02 Passive House – 40% Less CO2 and Lower Costs w/ James Geppner


Speaker: Welcome to Sustainability Now, an exploration of technologies and paradigms to shape a world that works, designed for socially conscious entrepreneurs and individuals interested in responsible stewardship of the planet. Sustainability Now covers food, energy, housing, water, waste, health, economics, and consciousness. Welcome to your community, Sustainability Now, with your host, Mira Rubin.

Mira: Welcome to Sustainability Now, technologies and paradigms to shape a world that works. I'm your host, Mira Rubin and I am delighted to be welcoming our guest, James Geppner.

James: Thank you very much.

Mira: Hi, welcome.

James: Thank you.

Mira: It's great to have you here James. Let me just tell folks a little bit about who you are and then you can jump in and give us more background.

James: Great.

Mira: James is the Executive Director of Erase40.org and uses behavioral science to find ways to speed the adoption of zero-energy buildings. One of the things that we focus on with this podcast is shifting paradigms, and you're actively engaged in doing that.

James: Sure.

Mira: Before we dig more deeply into the behavioral aspect of this, how about if you just give folks a background on what a zero-energy building is.

James: Sure. Buildings around the world and nationally emit about 40% of all the carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere each year.

Mira: That's a pretty well-kept secret. That's a statistic I had never heard before we spoke.

James: Yes. It's an enormous amount, and right away you see what the opportunity is because if zero-energy building can basically cut that to zero. When we talk about the challenges we face to respond to climate change, frequently we're talking about what kind of technologies or how we might shift entire industries or how we produce energy and there is often a ton of complexity there. We're often depending on technologies that aren’t fully developed yet or that might be really expensive or then lastly we look at this category of our consumption habits and pretty entrenched behaviors and see what can we give up.

Mira: Right.

James: What kind of radical change can we make. When you are looking at a zero-technology building, you go, "Okay, this is a technology that exists now and that does not require investments in infrastructure, does not require some new research, but that is available to us immediately." What a zero energy building is, is just what it sounds like. It requires no energy to run. That is, it requires no outside input of energy. One of the most common of these technologies is called Passive House technology. What a Passive House is, it can be any type of building. It can be a skyscraper. It can be a library, it can be a hospital, it can be an apartment building or could be a home. It doesn't matter the size of the building, but basically what it is, it's a building that is designed with a computer model and that computer model takes into account weather and climate data and that weather and climate data determines the positioning of the house, the amount of insulation, the kinds of windows, and then those buildings tend to have a couple of components that make it possible for them to really be very efficient as far as keeping in the heat. So, you don't have to add heat inputs and that is basically an air barrier that prevents leaks, sufficient amount of insulation on the exterior, generally, not always, depending on the climate, but three-pane windows and what is called a heat recovery ventilator, which is a ventilator that gives you a continuous supply of fresh air in the building but does so without losing any of the heat or a very, very small portion of the heat.

Mira: Did you say also there's something different about the foundation of the building as well?

James: Well, yes. An experience that we all have had is that we walk into the basement and it's cooler, we walk into a particular room of a house and it's cooler, or even in the summer hotter. The reason that is, is because there is some bridging between the temperature outside and the temperature inside and in a basement, our basement slab generally rests right on the ground. The ground is basically that slab is pulling the heat out of the house and into the ground, right, and that's simple physics, trying to find equilibrium. That heat is being pulled out of your house. So, when you step on that basement floor especially with your feet, it's very cold to the touch. What a passive house will do is put insulation even under that basement slab, so that what is called the building envelope, which goes all the way around the house covers basically every inch and every crack, so you're not losing heat anywhere, really. It's a very different thing when you step on a basement floor that has insulation there is none of that thermal bridging, and so it should be roughly the air temperature of the rest of the house.

Mira: Wow. There are several primary advantages to Passive House technology, could you just tell us what those are?

