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Recently in the Business Examiner: Olympia firm...

Recently in the Business Examiner: Olympia firm taking advantage of sustainable home trend

Pacific Northwest a ‘hotbed’ for passive home uses, with Artisans Group leading charge


At Elaine Griffin’s home on Shaw Island, every day feels like summer.

“No matter when you walk in, there’s so much light, warmth and sunshine in a house that costs almost nothing to heat,” she said. “It’s just incredible.”

Griffin’s home is a “passive house”— that is, it abides by a strict standard of ecological footprint reduction. Passive houses, first popularized as passivhauser in Germany in the early 1990s, aim to use a fraction of the energy consumed by traditional buildings, while still maintaining high levels of comfort, soundproofing, and air quality for their inhabitants.

“Nine out of 10 houses being built in Germany are passive houses,” explained Tessa Smith, principal architect and co-owner of the Artisans Group, the Olympia design and building firm that developed Griffin’s home. And the rest of Europe is following suit —Austria and Germany have adopted the passive house standard as their building code, with many governments beginning to incentivize building under passive house benchmarks.

The U.S. has been slower than many European nations to adopt the concept, but nationally, passive houses are beginning to take off. The world’s tallest such building, for example, is currently under construction at Cornell University and major projects are underway in Pennsylvania and New York.

Regionally, business is booming.

“The Pacific Northwest is a hotbed for passive houses,” said Smith. “There has become a huge market for them in the last five years. We’re building four in Olympia right now, plus working on projects in Seattle and Portland.”

Artisans Group is a big beneficiary of the trend, as so far, the company has more passive houses finished or under construction (nine) than any other builder in the country. The firm, some two decades old, doesn’t exclusively work in passive house design and construction.

Smith mentioned that Artisans Group’s project pipeline includes some still-confidential sustainable commercial projects and “a couple of restaurants” in downtown Olympia. But, she added, its work in the passive housing segment has led to considerable growth of late.

“A year ago, we had five employees, and now we have 18,” said Smith. “You can sell two projects and go from needing two carpenters to needing eight carpenters in literally the span of a few weeks, so in some ways, the growth has been a challenge. But it’s a good thing. We’re moving forward really nicely.”

Passive houses are continuing to fuel that forward progress in large part, she continued. The company looks to almost double its output in the sector by the end of next year, with ever-trendy Seattle as its next geographic bullseye.

“I think we’re going to build maybe seven or eight more this year and 2016,” said Smith. “Our efforts to break into the Seattle market are young, but very fruitful. We’ve got some very exciting, very avant garde projects coming up there that are going to have some really interesting architecture.”

Currently, Smith said, the company has four projects in Seattle, driven by web searches on the passive housing trend. Artisans Group is also working on another west of Portland, Ore., plus one in Steilacoom and a handful in Olympia.

And with potential homeowners increasingly thinking green — both in terms of the environment and their own pocketbooks — Smith expects the passive house standard to catch on with other local builders.

“The minute they (prospective buyers) start looking into payback models, the minute they start looking into the most practical way to build a really high-performing home and not just do gimmicky things, I think that’s how they’re really finding us and other passive builders,” she said. “I think in two years, we’re not going to be talking about who’s built the most passive houses, because everyone will be in on it.”

Critics of passive houses contend that energy savings will not compensate for higher building costs (estimated at between 5 to 20 percent), but Smith remains unfazed.

“I can build 10 passive houses for the same energy allowance that you can build one house, normally,” she says. “There really isn’t a reason to not do it to this standard, if you’re honestly looking at the cost of energy. My business partner, Randy Foster put together a payback model that shows in four to eight years you’re paid off, and in 30 years after that you’ve made $120,000 on the average home.”

One hindrance to the trend so far has been that American municipalities so far offer little incentive for passive housing, especially compared to progressive standards in Europe.

“In terms of incentives for building incredibly energy-efficient homes, there’s not much,” says Ramsey Zimmerman, program director at Thurston Energy, a branch of Thurston Economic Development Council. “The Energy Star program through state Department of Ecology offers regional certifications for reducing energy consumption. But most of the incentives are for doing improvements on existing homes.”

Policies, though, may be changing in the decades ahead, said Sam Hagerman, a board member of Passive House Alliance U.S.

“A lot of politicians signed on to plans to reduce carbon levels by 2050 without ever thinking about what it would take,” said Hagerman, whose Portland-based Hammer & Hand construction firm is “neck and neck” with Artisans Group in the race to build passive homes in the country.

“The second generation after them have realized that they’re legally required to comply with these carbon reductions and are looking for programs that will actually do that,” he said. “Between 40 and 46 percent of our energy is used heating and cooling our buildings. That’s the area we can jump on the quickest.

“These buildings have been in existence for 10 or 20 years in Europe,” he added. “We just have to prove this concept on American soil. … Physics-based building analysis is the next revolution in construction.”

Regionally, Smith sees great potential.

“There’s going to be a lot of new construction in Seattle and Olympia in the coming years,” she said.  “That’s what makes it exciting. If you can afford to build a custom home, you can afford to build a passive house.”

This article appeared in a August 2015 issue of the Business Examiner print edition.