Could Passive Houses Be the Future of Home Design in Westchester?

Photos by Korin Krossber

With more focus on sustainability here in New York, passive homes may be the wave of the future in Westchester.

What is a passive house? Also known as a high-performance home, it is a residence that is either newly built or remodeled and meets these five criteria: no thermal bridging, superior windows, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, quality insulation, and airtight construction.

In layman’s terms, it essentially means that it is an energy-efficient home that is healthier for the environment and the homeowners who reside there.

The innovative concepts behind the passive-house movement started in the Unites States and Canada in the ’70s, during the oil embargo. But in the ’90s, as the U.S. started to move away from energy conservation, Germany picked up the reins. German physicist Wolfgang Feist refined passive-house design and founded Passivhaus Institute (PHI). This was around the same time local architect Andreas Benzing was going to school for architecture in Germany and started working for the well-known architect Hans Kollhoff, who became his mentor.

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But when people hear the terms passive homes and high-performance homes, they may not equate them with beauty and functionality. But as evidenced by his designs, Benzing proves you can have both beauty and sustainability.

“A [passive house] is the experience of the finished product, the beauty, and the sense of well-being, in addition to the extreme energy efficiency, which really creates love for this innovation and architectural design,” says Benzing. “We believe that soon, designs based on the science of passive house will be the standard for all new construction.”

Benzing’s firm, A.M. Benzing Architects, has been designing passive houses since 2008 and designed the first certified passive house retrofit in Westchester. It was a redesign of a split-level home in Mamaroneck that was turned into a high-performance passive house and received the Urban Green EBie award for the most energy-efficient retrofit. Since then, he has become synonymous with passive design in our area.

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As reflected in this project from A.M. Benzing Architects, houses can be high-performing and stylish.

“In order to achieve ultimate performance for the house, we have to rethink the wall-to-window ratios, orientation, and placement of windows,” says Benzing. “The passive house is a revolutionary, world-altering invention — one that is also open source and available for use by all architects who are trained to implement it.”

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He goes on to say that any materials can be used in passive houses, but his firm concentrates on using materials that are not harmful to humans or the environment. Benzing says they use a specific blown-in cellulose insulation, which is fire-resistant, has very low embodied carbon, and is nontoxic. He also integrates solar energy and storage systems in his designs and uses natural, less-processed materials.

“We believe that soon, designs based on the science of passive house will be the standard for all new construction.”
—Andreas Benzing

“The key is a good understanding of materials and providing careful detailing on how to construct a house,” says Benzing.

Houses are not the only buildings that can be high performance. Any building, of any size, whether it’s new construction or a remodel, can be transformed into a high-performance building.

New York is moving toward more regulations related to sustainability and energy efficiency for buildings. In 2019, NYC enacted local law 97 to drive deep emissions cuts in buildings. In 2022, the NY State Assembly passed Bill 8431, an “all-electric building act that prohibits infrastructure, building systems, or equipment used for the combustion of fossil fuels in new construction after December 31, 2023, if the building is less than seven stories and July 1, 2027, if the building is taller.”

“As the climate becomes more unpredictable and costs for heating and cooling rise, this discipline will become more and more useful and necessary,” says Benzing. “We create the most comfortable and healthy homes for our clients.” A win-win for the homeowners and the environment.

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Related: 5 Inspiring Kitchen and Bathroom Designs in Westchester Homes

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