Brooklyn is on the forefront of NYC’s Passive House movement

They look just like regular houses on the outside. But what’s inside may herald a change in the way buildings are constructed across the U.S.

They are called “Passive Houses,” and Brooklyn is on the forefront of the city’s Passive House movement, according to Michael Ingui of Baxt Ingui Architects, a Brooklyn architecture firm. BIA, founded by Ben Baxt, has been involved in sustainable design for decades.

A Passive House is one which is so energy efficient it requires very little outside energy for heating or cooling. It also maintains a constant flow of fresh air ventilation. Passive Houses can reduce the energy needed for heating and cooling by up to 90 percent.

Passive Houses are being developed throughout Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, Ingui told the Brooklyn Eagle. “You would never really know that a lot of them are Passive Houses,” he said. “But when you walk inside, you feel the difference.”

You also hear the difference — passive houses are silent, he said.

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The kitchen of 37 Sidney Place. Photo courtesy of Corcoran

The firm recently completed a stunning project in Brooklyn Heights at 37 Sidney Place. The 7,040-square-foot six bedroom, nine-bathroom townhouse dating from 1846 was completely renovated over the course of several years. (COVID-19 slowed the construction.)

An elevator with bronze-mirror cab connects the six levels; baths are finished with Italian marble floors and zellige tiles. There’s a gym and sauna in the basement. Windows are triple-paned; a wall of glass equipped with motorized shades and rooftop skylights provide natural light. The outdoor living area includes a landscaped garden and two terraces with automatic irrigation systems.

“The level of finish in the house is impeccable and the client put in gorgeous kitchen appliances,” Ingui said. “But if the client hadn’t gone further to create a healthier indoor environment, how important is that really great stuff?”

With a Passive House, “I can get rid of my boiler, I can get rid of all my radiators, I can get rid of my [chimney] flu, and it's a much healthier building,” Ingui said. On the rare occasions when heat is needed, the house uses heat pumps, which also function as small air conditioning units.

The filtered fresh air system, called an Energy Recovery Ventilator, “runs 24/7 at a low velocity,” he said. “What it does is create about six or seven air changes in a day, so air is not stagnant, it feels good and you breathe well. Between the sealed walls and doors and the filtered fresh air, you have people who don't have to use their allergy medication in the house.”

“People have been building this way for a very long time in Europe, and I think it's really making a lot of headway in the U.S. now. Especially here in Brooklyn — we are close to the [Brooklyn-Queens Expressway] and you’ve got a lot of cars. I change the filters in my house four times a year, and they are pretty gross from the air coming into the house,” he said.

The triple glazed passive skylight at 37 Sidney Place has a motorized exterior shade. Photo by Peter Peirce

A collaborative effort

The Sidney Place project was a team effort, Ingui said. “Our office tries to find contractors that are just as much artisans as they are contractors, and at 37 Sidney Place you can see it — you can see it with the stairs, you can see it with the cabinetry, the floors, the wood trim. A lot of that comes from the general contractor, Andrew Fishman of SMR Craftworks.

“We collaborated with Jeff Corney based out of California on the interior design. Corcoran realtor Karen Talbott was very instrumental in helping to shape the project that we now have. Architect Maggie Hummel (also from Baxt Ingui) was project manager. “This is really Maggie's baby.”

“What makes this project so special is the attention to detail in the design, coupled with the high performance of this house,” architect Hummel told the Eagle. “When you walk in, it looks like a beautifully designed town home in Brooklyn Heights. Everything is high end; all the materials feel very luxurious. The layouts are spacious. Then you couple that with such a high performing building envelope, and it’s quite impressive.”

“One of the best things about the house is how healthy it is,” said realtor Talbott. “When people with allergies come in they say they don’t even feel them. The whole house has filtered water. And it’s silent. Your senses have time to rest and you get that sense of sanctuary in the city that we all crave.”

The library/den of 37 Sidney Place. Photo courtesy of Corcoran

Getting to Net Zero

Few Passive Houses are as luxurious as 37 Sidney Place, but they all abide by the same principles. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development has completed several Passive House projects, including Knickerbocker Commons in Bushwick. Knickerbocker Commons is New York State’s first 100 percent affordable multi-family building to be built and certified to the Passive House standard.

Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York City committed to an 80 percent reduction of carbon emissions by 2050. Ingui believes that Passive Houses are the way to achieve this goal.

“You can't get to Net Zero unless you build a better building that doesn't need as much energy,” Ingui said. “A lot of people debate how we should get our heating, whether it's oil or gas. What if we could design houses that don't need that at all? I only have to heat my house ten days a year because I have built a better building. It's a real game-changer to think you can do that in New York City.”

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  1. What a fabulous article on a cool movement I didn’t realize was happening in my own backyard!

    As the article notes, this particular passive house has an exceptionally luxurious and expensive setup. It will be interesting to see how much (if any?) retrofitting can accomplish in older buildings and homes.

    I need to wipe down the walls of my midtown-Manhattan apartment every month or so because they accumulate dark, foreboding dust on them. I like to keep the windows open, but it is disgusting to see what comes inside. Then again, is it even better with the windows closed? Too bad I can’t afford the passive house….


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