I often focus on the design aspects of the Passivhaus Standard on this blog. I’m an architect after all. However, while getting the design right is important for passivhaus, getting the construction right is equally important. The Passivhaus Standard isn’t an aspirational standard that sets good intentions but doesn’t follow through. The Passivhaus Standard has the integrity to deliver what it promises.

What does this mean for a builder who is asked to construct a building to the Passivhaus Standard? I explore this question with Darren Macri of Bleu Nest. He shares his journey to becoming a Passive House Builder. He also shares some of the mindset shifts and new ways of working that are needed to build to the Passivhaus Standard. And you get a taste of his infectious humour.

What does it take to be a Passive House Builder?

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Not just a Passive House Builder

I know Darren from the online passivhaus community. He is very active on twitter and writes a very informative and humorous blog that is well worth subscribing to.

Darren is not just a builder; he is the CEO and Founder of Bleu Nest, a building company dedicated to building “better.” He is certified as both a Passive House Consultant and as a Passive House Tradesperson, while also being a LEED Accredited Professional. A little more about Darren in his own words:

With more than a decade in the homebuilding / renovating field and armed with a BFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Darren commands his artful eye and his forward thinking practical building knowledge to help liberate people from the ‘traditional home building standard’ by injecting High Performance Passive House know-how into his projects and out into the world so that we may all BUILD BETTER.

An introduction to Darren wouldn’t be complete without an explanation of his company name. Knowing Darren’s humour, you could easily wonder if it is a poke at a certain “Learning Thermostat” that would certainly be feeling blue in a passivhaus home where it had nothing to learn! This is not the case though. As it turns out the name is a direct reference to two of the key benefits of the Passivhaus Standard: energy efficiency and comfort. As Darren explains:

When you take a thermal image of a passive house it reads blue in the image due to the lack of heat loss. Nest is for comfort. All homes should evoke the comfort of a good nest that surrounds you, protects you, and supports you. As for the spelling of Bleu vs Blue – well, we just had to add a little bit of class to the joint, so we spell it the French way.

Becoming a Passive House Builder

Construction professionals become interested in the Passivhaus Standard for a variety of reasons. However, it seems that many construction professionals fall out of love with environmental standards and rating systems when they realise the standards don’t deliver what is promised. Then they have an epiphany when they encounter the Passivhaus Standard and find that it not only matches their values but also does deliver what it promises.

Darren first pursued LEED accreditation to bring his work in alignment with his personal values. He feels strongly that the construction industry has an incredible responsibility. What our industry produces will often outlive us and have a significant impact on the wider community and environment. And then at a conference in 2009 he had his “Passivhaus Epiphany” –

While LEED has many nice things about it, it does not tackle in a significant way, the two root problems of our industry – energy consumption and comfort. In 2009, I was at a conference and learned about Passive House; I felt like a teenage boy that just noticed girls for the first time – “Oh my god. You are amazing – how did I not see you before?”
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Darren swiftly took it upon himself to train as a Passive House Consultant and start implementing this new knowledge in his building work. It was good that he acted when he did. His family needed a new larger home and so this was his first Passivhaus Standard building project. As I have written about, passivhaus has immediate benefits for children.

A Passive House Builder is Different

For designers and architects that take an integrated approach to sustainable design, adopting passivhaus isn’t such a big step. The Passivhaus Standard is after all, about the architecture and not a set of ‘features’ to be added on to a conventional building. And the same applies to builders, which made Darren’s adoption of the Passivhaus Standard that much easier:

In truth, my guys and I have been focused on sustainability since we started in 2004. Being sustainable isn’t some new thing that we have to plop on top of our existing ways of doing things. We are not married to ‘this is the way we have been building for X years,’ we are married to ‘what is the best factually supported way build a low energy building in the most economical way for our clients.’

And it also helped that Darren’s firm has always been committed to high-quality construction, whereas some builders wait for the architect or client’s punch list (snag list) before making an effort to raise the quality. Or as Darren puts it in a more humorous way when referring to conventional builders:

They roll with the punch list. We roll with the punchlines! 😉

This doesn’t mean that Darren and his team could continue as before when they started building to the Passivhaus Standard though. There was still a steep learning curve:

There are a lot of things that are different about a passive house. The ventilation systems, the wall sections, the window install, but really, those are all details that you just build as designed. The biggest adjustment for my team and my subs was the air barrier. The air barrier never goes on vacation. We have to own that obsession in our hearts during every step of the process.
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Quality control is paramount to achieving the Passivhaus Standard both at design and at construction stages. This requires extra vigilance on site, which Darren and his team tackle in a direct manner:

My team all have clearly defined roles so that there is accountability and it helps to limit finger pointing. For instance, we have one carpenter in charge of our air barrier. If the subs need to make a hole they know to clear it with him and he will develop an approach to seal it.

