Square 42 in Luxembourg, one of A2M’s many Passive House projects

Talking Passive Houses with Global Architect, Educator and Advocate Sebastian Moreno-Vacca

APHA: First of all, can you tell us about your work in the Passive House sector? What drew you to work with Passive House at first, and where are you are today?

Sebastian: Of course! So, we are architects and we started this practise in Belgium—it’s called A2M. We actually jumped into Passive Houses more seriously in 2003 after doing some visits to Germany. Then about six years later, in early 2009, we decided that we will do only Passive House—100% Passive House or nothing. A project could be a retrofit, new build, we didn’t care how many surfaces, the location, whatever. We said, “Okay, now it's going to be 100% Passive or nothing.” Of course, a lot of clients that came to us then for projects, we were telling them all the time, “Thank you for calling us, but we have to warn you: we do only Passive House or nothing.” Most of them said, “Okay, nothing.” Thankfully, at the time, there were a lot of competitions and RFP [request for proposals] and we won a lot of them and proposed Passive House. The thing is, we never had a client come and say, “Hi, I want a green building—I want a Passive House.” We never had that kind of client.

So, in 2009, when we first started to focus on Passive House, there was a lot of talk about global CO2 reductions as a lot of countries had committed to the Kyoto Protocol and reducing their emissions. We started to look at the data, the national climate plans being released, and we realised that the results were becoming worse and worse. But no one was really talking about it. So, we were a team of about 15 architects then, we were so disgusted that we decided to do something about it.

 

APHA: Wow—its incredible that you took such a strong stance for this early on. Did you face any struggles finding clients or getting others to accept the idea of Passive House when you first committed to it?

Sebastian: It was hard back in those days because everyone was against it. Today I’m teaching at the University of Brussels and it's not an option, it’s normal. But ten years ago, the teachers were like, “What the heck are you teaching?” Everything has changed completely. In the beginning, we once won a very big competition in France for a 700-unit housing development … it was just crazy for us. And then the developer called us and told us they were not going to do Passive House in the end, but just low-energy buildings. So then we decided to quit. No one would have done that. Normally, you just keep the 700 buildings and you just do it for the money. But you were so disgusted that we said, “No we can't. If it's not [Passive House], we have to stop because of the climate.”

And today, it's good because we have done more than 230,000 square meters of Passive Houses all over the world. We have done so many of them in different climates; we worked for a lot of years and acquired clients just through competitions [RFPs]. Now, we have clients who come and say, “Oh, you’ve been doing this for so long. We’re coming back to you because you know how it’s going to work.”

APHA: That’s an incredible commitment to Passive House. Can you tell us about some of the buildings you and your firm, A2M Architects, have worked on?

Sebastian: Sure. One of them was the Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa, in the Congo in Africa. It was a European request for proposal and it was a design and build, and the other entries from all over Europe were for a regular building. They didn’t ask for Passive House, of course, but we proposed it to them. Kinshasa is full tropical, 90% humidity. What we discovered with this project is that if we can do a Passive House in such conditions in the Congo, it can certainly be done anywhere.

In about a month we’re going to finish a new embassy of Belgium; this time it's in Morocco. It’s a completely off-the-grid, self-sufficient Passive House embassy, the first one of its kind in the world, and that's a really interesting project we’re working on right now. We also ran for a huge competition, the first time we proposed this kind of project, for buildings that can regenerate the climate. We call them “permacities”, like permaculture but for the city, and now we have four of these projects that go that far. One is in Arizona, one in Luxemburg, another in Belgium, another on the Azorean Islands [Portugal], and all of them are going to be, of course, Passive Houses, completely neutral, completely self-sufficient, off the grid and self-sufficient even in water. And the idea is to do them but with no extra costs. This is a very, very exciting project that we have now that goes so far.

APHA: Wow, that does sound amazing. It sounds like you’ve witnessed Passive House working in a variety of climates. Would you say that Passive House can work anywhere?

Sebastian: People say all the time, “Yeah, Passive House is in Germany, but here in our country, you know, it's not easy. It’s dry, it's tropical, it's freezing, whatever.” But as we’ve moved all over the planet, we’ve discovered that this concept is really based on a good façade envelope and that they can fit everywhere and with every climate. It's so easy. Take the embassy in Kinshasa: all year long, it’s super humid there, 90% air humidity. What we discovered with airtightness and just a bit of insulation is that we can save 75% of air conditioning. In Arizona it can be 50 degrees Celsius, so 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you can do it there, you can do it in other countries with high heat. We’ve actually discovered that in hot climates, the impact is higher than in cold climates because of the air conditioning costs.

APHA: That does sound impressive! What has been your experience with the building sector as a whole when it comes to building more Passive House buildings?

Sebastian: So, in 2006, we launched a Passive House Association in Belgium and I’ve been president of that association for about nine years. And we worked very hard with the former government to get a building law to come into effect in 2015. So now when it comes to building permits in Brussels, new builds and renovations, when you have a retrofit of more than 75% of the envelope, they all have to be Passive House. So, we discovered a few things with that: First, it doesn't matter if everybody is not trained because there are a lot of consultants who can help. We also discovered Passive House can be for all kinds of shapes or designs—even clever or bizarre ones. Another thing is that, when the law was first announced, of course, a lot of lobbyists were against the law, like real estate builders and architects. But today, it's there. So, what we discovered is that the ones who were the most against the law, like the real estate industry, are now endorsing it.

And we're discovering the same in construction. If you put a building on the market here, most of them are Passive House. So now we have developers who say, “Oh, I want to go beyond because I want to sell mine earlier.” So you see, as soon as you have this strong framework, a strong policy in place, most of the time you're going to go much further. So what I discovered is that the industry doing Passive House projects at the same cost as usual, it's not coming from us. It comes from the builders, from subcontractors, from workers—all these solutions came from them.

APHA: Based on your experience, what would you recommend other countries and decision makers do to extend Passive House developments?

Sebastian: There’s been a report called PassReg, it’s a report that brings together lessons learned from different Passive House projects and contexts. Before Passive House can take off, you need some preliminaries in place. One of the most influential elements is that you need to have a few “hyper-iconic” projects. If you have a superstar builder who’s done a fantastic project that everyone talks about and you can say, “and by the way, it's Passive House and, on top of that, it was done at the same cost”, that can go a long way. So, if you have two or three of these successful iconic projects, that's going to help.

Another thing that we discovered is that you need to provide learning support, but it has to be free support, accessible for all, like open source. So, when we launched the Passive House Association [in Belgium], very quickly, the region paid us to give free advice to everybody, and sometimes people came 20 times. So, you had massive support of all kinds: conferences and training, and everything was free for everyone. So not only do you need strong policies in place, but you also have to have some iconic projects that people can see locally, and then also you need to have strong support made available for everyone.

 

More about Sebastian:

Architect Sebastian Moreno-Vacca has greatly contributed to the world of Passive House. He co-founded and edited the 'be.passive' magazine in Belgium and was integral to the establishment of a mandatory Passive House standard in the Brussels region during his seven-year presidency at the PassivHaus Platform. Today Sebastian splits his time between his Brussels office and a new venture he co-founded in New York, A2M Architects, and since 2007 he teaches architecture at ULB (the Free University of Brussels).