Lese Dunton  

Ideal Indoor Living
Optimal health for humans, buildings, and planet

Imagine living in the perfect home. By that I mean breathing in air that is pure and super healthy for you, having insulation that keeps all critters out, and enjoying the same lovely temperature wherever you go, whether standing by the window or in your cozy bed.

It's already a reality - a positive trend in the construction and design business. Focusing on the optimal health and longevity of humans, buildings, and planet.

It's referred to as, "Passive House Standards." Establishing excellence and efficiency, which then creates limitless opportunities for better living.

For example, during new construction or when retro-fitting an older building, you can have fun testing for "air tightness" and insulation to make sure that air pollution, harsh weather, and creatures of all sizes will not share your home with you. Then you add the "energy recovery ventilation," which is filtered fresh air, to really get the best level for breathing. Don't worry, you can still open your high-performance window whenever you want. You'll be an energy efficient citizen and can brag to your friends about how low your heating and air conditioning bills are.

By doing all these things, your building emits fewer greenhouse gases and you're saving energy, which in turn produces significantly lower utility bills and a much healthier indoor environment. In addition to improving air quality, it creates a comfortable and consistent temperature inside, and "acoustically superior" conditions (reduced noise from neighbors and street). What's not to love?

Wait, how much does all this cost upfront? Don't worry, each building can be carefully assessed for its exact needs and there are ways to get help with financing, discounts, and incentives. Besides, the savings from lower utility bills will quickly make up for it, as will the quality of life for you and the planet.

If you're an owner, developer, or enthusiastic tenant, it's not only an excellent idea, but with certain earth-improving laws these days - and more coming - it's increasingly a part of a building's requirements. It's a prudent business decision to get on board now.

The difference between goals and new laws depends on various components such as square footage and the building's location in the world.

In NYC, buildings are the largest contributor to climate change, so "Local Law 97" sets limits on their gas emissions in order to help reach the goal of a 40 percent reduction of emissions by the year 2030. In a longer range plan, city officials have committed to achieving double that: 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas by 2050. (Also known as "80 by 50.")

"It's a standard of comfort and health just as much as it is for energy," says Sara Bayer, an Associate Principal and Director of Sustainability at Magnusson Architecture and Planning. With new buildings, she strives to make sustainable, healthy, and uplifting design achievable for all.

"I'm hoping the real estate industries learn how to sell it," says Sara. "So when someone looks at a new home and asks, 'Where's my fresh air coming from?' the realtor answers, 'Oh yeah, you're in a passive house.'"

With new buildings or retro-fitting old ones, certain factors are considered "passive" and can be optimized for greater good, hence the word passive. The methodology and coding originate from Germany's Passivhaus Institute (PHI). They provide official certification as does Passive House Institute US (Phius).

"The tightness of the passive house is where the magic is, the most bang for your buck, basically," Sara continues. "You test that on site during construction until you prove that you've done it. Quality control. To get passive house certified, you have to use the software from that certifying body. There are two of them, international and national. It's just a way that the physics are calculated."

Amy Failla is a Certified Passive House Designer and Principal at Ingui Architecture. One of her specialties is retro-fitting older buildings and she sees New York as a leader in the field.

"We say to clients, 'You're already doing this amount of work, why not build a better house?' I think in general it's intimidating to a lot of people. I'm from the Midwest and it hasn't really picked up there yet. People automatically think, oh, I can't afford that. So I think there has to be some precedent set first. There are definitely precedents getting set, especially in New York, where we have so many buildings with multi-families that need attention. NYU is a good example. They're really taking initiative to improve their buildings."

Maybe your place is not as big as NYU or you're not quite as rich yet. Whatever your building size, type, and budget might be, you can reach out to New York Passive House (NYPH) to guide you through the many options. Financial help can be available from places like New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and ConEd. (See also the list at the end of the article.)

Amy Karle is an internationally award-winning ultra-contemporary artist "working at the nexus of where digital, physical and biological systems merge." Amy was honored as one of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women, and named one of the "Most Influential Women in 3D Printing." She recently won the "Pioneer in Design" award from IIDA - International Interior Design Association.

"I look at the intelligence of nature," says Amy. "We have hundreds of years of data, so how can we bring some of it to the interior and architectural design elements to enhance human health and productivity?

