In Conversation with Bronwyn Barry, a Global Passive House Leader and Director of the North American Passive House Network

First of all, can you tell us how you first discovered Passive Houses, and what drew you to work with them?

 Sure. I literally stumbled upon Passive House through a colleague who had decided to renovate a Berkeley bungalow using the Passive House approach to direct the renovation. This was in the early 2000s when green buildings were just really emerging as a concept and becoming a ‘thing’, so to speak. The light bulb went off immediately for me because it encompassed this approach to buildings that I had been looking for. But more importantly than this, this whole philosophical approach, it actually had a tool that you could use to ensure that your building would meet these targets. And it was the tool, the Passive House Planning Package, that had been missing from all these other approaches. Now, everybody else has similar guidelines and goals, but nobody has the methodology synthesised into an actual tool that I could use. The principles of ecological construction and design had been around for a while and I’d been chasing that since the beginning of my career—trying to figure out how to build a better building without creating an ecological disaster while doing it, and still trying to deliver high performance in a really comfortable building. The comfort factor was something that nobody had really pinpointed in a way that I heard Passive House was dealing with.

That’s very interesting! When did you start to work with Passive Houses and how are you involved with building them today?

Today I have my own architectural practice, and I have been collaborating with different companies. I’ve had my own design firm since 2000, but then in 2008 the economy basically took a big nosedive and all my contracts completely dried up. And then I was approached by a German window company that was trying to sell triple-pane windows on the US market and didn't have a sales rep. They heard that I had gone to Germany and I knew about Passive House and I happened to always be quite interested in windows because I know that they are one of the most important components in building design. It was a real eye-opener because I got to see the broad spectrum of American design and the working end of it—the documents that are actually used to construct these buildings. It was a fantastic education in my Passive House journey. Today I still have my own company that works under the umbrella of another company—we market ourselves as a design-build team. Over the last few years, I have branched out and have also designed some interesting projects under my own company banner. I’m now starting to collaborate to deliver more Passive House projects in Colorado in collaboration with HyperLocal Workshop. I'm doing projects in a lot of diverse climate regions, which is really exciting. Sneak preview: I'm also in the process of launching a Passive House accessory dwelling unit company that will deliver prefab Passive House and backyard cottages or small residential dwellings to the western states.

Wow, you’ve really done a lot in this field! You’ve mentioned that the Passive House Planning Package for measuring a building’s targets really fascinated you. What else fascinates you most about this industry?

The thing that keeps me absolutely intrigued about Passive House is that it completely upends the ‘business as usual’ model and approach to how we design our buildings. And it's always the concept of balance that underpins that approach. The Passive House idea of ‘balance’ is something that is completely missing from conventional design methodology and even conventional energy analysis because what the conventional wisdom promotes is this idea of maximisation. Culturally, this concept of ‘maximising’ is also a very American idea. We like to supersize everything and we want to, as they say, ‘go big or go home’! Unfortunately, our whole culture really supports that idea of excess. Passive House really says, ‘no, what we want to do is balance things’. That’s pretty radical. It took me quite a while to really absorb and to synthesise that into my own design thinking because it really emphasises the connectedness of everything—where everything works together and optimises the other systems. This is where you've got to find that best energy balance because there's this idea of equilibrium. You can't maximise your solar gain because you might actually end up overheating your building, so, you've got to find this a fascinating, interesting, middle way when you do your design and that's what's intriguing about Passive House to me. What I've come to realise quite profoundly as I've done a lot of advocacy work, and started to work within the conventional code development structure, is that Passive House offers this option to remove things from your building that you no longer need. Like Australia, California is known for its warmer climate.

From what you’ve seen, is there anything particularly unique about building Passive Houses in countries with more extreme climate conditions, such as Australia or other countries in the Southern Hemisphere?

