Austrian Pioneer for Energy Efficient Buildings in the U.S.
By Thorsten Eisingerich
Top photo: Nabih Tahan passive house in Berkeley, California, 2009. Nabih Tahan
In 2010, Austrian Information spoke with Austrian American architect Nabih Tahan about green building in the U.S. Nabih Tahan founded his company BauTechnologies in 2009 as an architectural, engineering, and energy consulting firm, focused on implementing residential, commercial design and industrial construction methods that result in significant reductions in energy consumption, higher levels of comfort, and improved indoor air quality in buildings.
BauTechnologies hopes to act as a catalyst in expediting the green building movement in the U.S. by facilitating the transfer of products, expertise and experience from Austrian consultants and businesses. Six years after the initial interview, Austrian Information reached out to Mr. Tahan again for his insight in green architecture and green building in the U.S.
The last time we spoke about building energy-efficient homes in the U.S. was in 2010. At that time, you carried out a study that revealed ongoing trends towards “going green” in the U.S. building industry. What is your impression of how things have developed since then?
In the last five to six years, the implementation of energy efficiency strategies has picked up. Some states such as California are leading the way through legislation. Back in 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor, California’s landmark 2006 global warming law, the so-called AB32, was passed. This law called for returning greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. This month, Governor Jerry Brown signed the nation’s toughest climate law, requiring California to slash its emissions by 40% by 2030 compared to the 1990 levels.
How do these laws affect the building industry?
Architects, engineers and builders can no longer design and build as before. In California, the laws mentioned above will require new residential buildings to be “Zero Net Energy” (ZNE) by 2020 and new commercial buildings ZNE by 2030. This means that the buildings must still be connected to the utility grid, but the amount of electricity or natural gas the buildings buy from the grid, will have to be produced with renewable energy (solar or wind) on site, within a one year period.
Most of the time, this can only be achieved if the buildings consume little energy in the first place. Often there is not enough sun or wind to generate all the renewable energy for a wasteful house.
Are there still differences between U.S. and Austrian systems as to the energy efficiency standards?
Yes. To certify buildings as energy-efficient, Austrians design and build according to the passive house standard, which is a performance-based standard and is very stringent. The passive house standard compares how much energy is used to heat or cool a building to 68°F (20°C). This is measured in kWh per square foot per year, at 3 feet above the floor level. This compares all buildings according to the same metrics, similar to comparing the miles per gallons for a car.
In comparison, in the U.S., projects are certified according to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which is a prescriptive standard. The LEED rating system has a list of prescribed measures, which are valued with a point system. The more points a project assembles, the higher certification level it can achieve. LEED has traditionally focused more on using recycled materials, or the location of the project to transit lines. You could even get points by installing bicycle racks. These are not necessarily items that make a building more efficient.
So has the LEED system improved over time and can it help the industry meet these goals? Are there opportunities for Austrian companies?
The LEED system is trying to adapt to the market and to criticism it has received in the past. They have launched the newest version LEED v4 with the intention of improving their certification system. It is difficult to say if it is successful. On the one hand, USGBC still holds one of the largest green building conferences in the country and it appears that many professionals are obtaining their certifications as LEED consultants.
The USGBC has also expanded to many countries around the world. But is this due to great marketing strategies or due to better building performance? At the recent Brooklyn Real Estate summit, Michael Stern, CEO of JDS Development made the following comments : “I think the LEED criteria is totally arbitrary and LEED has basically devolved into a self-sustaining revenue machine for LEED consultants without actually moving the bar that much,” Stern added. “You can have a LEED project basically anywhere near transportation. You qualify for enough points if you pay enough money.”… Instead, developers are turning more toward nonLEED projects like Nava Companies passive house… It appears that the passive house is catching on, which offers opportunities to Austrian companies.”
Has the remodeling of your own company’s HQ’s from a leaky old bungalow to an energy-efficient home attracted interest among professionals and the community at large?
Yes, the Grant St. house in Berkeley was the first passive house project in California and the first retrofit in the country. It is considered a pioneering project and led to the establishment of passive house California, a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate the public about the passive house building performance standards. Several similar organizations have been established across the U.S. and Canada and have formed the North American Passive House Network to promote the standard through education, conferences and sharing of know-how. There are chapters in New York, Maine, Northwest, western Pennsylvania, greater Philadelphia, Minnesota, Rocky Mountains, Illinois, Quebec and Ontario.
Have Austrian companies been in contact with you ever since to follow-up on your study before trying to penetrate the U.S. market and to assess the state of play here?
Yes, I have had contact with several companies trying to get into the U.S. market. Most of these companies have the know-how, technology and products that should be able to succeed in North America, but, unfortunately, more often than not, these companies have not succeeded.
From my perspective, here is how these opportunities develop: Companies in Austria are feeling the competition in Europe with high performance buildings and hear about the opportunities in the U.S. They get the idea that they can make money quickly by selling the products they are selling in Europe now. They don’t take the time and make the investment to analyze the market and see what it needs. Since the green building industry is not as developed in North America, sometimes the Austrian products are a generation ahead of their time.