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The Value of a Passive House Builder

A Passivhaus Standard building needs to be designed and documented correctly. And it needs to go through the passivhaus certification quality control process. In this case, any competent builder should be able to construct it, right? Well in theory yes, particularly if they are interested in learning along the way. However, in practice, having a Passive House Builder brings considerable benefit. And if you are building your own home, or carrying out significant alterations to your existing home, you are making a considerable investment. Rightfully, you want the process to be an enjoyable and successful one. Darren explains the advantages of having a Passive House Builder:

As the builder and as Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC) our goals are directly in line with the design team and the client. Passive House is different way of building and there can be a lot of uphill battles you have to face, having a builder that is a CPHC eliminates many of them.

And of course there is the matter of quality already mentioned:

Just like Kia is car and Bentley is a car, but I wouldn’t want my Bentley built by the folks that build Kia.

As a result most clients come to Bleu Nest because they know what Bleu Nest will deliver. The clients want high performance, they want passivhaus and they want the quality that comes with a Passive House Builder.

A builder that is also a Passive House Consultant is a fantastic first step. The integrated approach to design and construction needs to go further though. Darren agrees with me that we need architecture to change in the anthropocene, we need deeper collaboration as part of an integrated process to ensure buildings live up to their promises. In Darren’s words:

We have to rethink the whole process of the way we work together in the design and construction fields. The days of designing something in a vacuum and then handing it off to go get built are gone. For high performance structures the builder needs to be brought in during the design phase. Having complete buy in on all sides to the methods and details ensures a team approach which will give you a project with less change orders, on budget, and built better.

A Passive House Builder, Seriously

Movements like passivhaus start from grassroots action, not legislation: architects and builders delivering buildings to the Passivhaus Standard. The construction industry is very slow to change and it can take a huge effort to bring something as radical as the Passivhaus Standard into the mainstream. It’s one of the reasons I write this blog in ‘plain English.’ Darren is on a similar mission and he uses humour as his weapon of choice:

Passive House is a fresh take on traditional building and I want to mirror that idea in my marketing. It’s so fun to flip an industry on its ear – one that has been unquestionably marching to the same beat for so long. Serving it up slathered in humor is how I have fun with something that I take very seriously. I want people to stop and pay attention and notice Passive House because I truly believe that it is the only way to build for the future. Peter Ustinov says it best; “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.”

The need to address climate change is urgent. Architecture must change. We need mass adoption of the Passivhaus Standard for buildings. As well as passivhaus architects and designers, we need Passive House Builders.

Are you a Passive House Builder, or aspiring to be one? Leave a comment below with a link to your work so the blog readers can check it out.

Find out more about Passive House Tradesperson training at the Passive House Institute’s Certified Passive House Tradesperson page. Various organisations put on training courses in the UK, US and other parts of the world.

20 thoughts on “Not Your Average Builder: A Passive House Builder

  1. Another good post, Elrond. I very much agree with your thoughts:

    “The integrated approach to design and construction needs to go further though…we need architecture to change in the anthropocene, we need deeper collaboration as part of an integrated process to ensure buildings live up to their promises.”

    This aligns with my thinking and is prompting me to begin actively looking to partner with a builder in hopes of forming a collaborative design-build firm. I think that combining forces to deliver a finished product is the way to go. It would also help the prospective homeowner overcome the hurdle of the up front design fees if they could be rolled into the overall project costs. Would love to discuss this further with anyone interested.

    • Hi Cameron,
      I completely agree in the design build approach. It was more common in decades past but fell out of favor in the 60s and 70s. As a builder we lose a lot of time during the bidding process (getting up to speed and quoting projects). That time is money and then when you get the project there is always some change from the builders perspective and then that incurs more cost to the clients from the builder and the designer. Having the builder on board early in the process (especially with high performance) gives you the best chance for success – with time, budget and energy metrics.

      • From what I can see, one of the hurdles to PH to prospective home owners is the upfront cost of design fees that we see in the traditional model of project delivery. It seems to me that the fees might become less of a hurdle if they can be rolled into the whole package cost which can be paid for with the construction loan.

  2. Great to see design and build defended as an approach. Another term like ‘value engineering’ that has come to mean something else with very negative connotations.

    • Limassol you got me – I don’t know cars 🙂 and this morning I got a cease and desist letter from Kia – boy their lawyers fast even if their cars aren’t!

  3. Darren- you dress better than me! (I am his architect.)

    Just like builders need to evolve, so does the design profession. It is no small irony that several of my peers here have literally sneered at my enthusiasm when I was stoking my brain with Passive House study. Now those architects are claiming that they too are designing “passive houses”- as if saying it simply makes it so. But the first step is to admit the problem, perhaps.