I think in Australia, California and New Zealand, we have to be really, really attentive to shading. In all of these regions we have an abundance of sunshine. What I've seen architects do here is take the ‘supersize me’ approach to windows where they decide, ‘oh my gosh, we've got all this great sunshine and natural light, let's bring all of that into the house at once!’ In any house that’s a massive problem—you’ll turn it into an oven—and in a Passive House that’s total overkill! Having said that, it's a super easy design issue to address. We just have to be more cautious about it in a super-insulated, air-sealed building. I was actually quite fascinated to see how Australian architects already have a fantastically well-developed vernacular for how to passively shade buildings. For me, as a South African who has now become an American living in California, I'm horrified by how bad Californian architects are at designing shading. It made me happy to see that Australian architects are fantastic at shading, which makes complete sense to me in a country that has extreme high temperatures. It was absolutely fascinating to go to Melbourne and Brisbane and see that the vernacular architecture, even the older buildings all had exterior shades, awnings and really great overhangs. They know how to keep cooler in Australia without having to add massive amounts of air conditioning and that makes me extremely hopeful. Shading sounds simple in principle, but it’s often overlooked, even in warmer climates.

In your view, what are the main benefits of Passive House buildings in warmer climates?

The benefits of Passive Houses actually apply to every single climate and what I've seen here. Anybody who's visited California will tell you that our houses are some of the most uncomfortable houses on the planet. I’ve had clients come to me with horror stories … they’ve brought me pictures of mould growing in their house, of plants growing out of the window sill from the inside of the wall, of rooms that they literally can't go into in the summer because they're too hot, and of those same rooms in the winter that are too cold. There’s maybe a couple weeks in the shoulder seasons when those rooms are actually usable. Here we are in one of the most temperate climates on the planet and yet buildings are incredibly uncomfortable. So Passive Houses really have the same benefits in nice, easy temperate climates and more extreme climates as well. The whole point of building a Passive House is that you are aiming for this wonderfully even-temperature, fresh-air environment that is uniformly comfortable throughout the building and throughout the year. They’re simply great spaces for humans to inhabit. And this goes back to my theme that runs through the whole point of Passive House: this idea of equilibrium and balance.

You are also the director of the North American Passive House Network—what are some of the things this organisation is trying to achieve?

Our mission is to completely transform the building industry, which sounds revolutionary and maybe impossible, but we know it can be done. We are starting with education; we are doing this through supporting and utilising the tools and methodology supplied by the Passive House Institute. We've spent time to develop a network of organisations that can disseminate education that's required to start teaching an entire industry to do things differently. We've started primarily through the foundational training—the certified Passive House Designer training—and we've added the tradesperson trainings. We have also been delivering and developing a bunch of other curriculum around those trainings to support and supplement them and build an ecosystem of trained practitioners who can then go on and build projects. In turn, this will drive the industry to actually develop and deliver the products that are required to build high performance buildings.

It sounds like you are really witnessing change from the ground up. What do you think countries around the world need to do to have more Passive Houses and net-zero or net-positive buildings built?

Countries that have been successful at driving Passive House adoption have started by supporting the front runners. Take Brussels for example: We [the North American Passive House Network] helped organise a tour to visit Brussels, where, in five years, they really turned around their entire construction industry by basically pointing to Passive House and saying ‘that's where we want to go’. New York and Vancouver did the same; they said, ‘oh, okay, well it worked there, let's see how we can make it work here’. They supported their front runners. They provided training assistance funding and also accelerated permitting and development support by training their own building and planning officials, so that when a project came in, the planners and the building officials understood what that was and they made it easier for them to do something different because they already knew that it wasn't the same ‘business as usual’ approach. You support the front runners and you remove the barriers to doing this, and then they basically pave the path for the rest of the industry to then head in the same direction.

You will be speaking at the 2020 South Pacific Passive House Conference. What do you have in store for this year’s eager audience?  

I'm very excited to be speaking about building codes and how we can use policy to drive Passive House adoption. It’s an area that I've been very passionate about. I’ve put a lot of effort into driving policy adoption here in North America, and I’ve also looked quite deeply into what's working and what’s not working. It's been a fascinating journey, so I'll be sharing a lot of my experience of how to get Passive House past the conventional code framework, including loads of advice on what to avoid. I was honoured to be the keynote speaker at the inaugural South Pacific Passive House Conference, and again at the second one in Melbourne. I've been incredibly impressed with what I've seen the Australians deliver on the Passive House global stage. I attended a few presentations by Australians at the international conference in China and was astounded by the quality and the technical expertise that is coming out of Australia.

Tickets for the South Pacific Passive House Conference 2020 are available now! For more information, visit our conference website.