James: Yes, absolutely. People tend to think about buildings very narrowly. They have a set of things that help them make a decision to rent this apartment or that apartment or buy this house or this house. And that's locations, safety, beauty, things like that. What people frequently don't take into account is some of the things that have very large impacts on their lives, and those impacts are the quality of the air inside the building, the amount of noise from outside that goes inside that building or that home. Then not the amount of the mortgage, not that sales price, but those ongoing costs that we all incur when we rent an apartment or we buy a house. Those three things normally have a very large impact on our lives which we tend not to account for, but those three categories differ in the extreme really from a conventional house to a passive or zero-energy house. In a conventional house, a typical conventional house, the air inside that house is three to five times worse than the air outside the house. When people think about air quality, they tend to think about, "Oh I live in a nice neighborhood and there is not very much pollution." What they're thinking about is the ambient air quality. The air quality outside, but what they're not accounting for is the source of pollution is their house itself. That's one thing that people tend to under-estimate, and that's an important thing not to overlook because there are 24 million people in this country with asthma, there are over 3,000 deaths a year in this country because of asthma. 21,000 people die each year because of radon in this country. The quality of the air inside our home or inside the buildings that we occupy is extremely important. That's one feature, that's one difference. A second difference is noise. What highly insulated buildings do, zero energy buildings and Passive House buildings do is they dampen external noise. Now, the World Health Organization has given a recommendation that at night that we have noise levels at no higher than 40 decibels. Now 40 decibels is about the noise of a quiet library.

Mira: Wow.

James: What the WHO advises is that, the reason they advise this is, because at 55 decibels, our risk, our stress levels go up, our sleep is interrupted even if we don't actually notice that our sleep is interrupted, we have a subjective and objective experience. Sometimes our subjective experience is that we didn't wake up but we actually were stirred awake. Over 55 decibels we have increased stress, sleep interruption, increased chance of stroke, heart attack and other health ailments. With noise, it's an interesting situation with noise because we can get used to changes in temperature, we can get used to changes in our hunger level, we can basically function well when we're hungry, but with noise, our subjective experience, we might think, "Oh, I'm used to that noise or I don't even notice it." But objectively the studies all show that you might not think that you're being influenced by that noise, but it really is taking a very high toll on your ability to focus.

Mira: I really think that people don't even take health considerations of air quality and sound, don't make those considerations when they're making a choice for housing. It's not in the awareness.

James: That's right. To address basically what I see in this health emergency is for people to understand that their choice of where to live is a health decision and will have large impacts on their health. In fact there was an article in The New York Times recently by a person who studied longevity, and was following all these researchers who were studying longevity. It said that what we eat and how much we exercise really didn't affect our longevity nearly as much as one other factor and that was our exposure to environmental pollution.

Mira: Interesting.

James: Changing how much environmental pollution we're exposed to is one of the most important things we can do when choosing where to live. More than where to live, choosing what type of building. Whether we live in a conventional building or a high performance building. Whether that high performance is a passive house or whether it's another type of zero energy building. When people make a buying or renting decision, what's important for them to know is that some decisions are more complicated and more difficult than others. There are a lot of different considerations, it's complicated. People tend not to make decision this decision very frequently so they don't have a lot of practice making this decision. What's happening is people are using price as a proxy for affordability. Whereas price and affordability have very little to do with one another. Like if I said I was going to give you a free horse. Is that horse affordable? No, because you still have to pay for board and you still have to like pay for vet bills and so forth. There are other costs that will dictate whether that horse is affordable or not. A free horse isn't actually necessarily a very good deal. When people focus on price, what they tend to do is they tend to ignore what are their total monthly costs. This includes heating cooling costs and other things like that and repair costs. If instead of focusing on price they focused on that total monthly cost, they'd end up making a decision in which they had more information; they were better able to forecast what that burden would be and is that house really affordable. Is that apartment really affordable? A $1200 month apartment with $600 a month heating bills isn't a good deal. A lot of people end up in exactly that situation.

Mira: What are the questions that we want our homebuyers to be asking so that they're helping their health, their pocketbook and the beauty of this is they're helping the environment, whether or not that's their primary commitment. They're making an environmental impact because they're really paying attention to their own best interests. What do we need to ask?

James: Well, that's a great question. Because in a lot of different situations with trying to be more sustainable or have an effective response to climate, we’re asked to give something up.

Mira: Exactly.

