Is the Passive House Movement Getting Radical?

The appointment of an executive director for an important Passive House org is a great sign of things to come.

Ken Levenson in gray on right
Ken Levenson in gray on right.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The North American Passive House Network (NAPHN) is "leading the transformation of the building industry to low-energy, high-performance Passive House design and construction."

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is "a global nonviolent movement to compel the world’s governments to address the climate and ecological emergency." It has been called an "extreme anarchist group" by an energy website. British Police warn about its members who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution.”

That sounds like two very different organizations; what could they possibly have in common? For one thing, a certain Ken Levenson, seen in the photo above just before he was arrested last year at an Extinction Rebellion New York rally. Bronwyn Barry of NAPHN tells us that he has been appointed Executive Director of the organization:

In planning to grow NAPHN’s capacity, reach, and effectiveness, we are delighted to appoint Ken Levenson as our first Executive Director. His record as a professional with a long track record in the Passive House movement, combined with his exemplary commitment to NAPHN is unparalleled. It bodes well for the success of our community.

Bronwyn Barry didn't duck Ken's XR connection, noting that "For the past year, Ken has been increasingly focused on volunteer efforts for the global climate civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion (XR)."

Ken Levenson with his new Pandemic haircut
Ken Levenson with his new Pandemic haircut.

Levenson has been in Treehugger before as co-founder of 475 High Performance Building Supply, but also last year when he was arrested and covered in "Passive House is Climate Action." I called him to ask about his activities in both organizations. He noted that "we are all part of the problem, and have to challenge the status quo."

It's not just about ruffling feathers, it's ok to feel uncomfortable. If we are serious, we can't just assuage our consciences, as architects, we have to really bring something to the table in this climate emergency.

Levenson also noted that we needed "a regenerative culture, creating buildings that were healthy, resilient, and adaptable." I agreed but argued that in fact, Passive House doesn't do that directly, it is essentially an energy standard. Pointing to Emily Partridge's call for truly zero-carbon architecture, I suggested that Passive House didn't go nearly far enough. But Levenson noted that this is where all the conversations are going. That's one thing he admires in Extinction Rebellion; it "doesn't let people off the hook." You have to confront the issues.

Back in the NAPHN press release, Ken Levenson actually pulls together themes from XR and from the events of the past year that have eclipsed XR. He has just finished work on the very successful NAPHN conference and notes that he hopes to do more than just promote Passive House.

The conference ended up playing out not just during a pandemic but during the Black Lives Matter protests too, and both affected me deeply, reinforcing the direct connections between climate crisis imperatives and what it means to deliver truly sustainable communities for all. In this context, I look forward to energizing NAPHN efforts, working with professionals, policymakers, and developers, to enhance our metrics of success. 2020 is a frightening year, and the risks are many, but so too is a growing awareness as to root problems and their solutions.

Ken Levenson says architects have to deal with their "awesome and relentless loss of power" in the industry and become true leaders again.

He's absolutely right; leaders in the field can't just sign Architects Declare statements and then build glass towers and airports; that's no example. Architects can and should be a key part of dealing with the climate crisis. We have to start with Passive House and then go truly Zero Carbon or just go home. As Ken Levenson says, we're on borrowed time.