Chinese city has the largest Passive House project in the world

Gaobeidian Railway City exterior
© Gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

Gaobeidian Railway City is jaw-dropping, showing how to scale energy efficient building.

A year ago I asked Should we just stop flying to conferences? Concern about the carbon footprint of flying is one of the reasons I didn't attend the recent Passive House International conference in Gaobeidian, China. (Haven't heard of Passive House? Here's an explanation.)

Model of city© Gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen
The problem in not visiting places like Gaobeidian is that you don't see what is happening in China, in cities that you may never have heard of, at speeds and scales that are hard to comprehend. In North America, every new Passive House building is a big deal; we argue about how to measure it, and its share of the market is a rounding error.

view of city© gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

Monte Paulsen, Passive House expert at RDH, did attend the conference and shared his photos of Gaobeidian Railway City with me, and the scale of this project made my jaw drop. It's the largest Passive House project in the world, a mix of housing, offices and retail. Michael Ingui of the Passive House Accelerator was there and describes the Passive House Megaproject:

pond outside buildings© gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

This single project totals 330,000 square meters (3,552,100 square feet) of certified Passive House buildings—8 high rises, 12 multifamily buildings, and 6 villas—a figure that rivals the total square footage of all Passive House projects built in North America to date. Astonishing. This is the sort of scale and speed that we need to adopt everywhere to slash operational carbon emissions quickly enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Bronwyn Barry of the North American Passive House Network was there as well, and told Ingui: "China is really showing that passive house is truly international and scalable. I came here skeptical and am leaving incredibly impressed."

I am pretty impressed just looking at the photographs, but the entire Passive House industry in China is mind-boggling, with 73 different companies making windows to Passive House standards.

plan of typical unit© Gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

When I was in China, I was told that almost every apartment is basically a three-bedroom design; one for the parents, one for the child, and one for grandma. These look rather generous, and like most Chinese apartments, they have a separated kitchen with a closed door.

kitchen enclosed with exhaust fan© gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

Chinese cooking creates a lot of steam and smoke in a short time, so they need a powerful exhaust fan with makeup air. Here, the two gas burners are on the outside wall for the makeup air inlet, with the hood exhausting into a common shaft.

balconies with heat pumps© gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

In North America, it is more efficient to have combined mechanical systems like central chillers or, in Passive House buildings, shared Heat Recovery Ventilators. In China, everyone wants to own their own equipment because of worries about maintenance of common services. This means every single unit has its own HRV that needs filter changes, and its own heat pump on its own little heat pump balcony.

pancake HRV in ceiling© gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

This is not as energy efficient but at least, when they are building to Passive House standard, each unit is using far less energy, and the market has responded by making very small, very efficient equipment. They even have these pancake HRVs that fit in the kitchen ceiling.

thermostat measures PM2.5 and CO2© Gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

Passive house designs have filtered air inside, which is pretty much a must in China where the outside air can be so awful. It's nice that their thermostats don't just tell the temperature but also the PM2.5 and CO2 counts.

drawing of community© Gaobeidian Railway City/ Monte Paulsen

I know, we shouldn't be flying to conferences. TreeHugger's Katherine even wants to take away my frequent flyer points. But I cannot help thinking that if an Airbus 380 full of people in the building industry, in politics, in the buildings departments, and in architects' offices could see that Passive House can scale like this, that it can be done quickly and affordably, and how much carbon can be saved by building Passive House at these kinds of densities, walking distance from train stations, it might be worth the carbon footprint of the trip.

Chinese city has the largest Passive House project in the world
Gaobeidian Railway City is jaw-dropping, showing how to scale energy efficient building.

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