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Building a carbon-zero California

Passive House hosts conference, bicycle tour about energy-efficient homes

As part of a series and to serve as its annual conference, Passive House California hosts Building Carbon Zero California next Friday, Nov. 13. The event will feature more than 15 presenters throughout the day that will cover topics ranging from policy discussion to building materials — each with the goal of reducing the carbon footprint.

The City of Palo Alto has worked closely with Passive House California to make the event possible, said Bronwyn Barry, Passive House California co-president and event chairperson. Palo Alto Mayor Karen Holman will even be kicking off the conference and welcoming guests. And then on Saturday, Nov. 13, conference attendees and people who want to see five local buildings that exemplify the conference's topics can go on the PedalHaus Bicycle Tour.

Barry said that Palo Alto seemed like a natural fit for the conference because it's progressive in its energy solutions.

The event features a number of information tracks, so attendees can find topics that interest them and fit their level of expertise. Barry said anyone with an interest in building should come: architects, designers, contractors, developers, politicians, policy makers and local homeowners.

The keynote speaker will be Dr. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, who is the vice chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and coordinating lead author of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning IPPC report. After the keynote speaker, three Palo Alto residents — Stuart Bernstein, Hilary Hug and Sven Thesen — will be a part of panel discussion about building, working and living in Passive Houses.

In the case of Bernstein, his home is not only Passive House-certified (a home standard that results in low energy buildings that require little to heat and cool), but it is also LEED Platinum and Net Zero. He built his home in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood starting in October 2012, and it was finished 10 months later in August 2013. In the past year, the home was a net positive, meaning it produced more energy than it consumed, while also charging an electric vehicle.

"Our goal was to demonstrate to ourselves and others that you could build a home that was both energy efficient and beautiful, healthy for the environment as well as the inhabitants and the workers (who manufacture the components for homes in factories and the workers on-site) ... at little or no premium cost," he said via email. "We accomplished all three objectives and more."

Having lived in the home for a while now, the list of features Bernstein appreciates continues to grow: a beautiful home that required no aesthetic or functional compromises to achieve the sustainability objective; peace and quiet from the three-paned glass windows and thick walls; lots of natural light; excellent indoor air quality; a passive greywater and moisture-based irrigation system that minimizes water needs; energy savings from appliances and control mechanisms; and more.

At the conference, he hopes people learn that they can design a attractive house that is also sustainable, and at the same time build it quickly and not pay a premium.

Hilary Hug, another panelist, lives in a Passive House that is one of three adjacent homes occupied by the residential service learning community called Magic, which started in 1972. The properties' residents wanted to build a sustainable home, and looked at other building standards before choosing a Passive House. The key point that stuck out to them was the importance of a high-quality building envelope because it's more permanent.

"It's the thing you're not likely to change," Hug said.

Another energy-saving component of this home is communal living. They built the home with a large kitchen and dining areas, which now allows 15 people residing in three neighboring houses to comfortably share meals together. And all of this was made by possible by a community as well. Inside the home hang two large frames that list all of the sponsors and supporters who helped the group get to this point.

The home has now been livable for about a year, and Hug said her favorite parts are the air quality and evenness of temperature, both of which are goals of a Passive House.

After taking a deep breath, she remarked that she knew they would be benefits, but she didn't realize they would be such big benefits.

Not more than a bike ride away, the third panelist Sven Thesen also hopes to show people that an energy-saving home can be functional and aesthetically pleasing.

"When we started to think about building our home, the first thing my wife said — with her hands on her hips — was that she wanted it to be beautiful," he said. "On the other side, I was a chemical engineer that wanted energy efficiency."

After researching LEED and Net Zero, he came across Passive House, which could accommodate both parties. Today, their research and building methods have allowed them to use 80 percent less energy than the typical California home, Thesen said.

"Passive House takes a holistic approach to energy use and design," he said.

In the end, the couple wanted their home to be a working model for the concept, and they have welcome more than 2,000 people into their home for a tour. This has also led Thesen to speak at events, such as the Building Carbon Zero California next week, and open his home to the PedalHaus Bicycle Tour participants the next day.

"People comes and say, 'Wow, it's so beautiful,'" he said. "It's great to know we've executed our vision. It really is a beautiful house that's great for the environment."


What: Building Carbon Zero California

When: Nov. 13, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Where: Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $60-$120



What: PedalHaus Bicycle Tour

When: Nov. 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Guided tour meets at 9:50 a.m. at the California Avenue Caltrain Station, 101 California Ave., Palo Alto, near the fountain next to the sculpture

Cost: $20


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