Hannes Richter

Austrian Technology in Building Energy Efficient Homes in the U.S.

Hannes Richter

Opportunities for Austrian Companies

An Interview with Nabih Tahan

A recent study commissioned by the Austrian Trade Commission reveals current trends toward building ‘green’ in the U.S. These trends provide interesting opportunities for Austrian companies to offer their expertise and services and build partnerships with U.S. companies.

The author of the study, California architect Nabih Tahan, has spent many years in Austria learning the ‘science’ behind producing ‘green’ buildings and is an advocate of using European technology in constructing energy efficient homes in the U.S. Since the early 1990s environmentally-friendly construction has been a topic of interest in the U.S.

With the development of the LEED rating system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a voluntary certification program was established which promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability. The trend towards ‘going green’ began in the building industry and the trend is still growing.  Most buildings in the U.S. were built before modern energy codes were enacted, and during a time when fossil fuels were cheap and abundant. Americans are a mobile society, constantly moving to be closer to better paying jobs, schools or neighborhoods, so there was no immediate incentive to invest in energy efficient buildings. As a result buildings in the U.S. now consume 40% of the total energy and 72% of the electricity and are responsible for 38% of all carbon dioxide emissions. 

People became aware that constructing energy efficient buildings may be an easy and less expensive path to economic recovery, energy independence and cleaner air. By conserving energy and reducing consumption, energy efficient buildings could save hundreds of millions of dollars and generate billions of dollars in construction contracts to renovate existing buildings and construct new ones. 

Within the next few years, building green will become one of the most dynamic and growing markets in the U.S. It is currently the one sector where there is growth in an otherwise stagnant housing industry.  This trend toward creating a more green building industry is noticeable throughout the U.S. Architects are designing smaller homes, building sites are being developed closer to transit lines and financial incentives by the Federal government will encourage owners to invest in improved insulation and new technologies, such as solar panels, etc. 

Ripe Opportunities for Austrian Companies

Nabih Tahan’s study concludes that based upon current developments, the U.S. green building market will expand to $60 billion in 2010, providing Austrian companies - with their many years of experience in energy efficient buildings - a unique chance to further accelerate the growing green building movement in the U.S.

Through collaboration and partnership with U.S. companies, they can provide their expertise in ecological building materials with lower carbon footprints, recycled materials and prefabricated building parts. Other areas of potential cooperation include architectural-, engineering- and energy consulting, sharing their understanding of an integrated approach to design and construction; developing high performance building products; and their modern, industrial home building and prefabricated home industry experience.    

Nabih Tahan- A Strong Promoter of Austrian Know-how

American architect Nabih Tahan, licensed in California and Ireland, who received his degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, is a strong promoter of Austria. He favors a pro-active stance in offering the U.S. building industry its expertise based on its longstanding experience. Educated, trained and based in California, Mr. Tahan has first-hand knowledge of advanced methods of green building as practiced in Austria.

After  thirteen years work in the Province of Carinthia he gained hands-on experience in designing, developing and building low energy and passive houses which significantly reduce energy consumption.  In 1992 Nabih Tahan and his Austrian wife moved to Feistritz/Drau, a small village in Carinthia. Together they developed two multi-family housing projects, the first by transforming an old barn into 15 condominiums.

Both condominium projects were built from prefabricated timber frame components by a local carpentry manufacturer and then shipped to the site where they were erected by trained crews. While working with a local building manufacturer, he realized that by using a computerized, automated manufacturing system, they were able to prefabricate various components, including the entire timber frame structure, off-site in a modern factory. They then transported, assembled and erected it on-site by specifically trained crews quickly and with great dimensional accuracy. T

he multi-family project applied the Low Energy House standard, improving on code requirements for insulation and air-tightness. What Tahan learned from the experience was the importance of the ‘science’ behind construction in Austria. In other words, the work of architects and engineers should not only be about design but also about the actual ‘performance’ of a building when measuring energy efficiency and durability.

In 2000, Nabih Tahan used this knowledge to introduce Austrian energy efficient, prefabricated homes in Ireland. He managed a company exporting homes to Ireland and consulted with Irish developers and manufacturers about design and industrial manufacturing techniques in Austria. 

Green Building or Passive House - The Successor to the Low Energy House

Upon returning from Europe, Nabih Tahan began promoting the concept of the Passive House, the successor to the Low Energy House. He applied the same concept of insulation and air-tightness but with the addition of mechanical ventilation and heat recovery. The Green Building or Passive House embodies a standard of design and construction that drastically reduces heating requirements in homes, making the conventional heating system no longer necessary.

Such houses maintain constant temperatures without having to rely on wasteful amounts of fossil fuels to heat and cool, making them therefore ‘passive.’ Passive Houses work by reusing “free” heat generated by home appliances, such as ovens, refrigerators, computers and light bulbs to heat the home which has been made air-tight, like a tightly sealed envelope. Moreover, using ultra-thick insulation and sophisticated doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that little heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in.   

