Q&A: How Passive Houses Can Change the World

Deborah Moelis, an architect at the forefront of sustainable design, shares insights on the challenges and rewards of Passive House principles and other strategies.
Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island
Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island. Photo courtesy of Handel Architects

Deborah Moelis was a seasoned, highly regarded architect in 2010 when her career took a new turn. That year, the principal and founding member of Handel Architects stepped into the cutting-edge world of Passive House design as project manager of The House at Cornell Tech. Part of an innovative technology campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, the LEED Platinum-certified tower is the world’s first high-rise residential building designed to Passive House standards.

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Deborah Moelis, Principal, Handel Architects. Photo courtesy of Handel Architects

Moelis’ current project is breaking new ground, as well. Sendero Verde, a 709-unit residential community in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, will be the largest fully affordable Passive House building in the world upon completion. A recognized authority on sustainable design and a 25-year veteran of high-end residential development, Moelis is a much sought-after speaker. She spoke to Multi-Housing News about her start in Passive House design, myths surrounding sustainable building and affordability, and why Sendero Verde could change the world.

You speak frequently about Passive House design, one of the most rigorous standards for energy efficiency in building in the world. Is Passive House gaining popularity outside of Europe?

I would say absolutely. Some telltale signs are conference attendance, RFPs that require it, codes that are starting to acknowledge it, websites of all sorts of companies. Ten years ago, you could barely find any products; now, that product availability has increased incredibly. From my standpoint, it seems as though the country is waking up to the benefits of Passive House and the codes are getting extremely rigorous.

Passive House is a way to not only meet code but to significantly lower your greenhouse gas emissions. You’re really creating a building that’s better for the environment, better for the inhabitants, healthier to be in. It should be a very easy sell to a developer, or a builder, or a homeowner because you’re building a better building. I don’t think you can say that with LEED or these other standards. Passive House forces the contractor and architect to build a better building.

The House at Cornell Tech
The House at Cornell Tech. Photo courtesy of Handel Architects

Given the inherent cost savings, it seems like developers would be clamoring to build energy-efficient buildings. Are they?

There really aren’t necessarily cost savings yet. There are in a single-family home. I’ve spoken to numerous family owners that have made the investment and their energy bills go down from $250 to $25, but it does take a long time to make back that investment. It’s definitely an increase in upfront costs. We’ve seen the costs go down, but it is more expensive. There’s also still a fear factor. When LEED started, people thought that LEED was mysterious, overwhelming, lots of paperwork and not worth it. Everyone was very scared of it. But then it just becomes business as usual.

And so, we hope and we assume that the same thing will happen with Passive House. But there are people that just become quite uncomfortable with new construction techniques and new requirements because they just don’t want to think about it. They’d rather just build the same thing they just built.

The House at Cornell Tech
The House at Cornell Tech. Photo courtesy of Handel Architects

Have new city codes and laws been a big catalyst for builders to focus more on sustainability and green building?

Absolutely. Philadelphia has been very aggressive in their Passive House. A lot of that is due to their point system in submissions for RFPs, or even just for asking for funding. If you’re doing a Passive House project you’ve kind of jumped the line, from what I understand. You get some sort of gold star and jump the line. It is a pathway to energy code compliance that is going to start to get more attractive as energy code compliance gets more difficult. There are incentive programs, like NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority), and lots of different folks are trying different ways to inspire people to do Passive House. It’s just a matter of time. 

When did a focus on sustainability really start to gain steam in the industry and feel like something that was more mandatory than novelty?

I would say it seems like the last two or three years it’s really become much more a check box, just the way RFPs and competitions are being written. They’re being written differently. We’re working on Sendero Verde, a 709-unit multi-building complex in East Harlem that was the SustaiNYC RFP (that we won) three years ago. That RFP was put out by HPD (the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development) and had to be Passive House with 100 percent affordable apartments. That project, when we finish it, is going to be a demonstration project on how low-income, HPD-built projects can meet Passive House standards. That’s going to really change the world. 

Sendero Verde. Rendering courtesy of Handel Architects

That project, Sendero Verde, will be the largest fully affordable residential building built to Passive House standards in the world once completed. What’s been the biggest challenge of working on this project?

Making a Passive House building requires tenacity. You have to be investigating new materials, working on the details very carefully, working with your consultants, listening to them and incorporating their feedback, over and over and over again. These buildings require—any building does—a lot of effort, a lot of brain power and a lot of careful consideration to a lot of different factors. 

Do you have an opening date yet? 

I want to say 30 months from now. 

There have been recent studies that indicate that younger generations prioritize sustainability and green features in their homes—much more so than older generations. What do you think this means for the future of green building?

As the consumer cares more about energy efficiency, developers will slowly not feel that they have to provide floor to ceiling windows facing south in a building. Because right now, they do. They are definitely still providing as much glass as possible. Everything’s always changing—lightbulbs, cars, toilet bowls—everything has gotten more efficient, so, absolutely, our buildings need to get more efficient. There’s just no reason why they shouldn’t.

Technology lends itself to making better things and a building is really just a thing. We cannot keep building like we are always building; everybody has to start doing things a little differently. I think in the future, maybe you would walk into a friend’s apartment and say: “Hey, what are you doing? Why do you have so much glass in your apartment? That’s very strange. Something must be wrong here.” Right now, no one would say that.

But someday, it might just be that it’s considered very odd to have a lot of glass or just to not be an energy-conscious person. I think all those things are really important to everyone. We’re even looking right now to understand how we can purchase carbon offsets for our air travel. We’re trying as a company to just be lighter-footed on the planet, and I think everyone’s going to want to do that.

Sendero Verde
Sendero Verde

Has designing living spaces with such a focus on sustainability influenced the design and features of your own home?

No. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I live in a pre-war building and it faces north, so that’s good. I notice that the eastern sun that does come in is extremely harsh, and I’m very happy that I live on the north side, because once the eastern sun passes, I’m done with sun. With my windows—it’s a pre-war—so they’re not extremely large, but I notice my steam heat is awful. I’m opening my window in the winter, and I have regular air conditioners in my windows that are really embarrassing. But yeah, there’s nothing I can do. 

What advice would you give a developer considering building to Passive House standards?

I think for the first time, they need to expect some learning-curve issues. They need to have the right attitude about that, and be open-minded about new systems, new ways to do what they think is the same old thing…You cannot “sort of” do it; you’re either doing it or you’re not. You can take measures to make your buildings more energy-efficient, of course, and we try to do that all the time. But if you really want to be a game-changer and make a difference, then you have to take some risks and do some different things that you’re not comfortable with or that you’ve never done before.

Read the October 2019 issue of MHN.