For example, professionals realized that windows in Europe have better performance than American windows. An Austrian window company sees an opportunity and tries to sell their highest performing window in the U.S. They don’t realize that the window might have better insulating values than the wall it gets installed in. So why would someone buy such a window unless it’s a high performance building, which is still a small percentage of all buildings? It’s usually overkill and the price is too high.
I have suggested that the company should start with window technology that was used in Austria 20 years ago, where the performance would still be better than comparable American windows, and the price would be competitive. They can always sell their high performance windows when requested, but could also introduce them slowly, as demand rises. But the companies are not interested in going back with technology. They are afraid that their workers would quit if they are asked to produce such archaic windows, which are now illegal in Austria, because of the building energy codes.
Another example would be companies that can prefabricate building components using modern digital fabrication technology. North America is convinced that prefabrication is the future of the building industry, but the technology here has not caught up to Austria. It is difficult for an Austrian company to succeed here with prefabrication, when the fundamentals of this technology do not yet exist. Austria has a different cultural system, starting with both technical and trade schools that have made it possible for the industry to advance prefabricating high performance buildings. The Austrian method of design and construction is foreign here and if a company wants to introduce it, they need to start further back in time. In my opinion, this would be a less expensive and less risky option to enter the U.S. market. Unfortunately, most companies hope that they can sell their current products quickly with profits.
How has continued high mobility in the U.S., combined with unprecedentedly low energy costs impacted the sector?
Energy costs are still increasing every year and, as I mentioned before, energy codes are getting more stringent. In terms of mobility, Millennials are changing the patterns of how we live and work. In the next 50 to 100 years, urban population will increase, while rural population will see a decrease. The young generation is not excited about living like their parents, in single family home tracts, in four bedroom, three bath homes with two car garages and spending hours on the freeway going to and from work.
They would rather live in the city, in a small apartment, close to transit systems, where they are mobile and take their office with them in their laptop. The layout of office buildings is changing, to allow for more collaboration through open spaces and reduce the number of private rooms. Similarly, apartments are changing. There is a trend towards smaller flexible units, such as micro efficiency apartments, with movable partitions, where a person can live alone or move walls around to accommodate more people.
Is there an awareness in the U.S. about energy efficiency as an easy, yet decisive external factor to reduce global warming?
Yes, but it really depends on the community you live in and the type of work you do. People who live in oil or coal producing states rely on these jobs for their livelihood. They will not admit that there is a global warming catastrophe taking place. Usually when these plants close down, the community suffers because there are no other sources of income.
However, in other parts of the country, energy efficiency and global warming is a very important issue. Not only the energy code is becoming more stringent, but there is also an increase in education, which leads the local industry to begin producing higher performance products known from Europe.
How has your own company Bau Technologies, which you founded in 2009, been faring ever since?
After completing the study in 2009, the Austrian Trade Commission invited me to present at several venues throughout Austria. As a result, I met Cree GmbH from Vorarlberg, which is part of the Rhomberg Group in Bregenz. In Austria, under the direction of Hubert Rhomberg, Cree has developed the “Life Cycle Tower” system to build high-rises out of wood.
Its first project was an eight story wood office building in Dornbirn. The system combines resource and energy efficiency. Resource efficiency is achieved by using wood, which is a renewable resource, as the structural system of a tall building. The goal is to build our new cities with wood instead of concrete and steel, both of which need fossil fuel to be produced. Cree has also developed a systems approach to design and then prefabricate the components offsite and assemble them quickly on-site. In terms of energy efficiency, the LifeCycle Tower ONE in Dornbirn achieved both, passive house certification, as well as LEED Platinum, which is the highest level.
We established Cree Buildings, Inc. based in Berkeley, California as Cree GmbH North American subsidiary. Unfortunately, we have not been able to acquire any projects yet, because of some of the technology issues mentioned above. It was difficult to show up in a new market with an innovative system, but without any demonstration projects in North America. At the moment, Cree is looking for licensing partners that would like to develop projects using Cree’s Life Cycle Tower system.
Have you ever considered returning to Austria or Europe to a probably more benign and cutting edge environment when it comes to building efficiency?
Yes, we return to Austria every summer and will definitely move back for retirement, which is coming up fast. I am not sure I would be qualified to work under the cutting edge environment. I think professionals in Austria are better qualified. I see my role more as a translator or interpreter, trying to adapt Austrian technology to the U.S.
I have noticed that Austria is making progress within the start-up scene, with delegations coming to Silicon Valley and looking for incubators and funding. Most of these efforts are in the Information Technology field. I believe there are great opportunities for a startup in the building industry and I often imagine how successful a small carpentry company would be here, led by a Meister Zimmermann. It could start by building high-performance single family homes and then scale up to multi-family apartment buildings and eventually wood high-rise towers. I would be glad to assist young architects, engineers and carpenters to join together and start such a company, but without a committed investor, it would be difficult.