Lessons from the polar vortex: Build resilient and passive

child builds tent over vent
© Laura Capello in Overland Park, Missouri

Our houses have become lifeboats.

In Kansas City, Missouri, this kid built a tent over the hot air vent to keep warm. He knows more about building science than a lot of engineers; as Robert Bean has taught us, comfort is not just a matter of temperature but also clothing (and most heat loss is through the head so hats make sense); personal feelings (reading a good book helps a lot there); and Mean Radiant Temperature – that tent wall is a lot warmer than the room wall, not to mention that it's easier to heat smaller spaces than big. Most of our houses are not designed for this, so kids have to take matters into their own hands. Even newer houses built to code may have condensation, drafts and cold spots because of poor build quality, or they are built to code standards designed around "degree days" and average temperatures when we now live in a world of extremes, not averages.

I am wearing thermal underwear as I write this, because whoever sized my fancy boiler didn't take this weather into account and I can't get the house above 60°F. Lots of homeowners are having trouble coping; in Vox, Umair Irgan notes that "the severe chill this week has revealed that many buildings aren’t that good at keeping the cold air, and even the ice, out." In Michigan, the Governor is telling people to turn down their thermostats because there isn't enough gas.

But some people aren't suffering at all, people like Andrew Michler in Colorado, who designed his house to the Passivhaus standard. There is nothing fancy or high tech, just a bunch of insulation and careful design. It's why the word "passive" does make some sense in Passive House; good windows and insulation just sit there passively and do their job forever. I am finally beginning to like the name.

Take the people living in this Passivhaus renovation by Baukraft in Brooklyn that this graph is from, who laughed at the vortex four years ago, not even turning on the heat until they were well into it.

We are living in a time when the engineers can't keep up with the changes that are happening around us. While we freeze in much North America, people are cooking in crazy-hot temperatures, which we might all be feeling in six months. Meanwhile, power and gas supply grids are becoming unreliable under the pressure of these changes. A few years ago, Alex Wilson made the case for resilient design:

It turns out that many of the strategies needed to achieve resilience – such as really well-insulated homes that will keep their occupants safe if the power goes out or interruptions in heating fuel occur – are exactly the same strategies we have been promoting for years in the green building movement. The solutions are largely the same, but the motivation is one of life-safety, rather than simply doing the right thing. We need to practice green building, because it will keep us safe – a powerful motivation – and this may be the way to finally achieve widespread adoption of such measures.

That was 2011, and it doesn't seem that we have really learned any lessons since then, even though in the last seven years we have lived through a litany of forest fires, hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, polar vortices, ice storms and more than we can ever remember happening. If any words were prescient, these were.

It is likely that all the climate standards we are using now to determine the amount of insulation needed are probably irrelevant in the face of ever more violently changing conditions. In fact, I am not sure that there is any standard that can cope with what is going on. Certainly, every building should be designed with enough insulation to handle the coldest winters and hottest summers (insulation keeps heat out as well as in). In Australia, even Passivhaus designers now are installing air conditioning.

But perhaps we need an even tougher Resilient House standard that is made of mould and water resistant materials, fire resistant cladding, solar power and battery storage. We have to adapt and refine our standards, and our buildings, to changing conditions. Charlie Wardell of The Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) described how builders have to go beyond just insulation:

In areas subject to severe storms, such as on the Atlantic coast, resilience also includes a near-obsessive level of waterproofing—a wet and moldy house isn't one people will want to stay in. One builder who understands this is Jim Schneider, who builds in Virginia Beach where horizontal, wind-driven rain is common. "The envelope absolutely has to be tight," he says. That means staying current with the latest flashing details, which he says manufacturers and building scientists are constantly refining. "Building science has evolved quite a bit in recent years so you really need to make a commitment to keeping up with it."

It is hard to know where it ends.

But I do know where it should start: with Passivhaus. Every building should have a proven level of insulation, air tightness, and window quality so that people are comfortable in all kinds of weather, even when the power goes out. This is because our houses have become lifeboats, and leaks may well be fatal.

Lessons from the polar vortex: Build resilient and passive
Our houses have become lifeboats.

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