    As Darren can attest, I am an architect who is engaged in the construction process- but one limitation of fully embracing the design/build approach is there are only so many hours in a day. If I am building I am not designing. While Darren is building his own Passive House, I am designing my 6th one- and all my work now is heavily influenced by the Standard- even if certification isn’t in the cards.

    Concurrently, I am researching a paper on Passive House retrofits for the ubiquitous wood-frame builder’s house- which numbers approximately 130,000,000 across the continent. There is a huge potential, and we need to get all hands on deck to achieve it. And yet those same crappy houses are being built today- so it is a monumental task. We need to reboot an entire workforce.

    I do agree that IPD is an excellent way to build a shared commitment to building better, and controlling costs. But it is a fact that it takes a lot more education, care, and time on my end as an architect, and it takes a lot more education, care, and time on Darren’s end. People need to start assigning the right value for quality work- and that is not something most Americans are used to doing.

    But another important component- ACTIVISM. We across the board need to educate the public, professionals, and municipalities of the potential readily available to change the way we design, build, and affect our world. As such I have founded the Passive House Alliance- Hudson Valley- and I talk endlessly about what we do. I presented to the local AIA chapter, to sustainability forums, and community activist gatherings. Our chapter has managed to bring CPHC training to Upstate NY for the first time, and Certified Builder Training to a very depressed and dilapidated urban community here in the Hudson Valley- with serious government funding.

    A unique challenge in the US is that we MUST lead from the grass-roots. And while there is some determination to inch energy codes up at the state level (in some states), it is no where near the rate that is needed. Many countries in Europe and Korea (yes Darren, where Kias are made!) are mandating change, we have to personally affect it here.

    I am successfully creating a pocket of skilled builders in my region (Hudson Valley of New York State) by creating fun, challenging designs that better builders want to be a part of. I am also educating the public, and elected officials about the possibilities. Lastly, I am reaching way past my self interests by building awareness among my competitors- safe bet so far as their words still lack action. But they are hearing me now!

    • Thanks James, that is a very valuable contribution, both to the conversation here and to your region.

    • Hi James,

      Some great points. Thanks for chiming in. One thought more about the design build is that as the designer, and I have heard you say this in the past, you are able to save the client design time (AKA money, AKA your time to work on other projects and make more money) when you are working with a builder that you know he/she knows what they are doing. And from my perspective as the builder it has been great to have you and your firm to bounce things off of when on those very few and extremely rare occasions we don’t know what we are doing 🙂

      I suppose at the end of the day what speaks to you is the one that works. I like the collaborative approach. And lastly, a study at Penn State says that Design Build projects are delivered 6% lower and 33.5% faster than Design-Bid-Build (to say nothing of the quality of construction that I think would be the strong point for design build

  4. Very interesting.

    We’re currently refining what we do (construction project management of Passivhaus and very low energy new build & refurbs, mainly for domestic clients). We’ve successfully delivered a number of projects and have happy clients, but there has been too much of a disconnect for a whole host of reasons.

    In the spirit of ‘be the change you want to be’ we are working on an integrated solution where the client benefits from an end to end service with designer/contractor acting as one from the outset.

  5. Great Post Elrond & Darren,

    We have been design & building Passive House from start to finish for the last 5 years and there is no doubt that having those conversations and input from the beginning of the design process enables the build to progress smoothly. Of course there are still questions along the way but the fundamentals and performance details are locked in from the concept. The best outcomes will always be when both the designer and builder share the a common vision in our case this is framed by the Passive House standard as a given. We have been involved with quite a few projects as consultants in the early days and so it is easy to compare the two approaches. The consultancy route generally results in a series of compromises that generally result in higher costs and less performance! I like the humour Darren, I agree it is a great way to get the message across. I had a similar expericene to you ….. when I found and understood Passive House there was no turning back!

    • Hi Jon,
      Thank you for the comment. It is so great to hear your perspective from both sides of the process. I see a yoga studio on your website – I was taking a hot yoga class the other day and thought – it would be an interesting project to make the hot yoga room its own PH with the design temp at @ 172 degrees (at least that is what it feels like).

  6. I absolutely agree about the cooperation described as ‘design build’ in the post, but clients tend to like the price fixed or agreed at the outset, which pushes design, (the biggest cost influence) to the front. Bringing the builder in early to assist with that then removes the competitive price that clients also want!

    Fixing the price before the design, which is how design and build works, (or doesn’t), in the UK, puts the cart way in front of the horse! Every penny saved on ‘quality’ is a penny extra profit once the price is fixed and the contract awarded on it. Double whammy when they’ve priced something they didn’t know how to build in the first place.

    Using certified and experienced Passivhaus designers should mitigate, but we need more flexible contract forms with space to allow for improvements on the hoof whilst ensuring a competitive price, to really enshrine the cooperation and quality needed for better buildings.