"We can use AI if we're looking across the design of buildings and the actual engineering and construction. Looking at what's healthy and what's sustainable, both for the people inside and for the environment. AI can analyze this. It can help us do the calculations so much faster. It really excels at being a super advanced calculator and recognizing patterns. It's about how we organize and interface with that data.

"From a conceptual and design element, we could recognize patterns in nature that are healthy for us. We can go all through the process of then recognizing how to implement it in a sustainable way that's healthy for people and the environment - with the statistics. And what are the price points of doing that? Where do we have to make compromises? Where are the different opportunities and the return on investment?

"It can also be used to help us understand how to develop new materials. We can look at how to design materials that respond and react to the environment and people's needs for health. It can be incorporated in very easy ways, with plant life, water features, and then go to natural materials. Put AI to work. Program a responsive interior system.

"The biggest things that I think are necessary are collaboration and working with other people. Creative and critical thinkers. The more creative and critical you are, the more you can use the tools to help your work shine. You need the right mindset, the right questions, and then with other creative thinkers, to all together keep asking."

Fellow artist and innovator, Amelia Winger-Bearskin, is the Banks Preeminence Endowed Chair of Artificial Intelligence and the Arts at the University of Florida and the Digital World Institute. She's also the founder of the University of Florida's AI Climate Justice Lab, where they simulate just futures using environmental research data in artificial intelligence systems.

Ms. Winger-Bearskin recently patented an algorithm for a home device she invented. It measures air quality, temperature, and other sensory and scientific information. One thing she discovered is that a lot of previous research had been done on tall men.

"They studied only men who are over six feet tall," says Amelia. "They're very warm, they're large, and it's generally made toward their body type. So I said, 'Let's make a new algorithm!' It's a bit more diverse and you can even say to it that not everyone here is over six feet tall, we're actually kind of shorter. It will automatically know that you might need it to be warmer, or you can give it feedback. More customized to you."

Amelia is Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma, Deer Clan. She seeks to bring greater accountability to technology.

"I'm beginning to frame this idea of AI and 'human thriving' and am having conversations with my university, other researchers, and people who are in startups" she explains. "It's not just about the singular User Experience (UX), but is this technology having a net gain for human thriving? What do we need? We need safe water, healthy air, and a comfortable, safe living environment. We need education, each other, communities, and to trust our governments. We need to trust our schools and our neighbors. And so all of those things are part of human thriving. And I'm trying to think of AI in that way, how it can contribute. If AI isn't contributing to human thriving. I don't think we need it.

"Even though I'm working with really complicated systems and interdisciplinary fields that don't often speak the same language. I try to speak plainly so that I can include all of my different diverse community members and collaborators to expand the conversation."

Sara Bayer: "It's a future where health of all life is valued in our capitalistic human designed system - so that making the right decisions for the long term view of health is given its proper value.

"Regenerative architecture makes so much economic sense if you look at the impacts to all of our systems - and not a narrow view of the immediate interest of one. The interests of that one entity will benefit from the thriving of all others. Your investment in the thriving of others comes back to you!"

Amy Failla: "In an ideal future, passive house wouldn't be really an option anymore. It would just be how we build, a standard. We wouldn't debate whether it's better or not, it just is. Also having more products and solutions here in America. A lot of the stuff, we get from Europe. Even windows."

Thanks to the very smart women and men creatively collaborating in all fields, we can look forward to limitless opportunities for better living.

In the meantime, what is the state of your indoor existence? You can take a deep breath and make it better. Jump on the trend of consumer demand.

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Links and resources:

New York Passive House (NYPH): an education and advocacy organization. Can guide you to the right solutions.
Passive House Accelerator: a hub for sharing innovation and thought leadership in design and construction.

Places for financial help, incentives, discounts, loans:
New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and Con Edison.

Sara Bayer, Magnusson Architecture and Planning
Amy Failla, Ingui Architecture
Amy Karle, exploring the implications of technology on humanity and co-creating a better future.
Amelia Winger-Bearskin, using new kinds of technology to tell new kinds of stories, especially science storytelling around environmental futures.

Source 2050: high-performance passive house building materials.
Brooklyn Solarworks: affordable solar panels for NYC.

Special thanks to Chris Goodwin, president, Axea Construction Group, and Michael Syracuse, partner, FXCollaborative, who both provided incredible expertise and depth of understanding.

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