privacy.

Now Anne Gaviola writes in Vice that Glass skyscrapers have turned entire cities into energy vampires. It is an interesting analogy; according to Wikipedia, "A vampire is a being from folklore that subsists by feeding on the vital force." These days, energy is pretty vital and we shouldn't be just throwing it out the window.

Gaviola speaks to Marine Sanchez of RDH Building Science, who gets why they are not really sensible for living or working.

“Talk to the occupants, as opposed to the people designing the space. An entire glass facade is not what people are after,” she said. “If you’re in an office and there’s glare the entire day, then these are not adequate conditions. Privacy, if it’s your bedroom, it’s open everywhere to all the neighbours. Or if you’re at work, wearing a skirt and everybody can see you.”

A bigger problem is that they are not comfortable. The glass is at best double-glazed, and for most of the year the first three feet of the building next to them is going to be too hot or too cold. Sanchez is a fan of Passive House, or Passivhaus design, which makes buildings efficient and comfortable. Developers have avoided Passive House because of the expense, but according to Sanchez, “If you do it from day one, I’ve seen Passive House projects delivered at no extra cost."

CC BY 2.0. Loozrboy

Loozrboy/CC BY 2.0

I doubt that's true if you are building a typical all-glass building, which was so well-described by John Massengale a few years ago:

The modern glass curtain wall on most iconic towers is cheap, for four reasons: the materials are cheap; the fabrication of the glass walls, frequently made in China, is cheap; the curtain walls require little craftsmanship or skilled labor; and the manufacturers take the computer drawings of the architects and translate them into construction drawings, saving the architects work as well.

But codes are changing and getting tougher; you can't build all-glass buildings in many cities anymore, (and it will be harder to do so in New York City soon) so the difference in cost between Passive House and conventional building is less than it used to be. There are lots of reasons for developers to build Passivhaus, but as Sanchez notes, they don't really understand it.

If you don’t explain to the people in front of you, the contractor, the developer, the architect, the owner, why we’re trying to do this, then it is met with resistance. But it’s hard to change people and we need to make this the new normal. It’s not the technology that is holding us back.

You could write a book about all the benefits of Passive House and why developers should be doing it. They are more comfortable, there is more useable space, there are lower operating costs. Or, you could at least write a brochure, which in fact I did, based on work by New York Passive House.

Passive House Benefits

© PassiveHouse Canada, New York Passive House, Lloyd Alter

Download it here from PassiveHouse Canada.