James: In this case what people are doing is making a decision about what type of home to buy. The decision before them doesn't require that they give up anything. If a person choosing a passive house over a conventional house, if they're looking out for their health, if they ask for continuous airflow, if they ask for what is called a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) rating which is a standard rating for how energy-efficient a home is, if they ask for sound dampening, those things are all in the interests of their own health and will increase their savings rate et cetera. But it will also substantially impact the climate, because in a passive house the energy savings can be up to 95%.

Mira: Wow.

James: The cooling savings is around 50%. Then of course in a lot of passive houses you also install solar panels so you'll have potentially some savings there or at least a source of electricity which is sustainable. If people are asking about those three things that are very important to their health, they'll also be doing something good for the climate.

Mira: Wonderful. Are there commercial builders that are building passive homes?

James: Yes. There are builders and architects who are trained in passive house technology are all certified. They're all specifically trained in that technology and then certified in that. There are even things they have to do to keep up their certifications. It's actually a fairly rigorous amount of training. Architects who don't have that training can sometimes hire specialists to come in and help them to deliver a passive house. But for the most part you really want to go to an architect or builder who has gone through that training process. There are lists of builders and architects who are trained in this technology.The lists are by state and I will give you a link so your listeners can access those lists of those architects.

Mira: Great. Your information and whatever links we talk about or references that we make will be made available on the SustainabilityNow.global website where we have a show notes page for each episode of the podcast. We’ll share whatever you give us.

James: Great.

Mira: That's awesome. Tell us how did you find your way to sustainability? Your personal journey.

James: My interest in sustainability is kind of hard to trace, because I think that for the longest time since I was a child, I had some awareness that human beings were this odd species. That we’re very interested in what other people thought and very attuned to the facial expressions of others and the subtext of what others said and could be wholly oblivious to a bird flying right by them or to changes in weather patterns or to substantial changes in the ecosystems around them. I think as just a people watcher, from a child just became aware of this and I guess always wanted to do something and just didn't know what it was that I specifically can do. In all the discussions around climate change as to what I just said very consistent and human behavior, the concern tends to be do people believe or not believe in it. Now, I would like people to accept climate science. But I'm much more interested in actions as opposed to beliefs. A person could potentially do the right things for the wholly wrong reasons. If a person recycles or composts or buys a passive house because they're preparing for a zombie attack, I'm okay with it. What I'm interested in is that they have the right behaviors. I always wanted to make some kind of commitment to the environment. When I saw saw passive house as an opportunity, I thought this is maybe the best way to make a really substantial commitment to the environment and one that doesn't go against any really large force of opposition. Because health is very important to people, and because, this isn't something that a government needs to make a huge investment in, and it's really not important. People who believe in climate science and people who don't believe in climate science, they all want their children to have fresh air. I thought this is a great opportunity. This gets us to solutions and just bypasses that topic: which science has merit?

Mira: Right, health, comfort and money. And by the way we're improving the climate, we're improving the environment. [Laughter] What kinds of resources might be available to folks to get more information about passive housing and initiatives that might be available to them?

James: Well, one thing I'd love for people to do, is to go to the erase40.org website and sign the smart renter and home buyer pledge.

Mira: We’ll post a link to that on our site too. If folks go to sustainabilitynow.global to the podcast page, then they'll see the link to the pledge.

James: Great. The reason why I say that in answer to your question is because what that pledge says is that, the person signing that pledge will use as independent criteria continuous fresh air, sound dampening and low out-of-pocket costs when they purchase a home. If they do that, if they make that pledge, people are more likely to have a behavior that they'll actually do it if they sign the pledge. But I'll also send different basically pieces of information or questions that people can ask architects and builders and others when purchasing a home. That's one answer, but as far as resources go, if they go seek out an architect or builder trained in passive house, then they should be connected with everything that they need. There are certain realtors who also focus in green energy buildings, but the standards are much less ambitious and the rewards are much smaller generally in what they use. Architects and builders are really the best advocates for this technology. They're the most informed and the most aware of which lenders specialize, because in theory you should be getting some discounts in your loan for having high performance building. That's one thing to do. But I will also pull together resources that I can find and send them to you so you can post them.

