Tech innovator becomes climate solution maker becomes Passive House creator.
It’s a pretty unique story now, but in the land of Microsoft, Amazon, and Intel, that could change – particularly with folks like Jabe Blumenthal, owner of Madrona Passive House, leading the way.
(Visit our Passive House page for more about H&H’s approach, including project examples and videos.)
You likely know Jabe’s work if you’ve spent any time manipulating numbers on a PC. He co-designed Microsoft Excel in the early 80s and became Microsoft’s first program manager.
In 1994 he left the software giant to teach math and physics at the Lakeside School, his alma mater as well as that of Bill Gates, and served as chair of Lakeside’s science department. It was there, with the myriad of science and nature magazines that crossed his desk, that Jabe started to read about climate science.
He was already immersed in environmental philanthropy and advocacy, having entered that world through wildlife and land conservation. Jabe helped Conservation Northwest protect the Loomis forest in northeastern Washington, the largest swath of untouched forest in the state and home to the largest lynx population in the lower 48.
“We ended up protecting the land from logging,” said Jabe. “But as I began to read about climate change, it dawned on me that all of that was going to be moot. The lynx were toast. You can protect the habitat all you want, but if the temperature rises 4 or 5 degrees, then there’s no snow and they can’t hunt and their prey leaves. That’s what led me to want to learn more – and get my hands a little bit dirtier – about climate change.”
He asked around about the most effective climate advocacy organizations and kept hearing, “Talk to Climate Solutions and [its Senior Policy Advisor] KC Golden.” So he did, and now he’s been a board member of Climate Solutions for over eleven years and board chair for most of those. He also served on the boards of the Washington Environmental Council and of the Bullitt Foundation, a leading environmental philanthropic organization and owner of the Bullitt Center (the noted Living Building and home to Hammer & Hand’s Seattle office).
“Climate Solutions has a very pragmatic, solution orientation,” Jabe explained. “It’s about working within our capitalist system and working with the business community, as well as a lot of other communities, out of the belief that, ‘Hey, if we’re actually gonna come up with solutions, they have to be solutions that are going to make people money.’ They have to be solutions that are going to create viable businesses.”
It is this same pragmatism and market orientation that drew Jabe to the Passive House approach for the design and construction of his family’s new home. He wanted to build a home that not only maximized the positive impact on the climate problem per dollar spent but also served as an example for others who want to invest in climate solutions.
Of course Jabe and his wife, Julie Edsforth, also wanted to create a great place to live for their family of four.
“We wanted a nice house with a view, a house that is smaller than what we have currently, in a neighborhood we’ve wanted to live in for a long time.
“But we also wanted a house that pushes the edges a little bit, not so much on the bleeding edge of what is technically possible, but in what’s technologically and economically very reasonable today.
“If the house costs ten, fifteen, or even twenty percent more to build in a climate-friendly way, then it’s reasonable for others with some extra money to replicate, especially if the 10th or 20th such house in Seattle costs only a few percent more. We want our house to be part of driving these technologies and building practices to be mainstream.
“We’re not going to see price parity [between conventional and climate-friendly construction] until we have true energy and carbon pricing. But we can at least drive high performance, über-efficient buildings forward,” Jabe said.
“We’re implementing technologies that you guys have already implemented in other houses,” Jabe said, referring to Hammer & Hand’s other Passive House work. “But you need more than one or two of these kinds of houses in a certain region of the city. It’s a little like Leafs or Priuses. You need to reach a certain critical mass before people really start to say, ‘Oh! There’s nothing weird about this.’”
The focus at Madrona Passive House is to reduce energy demand to very low levels (90% less energy used for heating and cooling than a conventional structure) and then meet that demand with the greenest technology practicable.
The home’s 10 kW solar photovoltaic array will likely provide all the energy (on a net basis) for Madrona Passive House. But while the home will be in “net zero energy” territory, Jabe did not set out to reach that target specifically, partly because he doesn’t see small-scale rooftop solar as the best way to generate “green electrons.”
“In addressing climate change we need societal solutions that are scalable,” Jabe explained. “I’m not against distributed solar on rooftops, but what we really need is big, industrial-scale wind and solar generation to replace big, industrial-scale oil, coal, and gas. Not because we love ‘big and industrial,’ but because we want to achieve scale, to move from 1 or 2% of our electricity generated by solar to much, much more.”
“A given solar panel on even a well-oriented house will produce fewer electrons per dollar spent than a rooftop array on a big building downtown, which will produce fewer electrons per dollar than a solar farm in eastern Washington. That said, we’re nowhere near critical mass of societal awareness, acceptance, and enthusiasm for solar energy, in any setting. So put solar where you can. And the more visible the better, to get people to think, ‘Yeah, that makes sense. That’s how we should power society!’”
And as economically irrational as they may be from a climate bang-for-the-buck perspective, generous subsidies for small scale solar arrays make rooftop solar pretty attractive for homeowners. (Jabe has decided to forego the 3 times higher public subsidy for Washington-made solar panels than for the most efficient panels from California, as he feels those subsidies are too high.)
To design Madrona Passive House, Jabe and Julie selected SHED Architecture & Design, a firm they had worked with on a couple projects in eastern Washington, including a lodge and school for paragliding students.
“When this project came around, we were just super comfortable with SHED. They’re committed to trying new things and stretching. They hadn’t done a Passive House before and were very interested in doing one. And once they learn something they’re the kind of firm that’s likely to apply it on future projects.”
To choose a contractor for the project Jabe researched Passive House home builders in Seattle and discovered that there were only a couple in town. They chose H&H for the project due to our experience building Passive House projects.
“The other firm was great, doing cool stuff. But I was attracted to H&H as the larger firm, with more experience. Schedule is such a huge part of the true cost of a project, and size and experience really impact schedule.”
After having lived for many years as “curators of a 100-year old house,” Jabe and Julie were ready for simplicity and maintenance-free living. SHED created a contemporary design for them that captures the site’s commanding views of Lake Washington and the Cascades as well as lots of natural light. The home’s architecture achieves what Jabe describes as a “really relaxed, informal, open space design.”
Its passive design – balanced heat recovery ventilation, and airtight, thermally-resistant wall assembly of high density cellulose insulation, zip sheathing, and ROXUL mineral wool exterior insulation – will deliver on Passive House’s promise of superior comfort, indoor air quality, and durability.
The house will be a gracious space to inhabit, one that sets an example for others in the city who want to create a home that is as good for the well-being of its inhabitants as the well-being of our planet.
P.S. For more info about the project, including a series of videos documenting the high performance construction techniques employed there, visit the Madrona Passive House project page.
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