Green Building United formed in 2017 when the Delaware Valley Green Building Council came together with the Greater Philadelphia Passive House Association (GPPHA) and the Living Building Challenge Philadelphia Collaborative. You played a major role in the creation of the GPPHA. What inspired you to bring together this association?
DS: It was a small group of us that created GPPHA. At the time we created the association, Passive House was still fairly nascent in this region and there was only one Passive House project built in Philadelphia. We created the group in order to support each other and achieve our goal to get more Passive Houses built.
How do you envision continuing to grow and impact the Green Building United Passive House Community?
DS: The Passive House group’s mission has always been to make Passive House design and construction into mainstream practices. One way we’ve done this is to organize regular educational events that build and support a community of designers, builders, developers, owners, operators, and other professionals interested in Passive House. Through these events we’ve been able to put out a tremendous amount of information to help everyone learn more about Passive House and the design and construction of high performance buildings.
I think that continued support and expansion of the Passive House knowledge base is critical. The 2015 and 2018 building codes have moved quite close to Passive House performance levels and many design and construction professionals still don’t know how to achieve the new benchmarks. Passive House professionals do though, and we’ve been doing it for a while so we can offer expertise and help others.
Can you please describe your current work?
DS: I work for Re:Vision Architecture. We have two studios: a High-Performance Architecture studio where we design sustainable commercial and residential projects; and a Sustainability Consulting studio where we help other architects, engineers, and owners achieve their project’s sustainability goals (i.e. LEED, WELL, Sites, Living Building Challenge and others). I spend most of my time in the Architecture studio working on commercial and residential projects. I also consult on multi-family Passive House projects and do daylight analysis for LEED projects. Regardless of my specific role on any given day, my job is to understand a diverse set of design constraints and then be a creative problem solver to help achieve any one project's sustainability goals.
All of our projects are high performance and we aim to make them as sustainable as possible. We are always trying to push the envelope on sustainability. Sometimes we’re working to a specific standard like Passive House, other times we’re just making it as good as we can. We actually just finished a small residential project and the owner was thrilled! She couldn’t afford to go full Passive House so we went Passive House light. She got her first utility bill and it’s half of what she used to pay. That’s just one example of us doing the best we can with every project.
How does your association with Green Building United influence your role as an architecture? In what ways do you promote sustainability in your company?
DS: As a firm, Re:Vision is very dedicated to Green Building United. About 50 percent of us are regularly active volunteers and a lot of our volunteer work affects what we do in and out of the office. We believe in the mission of GBU and want to support it – sometimes we wish we could more than we do. It’s really a cultural thing here – it’s important.
Why is green building and sustainability important to you?
DS: It’s been important to me for a very long time. I started practicing green building and sustainability when I was about 19 or 20 years old. I started building my first house at 21. It was an off-grid passive solar house so it’s definitely been important to me for a long time and I feel a certain amount of responsibility to live as sustainably as I can.
Can you share any current projects you are working on that are positively impacting the Greater Philadelphia region?
DS: There’s a bunch going on right now in the region. I’m currently working on a few multi-family affordable housing projects being designed to Passive House standards. I’m also working on the design of a nature center just outside of the city. And I just wrapped up the single family residence I mentioned earlier that radically reduced their energy bills.
I’m also working on a presentation that I will be giving at the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) Conference in December called “Spaghetti Carbon-Era: Disentangling Operational and Embodied Carbon.” It is about the importance of reducing embodied energy in addition to operational energy.
What do you believe is the role of professionals in the built environment, such as architects and developers, in sustainability efforts? How do you recommend these influencers get involved?
DS: Designers and developers especially have a huge opportunity to be sustainable and create a sustainable built environment. Personally, I would say I’m in a privileged position because the firm I work for focuses on sustainability issues so people come to us because that’s what they want but I have worked at places where sustainability isn’t the focus. While it can be frustrating to be a lone voice, it’s really important to be a persistent voice pushing sustainability even when you feel you’re just going to get knocked down.
How do you see the built environment changing in the coming years? What one thing do you believe is most imperative?
DS: We know how to drive down operational energy and have to continue to do so, but the next step is driving down embodied energy or what gets talked about as a building’s “carbon footprint.” Carbon is a convenient, if somewhat imprecise, term for a host of climate changing gases. It’s used as a shorthand for carbon dioxide as well as methane, refrigerants, and other chemicals that are normalized to be “carbon dioxide equivalent” or what’s known as CO2e.
This normalization of a diverse range of harmful gas emissions is the first step in accounting for the unintended negative effects of producing the goods and services needed to create the built environment. Until recently the tools and methods for accounting for embodied carbon have lagged behind the ability to account for operational carbon expenditures because of the complexity of material lifecycles.
In the past, embodied carbon represented a relatively small percentage of the overall carbon emissions factored over the life of a building. However, now that buildings are becoming more energy efficient and the materials to create them are becoming more complex, embodied carbon represents a much larger portion of total carbon emissions. If we increase embodied carbon in order to drive down operational carbon, it raises the question: have we built a Passive House or a Massive House? In order to answer that question and determine whether or not a high performance building makes a positive, negative, or neutral contribution to carbon emissions, we must account for the embodied energy of the building’s materials with regards to creation, transport, and lifecycle, in addition to the operational energy that rating systems like Passive House focus on so well.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
DS: I think that one of the most sustainable things we can do is to build beautiful buildings. Build places that people love and want to preserve. Performance is still of paramount importance but if our buildings are not loved, they will not last.
David is passionate about high performance, sustainable design and asking questions such as: How does a school building encourage learning or how does housing promote (or hinder) community?
Prior to earning his Bachelor of Arts in Architecture at the University of New Mexico and a Master of Architecture with a Certificate in Ecological Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, David built off-grid and passive solar homes. With this background, David approaches architecture through the eyes of a designer, ecologist, craftsperson, and builder.
David is a Certified Passive House Designer (iPHI) and Consultant (PHIUS). He is a co-founder of the Greater Philadelphia Passive House Association (which is now a part of Green Building United) and has been a guest critic and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Temple University where he taught energy modeling. At Re:Vision, David provides full service architectural design as well as high-performance / Passive House consulting services.
David is married to Green Building United’s Development Director, Margaret Salamon. They have a daughter and can’t seem to stop asking, “how’d she get so big?”