Mira: Are there lenders that are giving incentives for purchasing passive homes?

James: Right now there are certain incentives being given by Fannie Mae to commercial builders, but there are not incentives that I know of in the residential market. Home buyers and renters are not going to yet find very many incentives. That said, the decrease in monthly costs is good for banks. If you're a mortgage lender then you should understand that a person who is deciding to buy a passive house is from a bank’s perspective going to have more money available to pay that loan, have a decreased default risk and have better collateral and resale value. From a bank's perspective they have every reason to prefer to lend to people who are doing a passive house or high performance house than a conventional one. I think in time there will be many lenders who will give favorable terms to people buying a home. I also do know of one lender who specializes in this and I will send you his information so that you can make it available.

Mira: Okay, wonderful. We'll post that too. I'm wondering how you are implementing this initiative. You're really looking to shift the paradigm, you're looking to shift the perception and the process of home purchasing or building purchasing, and building, and lending, and create some change in the infrastructure that supports this. I mean, you are looking to do that on some level, right?

James: That's correct. That is a very good description of what we're going to do.

Mira: How are you doing that, and also how can our listeners help support that as well on a bigger scale?

James: Thank you for asking that question. What people do, is if you ask them -- what is your pain level when you think about paying your heating bill, people will say, well it's one or a two on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most pain. But if you ask a person what is your pain level if you have a $120,000 in a suitcase in your arms and this is your money, you've earned it, you've saved it, and someone comes along and steals it out of your hands, what is your pain level then? People will all say, between an 8 and a 10 with most probably saying 10. Now those two things are the same thing. That energy, that heating bill, is just a cost and we just tend to dismiss costs and we tend to really hate losses. That $120,000 is what's at stake. One of our programs is called the Energy Cost Choice Program that really helps people understand that the decision that they're making about those heating bills is a $120,000 decision. That program basically talks about how to actually really calculate the affordability of a home and helps people get in touch with the tools necessary to see what is affordable and how really to calculate affordability. Our calculations are that this one program can increase the number of passive homes built by 2,000 each year. With each home producing about 2.6 million pounds of CO2 over a 100 year period (100 year period is about how long an envelope lasts, it’s a 100 year decision) 2,000 times 2.6 million is what, about 5.2 billion? Each year of this program should reduce the 100-year impact of the CO2 homes by 5.2 billion pounds of CO2 according to our models. That's one thing, if the listeners wanted to support that program, donations to erase40.org would go to the deployment of that program called the Energy Cost Choice Program. All it does is tackle that one behavior, which is the way people think of those heating costs. Will they dismiss them or whether they take them seriously. In all my conversations with architects and builders, one of the things that I've really marveled is how really they unanimously agree that when they describe the different choices people can have about what types of homes to build, heating cost does not factor into their decision at all. That's like walking past the suitcase full of $120,000. If you really show people that behavior and what they're doing, they can better understand what's at stake in this decision. They can better resist that script that runs in their head that says oh, don't worry about that heating bill. When in fact worrying about that heating bill will increase their savings over 30 years rather dramatically.

Mira: And their health.

James: And their health, yes.

Mira: And their comfort, right?

James: Yes.

Mira: Because you're not going to have hot spots and cold spots.

James: Exactly.

Mira: You're going to have fresh air and you're going to have no ambient or minimized ambient noise.

James: And the resale value too. A study came out recently that said that a high-performance building will sell generally about 9.5% higher price than a conventional home. But that study also showed they can sell as much as 20% higher in price than a conventional home. If you have a choice between building a conventional home or a passive home, the choice to build a passive home means that you're going to get a significant appreciation in resale value when you decide to sell it.

Mira: That's also very good information to have.

James: Yes.

Mira: Great. What's your vision? What's your endgame, your vision for this.

James: The big picture is that we are already counting on what's called negative emission scenarios, in order to not increase the earth's temperature to basically unlivable temperatures in the next 40 years or so. Here we have a source of 40% emissions and a technology that has proven and very easy to adopt. The current efforts right now by a lot of different entities and they're very good efforts are towards changing policy. But my intuition says that changing policy will probably take between 15 and 30 years, whereas we can change the market in five years. The things that we do to change the market, because they're just very subtle small behavioral changes, those would be worldwide. I would love to see full adoption of passive house technology within 15 years.

