After five years of planning, designing, development, and construction, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Carrick branch is a certification away from being the first Passive House library in North America. That designation is in the hands of the Passive House Institute, which will assess the branch's energy efficiency, air quality, resiliency, and comfort. With or without the official certification, the changes at CLP - Carrick will deliver considerable savings to energy costs in the years to come.
As the founding principal of Nicholson Kovalchick Architects, Brandon Nicholson oversaw the design of the Carrick branch, along with the sustainable architecture firm, Thoughtful Balance. He says CLP has always been supportive of green building and energy efficiency standards (CLP previously incorporated some elements of Passive House design into CLP - Hazelwood).
“It’s been a natural fit for them as they’re remodeling and building new branches,” says Nicholson.
Passive House is an architectural philosophy on how to design sustainable, energy efficient buildings. It started in the United States but, over the past 30 years, has become more widely adopted throughout Europe, mainly in Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia. Combined with a renewable energy source, Passive House buildings can produce as much energy as they consume over a year.
Suzanne Thinnes, communications manager at CLP, says the process of updating the organization’s neighborhood library buildings started in 2003. Prior to the start of this campaign, the average age of the buildings was 79 years old. Many lacked temperature control and all were in need of repair and renovation.
“From the beginning, [CLP] used local products, recycled materials, and energy efficient design features in our renovated locations to ensure that the buildings are both environmentally sustainable and cost-efficient,” says Thinnes.
The Passive House design not only doubled the Carrick branch in size — something achieved by combining the existing site with a neighboring lot — it gave the library the potential to consume 70-75 percent less energy than conventionally constructed buildings (Thinnes anticipates that CLP - Carrick will see an energy savings of up to 70 percent).
It also fulfills a specific request from the library’s staff — more natural light.
“The librarians now have as many windows in one wall in a conference room as they used to have in the entire library,” says Nicholson. “It’s just night and day from where they were coming from.”
While the Carrick branch reflects a larger embrace of sustainable design, the city falls behind other regions in terms of adopting more progressive efficient building policies.
“Pittsburgh has done a lot to talk about resiliency, but they haven’t really done much action yet,” says Nicholson. He rattled off various other cities that have committed to Passive House building practices, including Vancouver, Brussels, and New York City.
The approach seems especially necessary in light of the recently released United Nations climate report showing that countries must drastically reduce their carbon emissions over the next 10 years in order to avoid environmental catastrophe.
Nicholson believes converting local public buildings into Passive House structures would not only help reduce carbon emissions, it would also serve as a tool to educate the public on the benefits of energy efficient design.
“Public buildings are a great place to start because you can show how a building can be built in a different way and be something everyone can experience,” says Nicholson. “It can really educate children and the neighboring population that there is a different way to do things, and it can be done now.”