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Passive House Pitfalls: Case Study in Multi-Family Affordable Housing in West Philidelphia

May 5 (tentative)



Michael Pavelsky, Sustainability Director, The Sheward Partnership

Jon Chizacky, Architect, The Sheward Partnership

Brad Randall, Managing Principal, Bruce E. Brooks & Associates




Dramatic energy use reduction through high-performance envelope design is a critical component towards achieving carbon neutrality. Combined with an efficiently-designed mechanical system, these are the guiding principles of Passive House construction. Beyond up to a 90% reduction in energy use, passive building strategies also provide resiliency and outstanding indoor air quality and comfort. The path towards passive, however, is not always easy. This is a story of failure, adaptation, and redemption.


The setting is West Philadelphia, an urban area characterized by dense row homes and troubled by vacant lots and abandoned structures. A local developer of affordable residential properties, previously familiar with LEED and ENERGY STAR certification, decided to choose two existing structures to experiment with Passive House certification. Through a series of obstacles, design decisions, and one truly challenging building orientation, the goals of this endeavor were not achieved. Nevertheless, the team learned many valuable lessons, from air-sealing practices to informative energy modeling, which would serve them well a year later.


Now, the same developer is back with 17 properties, one retrofit row home and 16 vacant lots. All are pursuing LEED, ENERGY STAR, and Passive House pre-certification. Equipped with the knowledge gleaned from their previous struggle, the design team is making different decisions and ensuring that their prior failures are all but guaranteed to be successes: Early energy models better defined insulation and glazing quantities. Modeling also gave the team confidence in specifying less costly mechanical systems that complement the improved envelope performance. New construction utilizes a modular, panelized system with superior insulating and air-sealing properties. For the retrofit, innovative air-sealing techniques are employed in areas where existing construction poses a threat to air-tightness and vapor transmission.


This will be an exploration of the changes and innovations implemented by the design and construction team to achieve Passive building criteria. It will also delve into the compromises and education required between a traditional builder, owner, and a Passive design specialist.


Learning Objectives


  1. Describe how Passive House and LEED for Homes certifications provide a framework for creating high-performance, healthy affordable housing units.

  2. Illustrate how Passive House has been applied to not only single family residential units but larger, mixed use building types combining residential and commercial spaces.

  3. Explain how iterative energy modeling informs the architectural design process in order to meet rigorous energy efficiency goals of both Passive House and LEED for Homes pursuits.

  4. Assess the economic benefits of sustainable and socially responsible development for affordable housing


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