Mod Talk: Artisans Group Leads the way in Passive House Design

POSTED BY katherine mcbride COMMENTS

1427388534170This week we had the pleasure of speaking with the team at Artisans Group, an award-winning Design+Build Firm located in Olympia, WA that specializes in building ‘custom and extremely energy efficient homes throughout the Pacific Northwest’

Please tell us a little bit about the background of the company.

In business since 1997, we are a firm of innovative, fun and responsible people dedicated to the mix of art, science and craft in Architecture.  We design and build to delight our clients; we craft homes they love to live in.

As we developed and expanded, our concerns for sustainability in the building industry grew.  When we learned more about the Passive House standard we recognized its revolutionary capacity to provide our clients with a home of unsurpassed comfort and air quality while promoting sustainability through energy efficiency.

Our first Passive House was completed in early 2011 and we haven’t looked back since.

These days, when not being recognized for their excellence, Principals Tessa Smith, AIA and Randy Foster are incredibly busy applying sustainable building principles in both Residential and Commercial projects throughout the Pacific NW.  As a Design+Build firm, our heavy workload means our designers’ and builders’ expertise in working with innovative sustainable building techniques and materials continues to set the trend.

Why Passive Houses?

Cherished for their alluring design, comfort and sustainability, Passive Houses are cutting edge technology. Science based, integrated design eliminates the need for mechanical heating and cooling systems without the additional expense and maintenance of solar panels.  Fresher, healthier indoor air constantly flows through natural ventilation and air exchangers.  Abundant, light giving windows provide passive solar energy, even in winter.  Quality construction creates a wonderfully quiet, durable home and eliminates uncomfortable temperature fluctuations. Passive means unsurpassed comfort and energy efficiency, period.

Vogel Haus, The Artisans Group

Vogel Haus, Artisans Group (Photo Credit: Ramsay Photography)

What are some of the design challenges that present themselves when holding yourself to such high standard of green building?

The sun and its heat.  Most people seem to associate the Pacific NW with clouds and rain, but it only rains in Seattle about 9.4% of the year!  In order to create an extremely efficient building in our climate we dispense with traditional energy hogs like furnaces, boilers and air conditioners.  Which means that to keep the indoor temperature comfortable we have to insulate against the cold of winter and the heat of summer while assiduously sealing the building’s envelope to help prevent thermal bridging.  When you combine all of this insulation and sealing with the fact that both we and our clients love the poetry of natural light and view windows, too much sun is an easy problem to have.

Fortunately, our experience with detailed computer modeling and site analysis allows us to reliably stress test all of our design ideas before they appear in constructed form.  We accurately calculate the real-world benefits of shade and orientation for any day and time of year in order to ensure that our clients walk into a home customized to their comfort.

Material performance and availability is also a sticking point in designing and building sustainable architecture.  Cork, for example, is well known for its incredible insulating properties and is now harvested in a much more sustainable manner.  But for a long time cork was hard to get and the documentation of its performance was scanty at best.  Fortunately for all of us, this is changing and availability and lab tested results are improving on a weekly basis.

Another basic challenge is parsing relevant theoretical information for its practical value on a construction site.  As a leader in the Pacific Northwest Passive House movement, we dedicate substantial resources to ensure our designers and builders maintain and add expertise.  As the most experienced firm in the Pacific Northwest at designing and building Passive House homes, Artisans Group is uniquely qualified to ensure our team gets real world experience.  In addition, we constantly look for awesome opportunities to keep abreast of updates in this building science, through trainings and both speaking and attending relevant conferences.

Hemlock Haus, The Artisans Group

Hemlock Haus, Artisans Group (Photo Credit: Art Gray Photography)

Do you see any developing trends that might impact Sustainable Design in the NW?

Policy continues to catch up to building science.

Building code standards increasingly moving industry toward Passive House standards.  Vancouver, our neighbor to the north, amended Zoning and Development bylaws to incentivize the Passive House standard.  Now, not only is Vancouver seeing a building boom in extremely energy efficient buildings, but Canada has a concurrent boom in the supporting industry needed to build these hyper energy efficient structures.

There’s a strong and growing interest in encouraging cities to go net-zero by 2030 to meet climate goals. Passive House has the ability to get us 90% of the way there with primarily conservation measures. The remaining 10% can be achieved with renewables. Solar panel energy collection continues to become a more palatable option for people as innovations increases aesthetic options.  Tesla’s development of solar shingles may be a game changer for eco-conscious clients who nevertheless dislike the traditional panel aesthetic.  Warming climate and rising oceans move towards resiliency during blackouts.

Wood is also back in the forefront of sustainable design throughout the NW.  In cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 12-story mixed use Cross Laminated Timber frame building called Framework is in permitting in Portland.  The forest-to-frame movement may take off in crowded urban centers, which could dramatically alter people’s sensory experience of high rise urban architecture.

On top of everything else, the Pacific NW continues to increase its profile as an international hub.  As more people discover the economic opportunities and inherent beauty of the NW, their aesthetics weave into our region’s architecture.

Cedar Haus, The Artisans Group

Cedar Haus, Artisans Group (Photo Credit: Ramsay Photography)

Why modern design?

Modern architecture has stood the test of time for connection to the outdoors, elegance and timeless design.  Our clients often love the decorating freedom of the open floor plans in their modern homes, and everyone is happy with the windows.  From our perspective, the clean and minimal lines of modern design work perfectly for taking full advantage of solar gain and client views.

In the Pacific NW people often associate Passive Houses with contemporary modernist buildings.  Part of this is due to coincidence.  We see a regional rise in awareness of the incredible advantages of Passive Houses while at the same time a Pacific NW flavor of modernism is ascendant.

Island Passive House, The Artisans Group

Island Passive House, Artisans Group (Photo Credit: Art Gray Photography)

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