DEMO Architects: Passive House Standard

Building Energy-Efficient Houses With High-Performing Materials

Sept 2021 | Makers of Multipliciti

Makers of Multipliciti is a series of interviews with architects, manufacturers and developers to uncover the challenges and opportunities in building sustainable and affordable residential projects.

We talked with Alessandro Ronfini and Daniel Kidd from DEMO Architects about Passive House standards, energy-efficient houses, and high-performing materials.

Could you tell us how you started Demo Architects?

We both met in Copenhagen while working at BIG, and came back to York in 2010 to help start up the BIG NYC office.

Our respective careers took different paths, and we each gained expertise in different areas of building technology and design. After a few years of taking on side projects on our nights and weekends, we were given a few large projects in New York and Connecticut. The projects were a bit too much to handle with our day jobs, so we soon decided to formally launch DEMO Architects and have been going strong since 2017.

Why did you decide to design and build your projects according to the Passive House principles?

Our interest in Passive House comes from our previous experience working in the design and construction of large commercial projects.

The density of a large multifamily building is the ideal framework to create a comfortable, sustainable, energy-efficient building designed to last and be resilient.

We were lucky enough to work with partners and owners that put this idea at the forefront of their work and learned from them. As we started DEMO we started applying these principles at the small residential scale we are working at, always with the idea to test new technologies and materials and hopefully soon be able to apply them on larger buildings.

What is the first thing you do when you start a new project?

We consider its location.

Too often contemporary architecture is designed to respond to the physical characteristics of a place (views landmarks, traffic, etc) but not to its orientation and exposure. Vernacular architecture was so different and varied because it responded to the climate peculiarities of the location it was designed to occupy.

While we are not necessarily for a return to hay roofs and mud walls, we believe that solar exposure, temperature, and humidity should be factors in the design of a building.

What are the biggest challenges to build high-performing residential projects?

Cost, expertise, and codes.

The number of companies manufacturing high-performing materials is really limited and mostly overseas. Consequently, the US market is quite behind in terms of material choices, it’s a small, niche market and the prices are high.

The fact that this remains a small market has also an effect on the number of builders that understand what it takes to make a properly air sealed, energy efficient building.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to the building codes. Without stricter energy requirements on a national scale, the US market will not change substantially anytime soon and prices will remain high.

Many people believe sustainable houses cost more to build, is it true?

A “sustainable home” is a vague definition used too often to describe something that is not necessarily sustainable by any modern standard.

We like to achieve well-defined performances that can be verified through modeling and on-site testing, that’s why we love the Passive House standard.

That said, a Passive House single-family home is more expensive than a house built to achieve the minimum code requirements. However, when we consider larger buildings, like multi-family residences the differences are not that evident and often the savings in mechanical equipment are leveling the added cost for things like insulation and triple glazed windows.

If we look at long-term costs, maintaining a Passive House building is dramatically less expensive than maintaining a standard building.

What changes would you like to see in the housing industry in order to make sustainability a standard instead of a luxury?

It’s all in the code, without stricter regulations the high-performance buildings will remain a niche and poor quality buildings not designed to last will pollute our cities and sicken their inhabitants.

Tell us what you are building now, and what interesting discoveries have you found while working on it?

We are currently working on a series of high-performance retrofits of existing structures, both single-family houses, and larger buildings. We also have two ground-up houses in the works, both going for Passive House certification.

In all these buildings we are learning that the most important thing to work on is the relationships with those few builders, subcontractors, and consultants that share our passion for high-performance construction and that we want to continue working with.

It’s nice to design cool-looking buildings but our work really makes sense when those designs come to life.

building a net-zero habitat