Interview with a Passive House Builder

One thing I’ve noticed is the fact that home building is changing in a big way.  In order to capture what’s going on across the country, I thought it would be interesting to talk with influencers and innovators about things like tiny houses, prefabrication, sustainable design, high performance construction, and home technology.  For this first interview, I was able to exchange emails with Sam Hagerman, co-owner of Hammer & Hand and president of the Passive House Alliance US, on the topic of ADUs and Passive Houses.

Q: Could you summarize in just one sentence what Hammer & Hand is all about?

Hammer & Hand is a green builder and remodeler dedicated to service to our clients, to our employees, and to the built environment.

Q: I’m seeing mention of Hammer & Hand in the media more often … what are you doing to be so successful?

Early in 2010 we created a dedicated marketing position for a “chief evangelist” to tell our story online and with the media. Our approach has been to focus on doing good work and then share a vibrant, useful narrative about green building, building science, design, and craftsmanship. What we’ve found is that people start to notice you and talk. And our website and blog have really taken off.

Q: How many accessory dwelling unit (ADU) projects are you involved with?

We’ve completed about 20 ADUs over the past few years, including the super-efficient ADU that Jetson Green featured last spring. We currently have 3 in progress and 5 or 6 more in serious development. We get calls about ADUs 3-10 times a week.

Q: Earth Advantage Institute expects construction of ADUs, laneway homes, and infill homes to increase this year (see here) … do you agree?

Absolutely. Infill projects, ADUs and laneway homes are all on the rise for us. Another exciting development at Earth Advantage Institute is the new certification for stand-alone ADUs that they rolled out recently with full QA/QC. It comes with an Energy Performance Score that will become an important part of the valuation scheme for sustainable buildings in the near future.

Q: Tell me about your efforts in the world of Passive House?

My efforts in the world of Passive House fall into two arenas: advocating for Passive House and building Passive House.

We’ve been quite active with Passive House Alliance-US and Passive House Northwest in working to promote the standard in the marketplace and at all levels of government. My role as a president of PHAUS has given me the chance to be part of a chorus of public voices advocating for Passive House, many of them quite eloquent. That’s been a real honor.

As a builder we’ve been blessed with really exciting Passive House projects, like the Karuna House, designed by Holst Architecture. (Ed. note – see rendering above.)  We’re shooting not only for Passive House certification on that one, but also Minergie-P-ECO, LEED for Homes Platinum, and net zero energy.

We’re also working on a Passive House retrofit of a commercial office space, and have a number of other projects in development. Almost of these will pursue PHIUS+ certification to take advantage of the third-party verification that comes with it. And another small handful may not reach Passive House, given design constraints or architectural direction. It’s much easier to reach Passive House performance when Passive House design concepts and parametric analysis are included at the outset of a project, so we’re always happy to have the chance to collaborate with architects from the beginning.

Q: Most recently the Passive House industry has been in a bit of turmoil with contract disputes, trademark battles, quality control, etc. What’s your take on all this?

I think what we’re seeing right now is the natural kerfuffle that comes with any emerging market. There are thousand-fold examples of this in economic history as a movement moves from the early adopter stage to a more mature stage where organizations and institutions grow, bump against one another, and interact.

And the whole market context for Passive House is in rapid flux. Materials supply chains, for example, are just beginning to take notice of Passive House. The same is true for regulatory bodies that oversee code, consumer protection (like UL), and industry-based standards (like ASHRAE). So while the science of Passive House is sound, it’s taking time for the marketplace to respond.

In my view, the most exciting American Passive House development in the last year is the rollout of the new PHIUS+ certification that offers in-process third-party verification QA/QC of a project’s assemblies and installations by a cross-trained PHIUS/RESNET rater.

By harmonizing Passive House with US-based RESNET and providing third-party verification, PHIUS+ aligns Passive House with existing and emergent government incentive programs and other green building certifications that are tied to high performance building tax rebates at the local, state, and national level. Within in the next year or two, PHIUS+ will emerge as the market leader in promulgating Passive House in the US. It’s a native Passive House certification that responds to existing methodologies and practices on this side of the Atlantic.

The US not only contains widely varied climates, it’s also made up of myriad municipalities, each with its own politics and way of doing things. PHA-US is working to create a clearinghouse of information where Passive House practitioners and advocates can upload experiences and lessons learned and draw from those of their colleagues. We’re creating a forum for professionals to talk about technical problems, code strategies, marketing issues, business questions, you name it.

We’re forging ahead based on the conviction that, as American Passive House designers and builders, we all have a common bond based on advocacy of Passive House and low load buildings and that we can work together and minimize any acrimony or disagreements. There’s important work to be done out in the world. Enough navel gazing!

Q: Why not bypass Passive House for something like net-zero energy and water homes or homes that meet the Living Building Challenge?

I think Passive House provides the best road map to net-zero energy homes, so its not question of bypassing Passive House.

For example, the first dozen or so attempts to build net-zero in Oregon fell short because they missed the mark on efficiency and performance. Had these first buildings adhered to the Passive House energy standard most of them would have met their net zero goals.

I wouldn’t disagree that net zero or Living Building Challenge are worthy, it’s just that I see Passive House as the most sensible and effective gas pedal to reach their energy performance goals. Alternative energy is expensive. Insulation is cheap.

I also think there are reasonable questions about how broad market adoption can be for the most lofty certification programs. I mean, if anybody thinks we’re in danger of early and deep market penetration of compostable toilets then they’ve got another thing coming. (Joke)

Q: What should we expect to see from Hammer & Hand in the next few years?

I don’t know exactly, but I do know what motivates our work. At the core of it all is a passion for fine craft and a commitment to energy performance and building science. Passive House and home performance retrofits fuel our passion for building in 2012 and into the future. After all, the biggest power reserve available to the US is our potential to eliminate inefficient use of energy. And when we have people dying for oil oversees and cheap domestic energy on oil rigs and in coalmines here in the US, it’s a reminder that all of us need to step up our game.

Many of our clients approach us because they’re interested in energy performance and green building, but some aren’t. Sometimes the most meaningful energy savings you can achieve is with a client that doesn’t care about or is unaware of energy performance. Many times, we can lead those types of clients to an energy efficient place talking about the superior comfort and indoor air quality offered by low-load buildings. When you hire us you’re in for a level of energy awareness and sustainable practice that’s above and beyond what 99% of the market can deliver. I guess that makes us the 1%? Uh oh. Don’t print that.

Sam Hagerman is co-founder and co-owner of the leading Portland green building company Hammer & Hand and serves as President of the Passive House Alliance US.

Credit: (c) Holst Architecture, the Karuna House mentioned above.  


Article tags: , , ,

Popular Topics on Jetson Green