    We also need some Bleu Nest builders who ‘get it’. I’m working with a couple at the moment and the approach is refreshing. So many other projects are controlled by the quantity surveyor instead of the technical guy, where the price is paramount and disconnected from any assessment as to the quality, (that’s in the spec right?). That’s especially true in D&B projects.

    I’m really interested in how to get the quality of Passivhaus without paying for the Bentley… Kia are actually quite good cars. (Disclaimer – I drive neither!).

    • I just got a email this morning…for my unwavering defense of their craftsmanship – Bentley is sending me over a new EXP 10 speed 6 concept car. Isn’t that nice of them. You are all welcomed to take a spin with me next time you are in the area.

      I completely agree Chris, if we are to make a real difference with passive house it needs to be achievable for every home owner and builder. I think that will come as builders re-educate themselves with new best practices. Having more products manufacture locally and introducing more prefab elements will also help drive down costs.

      I think the idea of competitive pricing coming from Deisgn-Bid-Build is perhaps an illusion. A typical builder wins about 30% of his/her bids. Who is paying for the other 70% of time and effort on the other bids? The client that actually books a job. Our clients aren’t builders they have other businesses and full lives it is really hard for them to parse out and make an informed decision on which builder to go with during the bid process. So, who do they choose? All things being equal, the guy with the lowest price. But all things are never equal. Sometimes the guy with the lowest price is the best guy, sometimes the guy with the highest or the guy in the middle. There are so many reasons for different prices.

      Clients know how much money they have to spend and I think it is the most fair why to limit surprises to get that out up front. To continue my horrible analogy: They wouldn’t got to the Bentley dealership and expect to pay Kia prices (yes ok – Kia’s are fine cars – although 12 years ago I had a rented Kia mini van and it felt like it was falling apart piece by piece and I envisioned myself driving down the highway at 60mph just holding a steering wheel). You wouldn’t take your schematic for your Bentley and shop it around to ten different factories – if you did you would probably get ten different cars. We need to build brands as design builders so that the clients know what they are getting and then we deliver it.

  7. Now, I like the imagery of shopping around a Bentley to 10 different factories- imagine a Bentley made by Toyota?!

    Anyway- I agree with Darren- for most clients there is an absolute budget that they must not surpass- and working collaboratively at the start is the best way for the design half and the build half to work together as a team. Whether it is an informal relationship or a joint venture, having the PH architect and the PH builder working together early is the best way to deliver the project on time and on budget.

    PH guru Adam Cohen will be lecturing on the subject of “Integrated Project Delivery of Passiv Buildings at Market Rate” at the Passive House Alliance- Hudson Valley on June 9 for those in the Hudson Valley- NY Region. The lecture will be held at Atlas Industries, 11 Spring Street, Newburgh, NY at 8 PM.

  8. Great post and great conversation.

    I had a lot of fun designing and building our certified passive house using a non-traditional system (patent pending – Superpod). We had our hiccups of course, but we got there in much less time than a normal build would take. (It would take 4-6 weeks to build a 100 sqm Superpod from scratch.)

    The design process took a long time and I got immense support from architect, steel fabricator and engineer. I don’t know why they each saw fit to donate massive hours to the project but they did, thank God. None of them had heard of passive house before I came to them. Their support was amazing.

    But at the same time I have to remember the resistance and indifference of others I approached. This is important because it shows how hard it is to get others to adopt.

    In terms of the design we now have it. We can amend but we don’t have to. It’s replicable.

    This is important because I want passive house systems that are easy to repeat and apply. So you don’t have to reinvent the design wheel each time.

    Then there were the tradies, three of whom agreed to be interviewed for our upcoming film (in part my attempt to spread the passive house word). Again, local guys, very experienced, who had never heard of passive house. Yes I had approached others who ran away with various excuses. But these guys, well, despite knowing nothing about PH they became such avid converts in a few short weeks that my mother remarked (upon seeing the rushes) that it was like they had converted to a new religion!

    While Melbourne is mainly dealing with cold, they were blown away by working on 38-40 degree days in the middle of summer, and walking inside to the unfinished podhouse which was sitting quietly in the low twenties.

    In conclusion – and in relation to the post/conversation here…

    By having a good sensible design, where I had sat down with suppliers and tradies from the very beginning to learn from them, and fed that into the design (approved by the Passive House Academy thank you guys) it was not that hard to construct. Airtightness was still an issue but this was just a matter of working through some things (more in our case to do with the prototyype nature of the build).

    By having a sensible design that wasn’t too hard to construct, and which is extremely fast, you can work with newbie tradies and with a good attitude they will quickly come on board.

    In my view we need to do alot more, and urgently, to get passive house out there. Innovative ways to design, to build, and to communicate (like Elrond here whose blogs are great). There are many barriers to the PH entry. Design time and skills is one of them, construction methods another, and inexperience of builders another. Whatever we can do to make it easier is a good thing.

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