Tomás' Blog

A blog by our very own Tomás O'Leary, Co-Founder of the Passive House Academy (with guest bloggers welcome): Giving an insight into the minds of those in the Passive House Community, a heavy dose of human spirit, a sprinkling of technical knowhow, and a splash of humor.

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Danish Must-Have Magic Box for Your Home

Danish Must-Have Magic Box for Your Home

I remember well my first mobile phone. It was singular in function – for making telephone calls. A few years later someone came up with the crazy idea of sending text messages. “That’ll never take off” the cynics scoffed. Next thing you know you could take photographs with your phone, then email, apps and then free live video calls with loved ones on the far side of the world. Amazing stuff…. In a few short years, the mobile phone industry had stuffed so much stuff into your device that you’d never get to use the half of it.

Compare this to the technology in your house. One guy supplies the hot water tank, the heating system and radiators, the electrician fits the extractor fans in the bathrooms and kitchen and there might be a solar system on the roof. Getting these technologies talking to one another is a dark-art. One contractor blames the other and in the end you’re left with three or four components cobbled together which might - just might - work well for a few weeks or as long as it takes the last contractor to get a few miles down the road. It’s a ridiculous system. Actually, correction. That’s the problem – it’s not a system at all.

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Nilan’s Magic Box Compact P   Engineer and founder Torben Andersen


Enter the Danes. More specifically, a wonderful company by the name of Nilan owned and operated by a most inspiring Torben Andersen.

Nilan makes what I like to call the ‘magic box’. Quite simply, it is the ‘smart phone’ of the home technology sector. It does pretty much everything you need for home comfort and health and all in one cool white box. Just wheel it in, connect it up and forget about it.

Whole house balanced heat recovery ventilation? Tick. Domestic hot water? Absolutely. Heating system? Of course. No oil, no gas, no coal. Quiet as a whisper, seriously efficient and certified by the German Passive House Institute. Boom!

I’m standing in Waterford Airport in August with a number of developers and builders awaiting our host Torben to collect us in his private plane and take us to his ‘Magic Kingdom’ (just up the road from Lego Land) where he designs and makes this amazing kit. Torben is clearly a man who has a profound understanding of air, whether it’s passing over the wings of his fabulous jet or through his ventilation equipment. Torben personally flew the jet back to Denmark, ably assisted by one of his software engineers, to visit some case study projects and take a tour of the factory. For me as a Passive House fanatic, it was like a back-stage pass to Santa’s grotto. I’m writing this on the flight home, not six feet behind Captain Torben the man who dedicates his life work to make great indoor environments through super smart engineering.

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PHA Director Tomás O’Leary boards the Nilan jet   The production plant in Denmark


No self-respecting home of the future will be without one of these magic boxes (Nilan Compact P to be more precise). Put it this way, would you go back to a mobile phone that just makes phone calls?

Didn’t think so.

Huge thanks to Mauirce Falvey of Nilan Ireland for making this trip happen.

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We're Gonna Have to Science the S**t Out of This

'We're Gonna Have to Science the S**t Out of this'

Reflections on the 20th International Passive House Conference, April 2016

In Frankfurt airport after my annual transfusion. Feeling refreshed and invigorated with high-octane creativity flowing through my veins again.

I’ve just been to the world’s top energy efficiency ‘clinic’ in Germany, where the Passive House Institute celebrated its 20th annual International Conference. Forty five countries and over 1,000 delegates descended in Darmstadt to soak-up the magic-bullet formula for global warming that is ‘Passive House’.

I take my hat off to the incredible team at Passive House Institute that cracked the code two decades ago.  The scientific papers, celebrated case studies and showcased products never cease to impress.


The Martian photo

 Image from 'The Martian', Directed by Ridley Scott


Highlights for me include the following:

  •  The Proof: literal dissection of the world’s first certified Passive House in Darmstadt-Kranichstein where, after 25 years, it is still as airtight as it was when first measured (0.22 ACH @ 50Pa), drenched each day with outdoor fresh air tempered through the heat recovery ventilation unit. Space heating demand hit the modelled target each year for 25 years. Performance gap? Nein!!
  •  The People: Meeting up with highly committed and enthusiastic friends from home, US, UK, Canada, China and Australia is always a blast. The buzz, camaraderie, knowledge sharing and comfort in knowing that you’ve boarded the right energy train is grin-inducing.
  • The Papers: Imagine having the keys to the best chocolatier in town for two whole days but where you’re only allowed to choose 20 yummy nuggets to gorge on. That just about summarizes the challenge in trying to select which quality workshops, courses and presentations to attend. Presenters openly share their experiences and findings and the audience laps it up. Das is gut, ja?
  • The Products: every year the quality of Passive House products is ramping up. Historical windows, ductless ventilation, submarine-proof attic hatches, it’s all there. A real bonus was witnessing two Irish companies receiving well-deserved Passive House Certification for their air-tight boards and MVHR (more of that in a separate piece).
  • The Projects: Sunday is project day, and the buses lined to take the pilgrims to a vast array of projects to suit everyone’s interest. Of particular interest to us was the tour to Bahnstadt in Heidelberg where full Passive House standard (including PHPP) is mandatory.
  •  The Prof: Wolfgang Feist led the congregation for the 20th time. As usual he ran around the conference like the Duracell Bunny (solar-charged, of course), meeting and greeting everyone. The significance of his life’s work will be long lasting, mark my words.
  • The Postulations: the Twitter machine exploded right out of the traps with gems including ‘we are cooking the Earth’, ‘we have no other Earth’ and ‘Architects must take the lead on the energy efficiency challenge’. My personal favourite was from Feist himself calling it like it is and quoting from ‘The Martian’ telling us ‘We're gonna have to science the s**t out of this’. Boom!

