A Look Back at 2015 (Plus a Few Passive House Epiphanies)

One Sky Homes hit the ground running in 2015 with projects, presentations and a few great product experiences.  Here are the highlights (and some lessons learned) that we’ll file under “2015: Our Adventure in High Performance Building Continues...”

New Projects:

California ColonialWe were thrilled to be able to hand over the keys to another great project right before Christmas to the Huang Family.  They moved into their custom-designed Plus Energy Passive House that we’re calling our ‘California Colonial.’  Dennis and Lynn asked for a traditional-meets-modern home from our design team and we think we nailed this one!  We have a few finishing touches to add to this beauty, including two more columns, decks and landscaping, so we’re keeping the clamoring shelter magazine photographers away from this one until later in the year…  

While the finishing touches were being worked on in Alamo, we managed to pour a new foundation for our second Plus Energy Passive House in Sunnyvale. (BTW, we love the City of Sunnyvale Planning Department, which has the speediest permit approval process we’ve ever dealt with.) The owners of this one-story gem requested a simple form with modern styling. We’ve tucked a dramatic vaulted ceiling inside an unassuming façade. This combined with a super-efficient floor plan, means the home’s modest footprint will provide some outsize livability.  We expect our clients will live large!  We’ll start framing this home in early January, so watch out for progress images via our Twitter feed @OneSkyHomes.

Back in the design studio, we’re about to transition into the Construction Document phase for a farmhouse project in Pescadero.  Our organic farmer clients will serve as their own contractors on this building, but we’re looking forward to helping them shepherd their Passive House building all the way to completion.  In the meanwhile, we’re also working with another family on their dream home in Los Altos.  We’ll be wrapping up the Schematic Design phase there shortly so we can meet with the neighbors to share our design with them, prior to submitting for permits.  We have a full year ahead!

Presentations:

PHI to Study One Sky Homes Ventilation DesignsBoth Allen and Bronwyn were in demand as presenters this year and took time out of their busy schedules to share their passion and expertise with the greater building community.  In February, Bronwyn delivered the opening keynote presentation at the 1st South Pacific Passive House Conference in Auckland, New Zealand.  It was great to see so much enthusiasm for Passive House in this emerging region where the climate and building tradition are very similar to our own here in California.  Bronwyn delivered two additional keynote presentations in 2015, one at the International Society for Indoor Air Quality & Climate conference in Boulder, Colorado and the other at the Wood Window and Door Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Allen delivered a highly regarded paper and presentation on Asynchronous Air Circulation In Passive Houses at the International Passive House Conference in Liepzig, Germany.  Dr. Wolfgang Feist himself attended and his Passive House Institute has requested permission to study Allen’s mechanical designs further.  What an honor!

Allen presented again in Vancouver at the North American Passive House Network Conference (code: NAPHN15) and later in the year for our local Building Carbon Zero California conference.  While these presentations do take much of our time, they also provide great opportunities for us to hone our skills and learn new tips and tricks from the global Passive House community.  We see these conferences as an essential part of our company R&D.

Products and Process:

The new guys: Our busy project schedule allowed us to expand our team this year to include a new jobsite foreman and lead carpenter, Doug Stockdale and Armando Saavedra.  Allen and Doug have known each other for years, so it was a seamless transition to integrate Doug into the One Sky Homes team.  Doug brought Armando along with him and they’ve taught us to call any clever patching work ‘Armando Magic!’ We’re already benefitting from both Doug and Armando’s skill and craftsmanship and you can look forward to seeing more of their work on our jobsites.

Hot Water HeroProducts:  Allen and Bronwyn had fun meeting one of their product hero’s this year – Larry Aker of ACT D’mand hot water re-circulating water pumps. Because we live in drought-country, we install his products in every one of our projects and our clients love them, for very good reason.  We captured some great data on the efficiency of this product being used in our Sunnyvale retrofit project.

We ordered a new window product for the Alamo project and have been pleased with the performance, quality and prices from Intus Windows.  We’ll certainly be using them again. On the ‘lessons learned’ side, we struggled with the composite fiberboard exterior siding we specified on our Alamo project.  We also experienced challenges with the composite decking material we specified.  The problematic attachment systems of these products were highly labor-intensive so we’ll likely be heading back to more traditional board materials in our upcoming projects. On the lighter side (sorry!) we had enormous fun specifying beautifully designed LED fixtures, sourced locally from a handful of great companies.  I’ll be writing more about this topic soon as it quite literally lit us up.  In the meanwhile you can look up: Cerno Group, Pablo Designs, Barnlight Electric and Rich, Brilliant, Willing (yes, that’s a real company name!)

Epiphanies:

Every year we have a few ‘Aha!’ moments that we’re excited to share with you here (Word of warning: this is the geek section reserved for our engineer clients, energy wonks and Passive House community colleagues. Feel free to skim-read.)

  1. There is still much to learn with regards to Indoor Air Quality – even amongst the Passive House community.  The impressive researchers and scientists Bronwyn met recently at the ISIAQ conference in Boulder are just starting to dig deeper into this important field of study.  While Passive House projects have a phenomenal record of energy savings and comfort, there is insufficient measured data as yet to confirm that they consistently provide superior indoor air quality. (Our anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that they do indeed provide great IAQ.)  A lot depends on the ventilation system design and specification… It’s complicated!  Our whole industry needs to study, monitor and learn more.
  2. Great windows and Superinsulation are the key to Cold Climate Passive House design.  In developing her keynote for the Wood Window & Door Symposium, Bronwyn went way outside her comfort zone and modeled a house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, not far from the pioneering Saskatchewan Conservation House.  Not only did she discover that Passive House is quite possible in this extreme climate, but that great windows but fewer of them quite literally are the key to achieving high performance in this bitingly cold climate. Allen drew the same conclusions in his NAPHN15 presentation called ‘Mass Voodoo – Debunking Passive Solar.’  Both Bronwyn an Allen’s studies confirm (again) that of Robert Dumont, who’s 1978 paper comparing a super-insulated and passive solar house was shared with the building community here.
  3. The Passive House standard is very flexible, despite its narrow target metrics. Passive House California hosted a great conference this year in Palo Alto - the city that boasts the largest cluster of Passive House buildings in California.  One Sky Homes was proud to sponsor this event and show off the mechanical design work we did at the Magic House to the cyclists on the PedalHaus Tour.  What we found so remarkable about the seven Passive House buildings open to the public was that they all employed a very wide variety of materials, assemblies and methods and met the Passive House target metrics in a wide variety of ways. Some projects chose to meet the standard via Heating Load, others via Cooling Demand and most by Heating Demand – but the variety was surprising for such a mild climate. Bronwyn will be digging deeper into this topic and will present on it at one of the upcoming conferences in 2016.

That’s our long look back at a busy and productive year! We’re looking forward to another exemplary year and can’t wait to share pictures of our current work.  Thanks for reading and we wish you all great ‘Comfort and Joy’ in 2016 here at One Sky Homes.