Mira: Beautiful. Beautiful vision.

James: That is a 40% decrease in our CO2 output and basically an opportunity to really be able to address climate.

Mira: Beautiful. So the way that our folks can support what you're up to is to donate to the Energy Costs Choice Program, to sign the pledge, and to find architects that are aligned with passive housing and ask the right questions. Yes?

James: Yes, that's right. I'd be grateful for people to donate to the Energy Cost Choice Program; to Erase40.orgso that we can develop the Energy Cost Choice Program.

Mira: Okay.

James: Signing the pledge will be a great help in helping them make better decisions with respect to buying houses or renting apartments and also make it easier for builders to build more energy-efficient buildings. Those are two of the best ways. Then I would say as a last thing that people can do, is just to be a lot more demanding about what they expect from a building.

Mira: Yes. Well, James is there anything else that you'd like to leave as a parting comment beyond that?

James: No. I think I just want to thank you for this opportunity. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Mira: Me too.

James: I welcome any outreach from the listeners, if there are further questions or from you if there are further questions. I'd be happy to follow up, gather resources or do whatever I can to help people see their way through these decisions.

Mira: That's wonderful. Thank you so much for being with us.

James: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, it was good talking to you.

Mira: It was great. That's it for today, I'm your host Mira Rubin and until next time, live your best life, love the world around you, and together we can save the world.

Zero Energy Buildings: Yes, they exist and your health depends on them!

James Geppner, Executive Director of Erase40.org, explains how you can save money, improve your health AND reduce carbon emissions by as much as 40% with a zero energy building/passive house. Passive houses cost dramatically less to heat/cool, provide a steady flow of clean air and reduce the amount of outside noise in our indoor environment to provide a profound positive impact on health and wellbeing. It’s a win-win, so why aren’t they more widely adopted?

James applies social science and competitive theory to determine what shapes a market, cause or behavior. The lack of adoption of passive housing inspired him to turn his talents to an extensive analysis of the market for zero energy buildings and the decision-making process of buyers, funders and end users. The goal was to find clues to reducing barriers to widespread adoption and expand market share.

James founded Erase40.org to use behavioral science to speed the adoption of zero energy buildings and has spearheaded market-based initiatives and outreach programs to forward the cause. By providing education on the high financial and health costs of fossil fuel dependent buildings, passive housing becomes a natural and easy choice. Learn what questions you should be asking when buying or renting a property. Find out what you can do to help make zero energy buildings be the go-to building choice for the future.

James Geppner is a graduate of NYU and of SGIB’s investment banking program.


Sign the Smart Renter & Buyer Pledge
Before you buy a house, ask yourself; Does it deliver a steady supply of fresh air? How well will it reduce noise and prevent loud noises from disturbing my sleep? How much it will cost to heat and cool every year?

Energy Costs Choice
You can help fund the Energy Costs Choice program by making a donation to Erase40.org. The Energy Costs Choice tool is an interactive tool that helps change the way people perceive energy and repair costs through education, removing an important barrier to opting for a passive or high performance home.

What Is A Passive House?
90 second video:

The Red List
A list of toxic building materials to avoid

Go Home
Great factory-built passive houses

Passive House Institute US
How to find a passive house architect

NK Architects Study
How air quality supports learning

UN Video: Passive House – Tackling Climate Change Close to Home
Erase40 and the UN produced a video about passive houses to spread the word and introduce to those who’ve never heard of the technology the importance of the high quality envelope and the constant exchange of fresh air to a healthier indoor environment.The video was broadcast by PBS affiliates in the U.S. and by public and state television networks in countries like France, Turkey, China and Kenya with a total audience size was 70 million people

Green Homes Matter
Residential High-performance Home Lending
Kerry Langley, First Landmark

Energy Savings Necessary To Address Climate Change (PDF)

Noise and Sleep Disturbance, A Threat to Health? (PDF)

Erase40 – A Plan To Reduce CO2 (PDF)