Jhe first night Stephanie Silva spent in her new Brooklyn apartment was exceptionally quiet. It was the same the next morning and the next day. The 32-year-old New Yorker had forgotten the last time she managed to mute the city of 8.2 million.
“It’s like a sanctuary,” Silva says, but as soon as she opens the windows facing the street, bustling outside noise fills her living room. Once she closed the windows, the difference was immediately noticeable. “Since moving here, my anxiety has gone away,” Silva says, referring to the affordable 10-story apartment in Ocean Hill, part of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. But what sets this 67-unit building apart from the rest of the city’s housing is its “passive” element.
A passive building is designed to consume a minimum of energy. To be efficient in heating and cooling, the space is sealed with airtight insulation – like a vacuum bottle – so that it can retain heat during the winter while keeping it out during the summer. . Homes, schools, offices, and other buildings built to Passive House standards typically use thicker, higher-performance windows, such as triple-glazed models, which have three layers of glass. Another key step is to use the energy recovery process in the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Known as the ERV, the ventilator, by means of two fans, acts as the lungs of the building, drawing in clean, fresh, filtered air and expelling stale air.
In New York and other cities, passive design is becoming a popular option for new apartment buildings and homes, and it’s easy to see why: people love living there.
“I didn’t suffer an allergy attack like I usually would,” said Silva, who suffers from dust and seasons allergies. “The building clears the air and I can sleep through the night.”
Continuous air exchange, coupled with super-insulated construction, means no more smell of what the downstairs neighbors are cooking, no more traffic noise in the living room, and no more click-clack from old radiators. Each room in Silva’s three-bedroom apartment has its own heating and cooling unit, allowing his family to heat one room at a time instead of the entire house. “My daughter hates the heat, while I like my bedroom to be nice and warm,” Silva says. “I love that each room has its own separate temperature.”
Solar panels are embedded in the roofs of many passive buildings, including two in the Bronx developed by Bronx Pro Group, which specializes in affordable housing.
“When you walk into a passive house, the average person probably doesn’t notice a difference,” said Justin Stein, senior vice president of the Bronx Pro Group.
“Other than being quieter, it looks like any other apartment,” Stein said.
The invisible health effects of cleaner air will help tenants in the long run, but the benefit of lower electric bills will be felt immediately. The annual energy demand of passive houses is estimated to be more than 70% lower than that of traditionally insulated buildings with the same parameters. Silva, who lives with her three-year-old son and her fiancé, paid her first utility bill in December, which came to $57. In his old two-bedroom apartment, charges averaged $135 a month: $60 for gas and $75 for electricity.
“I’m not that grumpy,” Silva says as she reflects on the impact lower housing costs have had on her personality. “I was living paycheck to paycheck in my last apartment and now I can buy something nice because I can afford it. Before, all the money I had left had to be used for expenses for the following month.
It took eight months from the day Silva applied for the city’s affordable housing lottery to the day she was able to move into her new home developed by RiseBoro, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit. In 2014, RiseBoro developed New York State’s first-ever affordable multi-family apartment building certified to Passive House standards. Today there are more than 30 affordable apartment buildings in New York City built to passive standards, including this first RiseBoro project in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
“When you move from an older affordable home to a more efficient one, there’s a huge shift in attitude,” said Satpal Kaur, an architect who has been designing efficient buildings for more than 15 years. Kaur helped deliver the Bushwick Building while in the office of Chris Benedict, one of the leading architects in the field of sustainable design. From keeping your feet cold while working from home, to sitting by a window and not feeling the cold peeking through the glass, to reducing noise pollution and energy costs – for Kaur, the benefits of living in an affordable Passive House are conveniences that every person deserves.
“If we made it standard practice, comfort would be for everyone,” Kaur says.
Dozens of affordable passive developments are currently under construction in the five boroughs. Building a passive house usually costs about 5-10% more than a conventional house. The construction of a multi-family passive building can be approximately 3% more than a comparable non-passive building. Renovating an older building to passive standards is one of the most effective ways to reduce heat concentration and emissions from the existing housing stock.
These renovations and new construction projects can contribute to the city’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by 40% by 2030. Energy-efficient design decisions – such as moving away from gas for electricity – will also help reduce residents’ bills, Kaur said. When developers adopt passive design standards, “not only are you changing the life of the building,” Kaur said, “you’re changing the lives of the people in it.”
In New York, as in many places across the country, summer temperatures are highest in densely built-up areas. Adequate and efficient cooling is a priority.
New York City buildings are good at providing – and retaining – heat to keep residents warm during the winter. The challenge for homeowners is how to keep residents cool when temperatures rise and buildings heat up, says Ryan Cassidy, director of sustainability and construction at RiseBoro. He thinks that like tenants’ current right to heat, in the next 5 to 10 years New York City will likely develop a cooling policy for buildings.
Currently, the city’s building stock is responsible for 71% of New York’s greenhouse carbon emissions. The recent decision to ban gas heaters, cookers and water heaters in all new buildings may push traditional developers to follow Passive House standards.
Aramis Rosa is one of the owners who does just that. In March 2020, he purchased a five-bedroom, two-story home in Staten Island with an attic and basement. An electrician, he was fixing sockets at Kaur when they started talking about architecture and how Kaur designs buildings.
“I remember he said, ‘Hey, would you mind sending me the cut sheets?'” Kaur recalled. She emailed the information and a few months later, when he returned to fix her doorbell: “He told me he had done everything, and I was completely blown away.”
Rosa applied what Kaur taught her to remodel her new family home. The boiler, the first to leave, was replaced by an ERV. Then he installed energy efficient windows, separate units in each room and solar panels on the roof, who was eligible for state tax refunds.
When it comes to insulation, working with spray foam was a turning point for Rosa. “That has got to be the best thing I’ve done, to go with spray foam insulation,” Rosa said. “Because of the amount of heat it is able to retain, now in winter, you can feel the difference as soon as you walk into the house.”
A chemical compound that expands in seconds when applied, spray foam leaves virtually no air gaps, unlike traditional fiberglass insulation. Rosa is the fifth owner of the 1938 house and the first to do such a spectacular renovation on his own.
“I feel like when you hire someone, they’re there to do the job and then go home. They might not consider the person living there long-term,” Rosa said. “Even though it took us a little longer to be home, the fact that I’m doing it for my family means I’m not skipping any corners because I’ll be the one living here.”
In a city known for its sensory overload — whether it’s the roar of new construction, the funk of curbside trash, or the howls of the century-old subway system — being able to tune out can be a luxury. But the promise of passive architecture is that it doesn’t have to be – it can be as easy as coming home.