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I’m a Fresh Air Millionaire

PHA first Passive House project in Ireland

Our Certified Passive House (‘CPH’) is quite well known in our neighbourhood. Last weekend whilst I was out in the garden battling with the latest weed invasion I heard a group of gents (members of a local shooting club) talking about my home. I downed-tools and strained to eavesdrop on their chatter. One of them proclaimed that whilst energy saving was all-very-well that he’d “still like to be able to open the windows once in a while”.

Humph.. put me right off my gardening for the rest of the day.

You see the problem is that many people associate Passive Houses as sealed-up boxes. That’s it – full stop! That’s true to a certain degree – they are indeed super sealed up (ten times tighter than local building regulations require). But they are also drenched with fresh air all day everyday through the heat recovery ventilator, or ‘HRV’ to those in the know. In the trade we chant ‘Build Tight, Ventilate Right’.

The air flow rate through the HRV is specifically sized to ensure really good indoor air quality. It needs to be not too low as to render the house stuffy, but also not too high as to lose all that valuable heat in the winter (or coolness in the summer). Those clever boffins at the Passive House Institute require that the flow rate at normal fan speed in Passive House projects delivers 23 cubic metres of fresh air per person per hour.

The ventilation design for a Passive House requires delivery of fresh air to all the living spaces (bedrooms, living room, study, home office) whilst simultaneously extracting air from all the wet and humid spaces (kitchen, bathrooms, mud-room, utility spaces). It’s on all day, every day, pumping fresh air around your home (or office, or classroom). Yummy freshness.

Taking our home with five persons, we receive an hourly dose of fresh air goodness equating to 115 cubic metres. Extrapolating this to a full year, we’re blessed with just over 1 million cubic metres of fresh air. Doesn’t sound so stuffy anymore, right? 

So the next time you hear someone criticising Passive Houses on the issue of air quality, please do me a favour and proclaim ‘au-contraire, they’re fresh air millionaires’. 

Passive house indoor air quality

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Brooklyn Nominated for Energy Oscars

If there were Oscars for energy performance, Brooklyn would surely bag a shed-load of statuettes. Since 2010 Brooklyn has been the heartland of the US Passive House movement in North America, shining a bright light into the dull recesses where energy vampires thrive and where comfort and energy are sucked out of buildings at an alarming rate.

Rather than starting with relatively easy new-build projects, Brooklyn has focused its efforts primarily on tackling the retrofit sector with several projects winning notoriety including Julie Torres MosKovitz’s project Tighthouse which won a Global Passive House Architecture Award in 2014.

Julie’s project has inspired many others to follow suit and there are now several brownstone retrofits underway across the borough. Baxt Ingui Architects are rolling out a continuous stream of Passive House projects including the New York City’s First Landmark Passive House in, you’ve guess it, Brooklyn Heights.

New build multi-family projects are also a feature on the Brooklyn skyline, including Chris Benedict and Henry Gifford’s affordable housing project in Bushwick which featured in Mayor de Blasio’s seismic One City Built to Last energy strategy for NYC. Non-domestic projects are also featuring, including the ambitious retrofit of a former industrial rail side building into a private ambulance dispatch center, led by local Architect Greg Duncan.

It’s no coincidence that Brooklyn is also home to a growing number of Passive House product suppliers including the wonderful guys at Four Seven Five (for airtightness, know-how and tons more) and Klearwall Windows. No shortage of certified Passive House Designers and Certified Passive House Tradesperson in Brooklyn neither as you can see from the maps below.

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Certified PH Designers
blog certified ph tradespersons right
Certified PH Tradespersons

On a personal note, I’m thrilled that our firm Passive House Academy landed in Brooklyn in 2011 and set down roots there as a base for our North American training, consulting and certification operation. On my first ever visit to Brooklyn I had dinner in the wonderful Vinegar Hill House near Dumbo (I seriously recommend it!). Given that my school boy bedroom window in my Irish home town of Enniscorthy perfectly frames a view of the original Vinegar Hill, it seems destiny brought me to Brooklyn some 40 years later. Remarkably, the same town of Enniscorthy was the Irish location for the movie ‘Brooklyn’ just nominated for the (real) Oscars.

Thank you Brooklyn!

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Passive House and Chocolate. What’s not to love about Brussels!: Day 3

With 2 full and plentiful days behind us, the Passive House Academy: New York to Brussels team were truly inspired by what we had seen. A city that has taken what we, as Passive House aficionados dream for and aim to deliver, and have made it a reality.

With the delegation suitably in awe of what we had seen and experienced we were ready to set upon our final day of projects which would leave us all with an awful lot to take back to our respective home towns and building colleagues.

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Brussels Excursion

Passive House and Chocolate. What’s not to love about Brussels!: Day 2

The 2nd instalment of our epic adventure in Brussels and we have a delegation of Passive House enthusiasts ready to hit a whole host of projects in the city that leads the way in this future of building standards.

A great nights sleep. A traditional breakfast. Some caffeine and some invigorating discussions about the first day and the exciting day ahead and we are ready to hit the projects trail!.

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