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Passive House Concept

To demonstrate the concept, Tahan’s company remodeled  their own home, a 100 year-old leaky bungalow and turned it into a modern, energy efficient Passive House, as part of the Grant Street Project in Berkeley, California. The project received extensive media attention, and was mentioned in the New York Times and in Home Energy Magazine. Today the house is a demonstration green home, offering tours to local architects, homeowners and builders, and providing an example to its neighbors of an affordable solution to a common problem. 

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Grant Street Bungalow before conversion. BauTechnologiesGrant street bungalow after conversion. BauTechnologiesFor the last four years, Tahan has been a guest speaker at conferences and events, introducing advancements in the Austrian building industry and how they can be adapted to the U.S. market. As a result of these efforts, he was commissioned by the Austrian Trade Commission in Chicago to describe the opportunities available to Austrian companies in the rapidly growing U.S. green building industry. In an interview with Austrian Information, Nabih Tahan described some of the concepts and advantages of green buildings, and the differences in the industry between Austria and the U.S.:

You have worked with prefabricated houses in both Austria and the U.S. What are the greatest differences between the two countries’ approaches?

The greatest difference is that when Americans construct prefabricated buildings, they produce them in factories as entire modules, in contrast to Austria where they are produced as panels – wall panels, roof panels or floor panels – assembled on-site. From an architectural point of view, panels are components which are more flexible and more appealing to architects because you can design anything with them, allowing for a more interesting type of architecture.  

The other difference is that Austrians produce prefabricated houses having brand names, such as Musterhaus or Elk, for example. Large companies in Austria have factories that manufacture particular kinds of buildings. By always making the same buildings, they can improve on the process, and subsequently, on the system. Architects, homeowners or developers look at the different companies and decide where they would like to buy. 

Some American companies do the same, but the majority of them must always compete with production builders who build on-site. This means that each time they construct a house, they do it differently. Consequently, they can never really improve the system and make it less expensive, more energy efficient and with better performance.Prefabrication should make full use of the industrial process of building beginning with computerizing the design and machinery, as it is done in the automobile industry and in Austria. 

Another major difference is that Austrian companies erect their own buildings to make sure they reach the intended performance targets. In contrast, American companies produce and ship their modules only.  They leave the installation to other companies, which results in a fragmented process where more often than not, the building turns out to perform worse  than intended. 

Is there a significant difference between energy-efficient buildings and non-energy efficient buildings in terms of costs?

The energy codes are becoming more stringent, so building energy efficiently will no longer be a choice but rather a requirement, and cost will not be an excuse for not building better. The process to design and build an energy efficient building requires more planning and analysis. During the process, waste must be eliminated to offset potential additional cost of materials or systems. 

Additionally, if one considers the long term cost savings of operating and maintaining a high performance building, it is clear that the financial benefits far outweigh the potential initial costs. There are now financial assistance programs from cities that encourage energy efficient retrofits by making funds available for renovation projects where the payback of the loan is tied to the property taxes. These programs assist homeowners by not having to come up with the initial money for retrofits; they save money by saving energy and if they decide to sell the house, the loan continues to be paid by the new owner through the property taxes.

Is there a particular reason why Austria has been more of a pioneer in the fields of energy efficiency and environmental technology compared to the U.S.? 

One could assume that after the war, when Europe was destroyed and cities lay in rubble, one began rebuilding through recycling and reusing old materials. Also, Europe doesn’t have as many natural resources as the U.S., such as oil and natural gas, making energy more expensive and therefore triggering the need for more efficiency and cheaper costs.

Moreover, the system of education is very different, something which greatly impressed me. Pupils and students of vocational schools (Berufsschule) and technical colleges (Höhere technische Lehranstalten), are taught the fundamentals of the building trade despite not having gone to a university, even though they may end up working as a carpenter.

Likewise, architects in Austria study the scientific fundamentals of building in contrast to architects in the U.S. When I studied architecture at Berkeley, I did not study building science. This is changing, however, and they now offer specialized programs in high school, community colleges and universities.

Nonetheless, if Austrian and American companies would form partnerships, it would make it happen faster. That would also be an advantage for an Austrian company that wants to expand and is looking for a new market. 

The LEED rating system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) with its certification program did much toward setting the ‘going green’ trend twenty years ago. How is the feedback that you have received in the U.S.?

The whole LEED movement is a young movement, perhaps some ten to fifteen years old.  The way it started was that some marketing people saw the need for better products and that there was a niche in the industry for “green” products. The system was based on a prescriptive method where points are accumulated for using specific products.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), a private organization, was established and it developed the LEED rating system. The USGBC trained LEED consultants to assist in the design stages of a project by recommending solutions where points could be accumulated, with the goal of getting as many points as possible to get a silver, gold or platinum certificate.

Now, after a decade of LEED certification, people are going back to look at the energy performance of these buildings. It turns out that many certified buildings are not using less energy than other comparable buildings which are not LEED certified. The LEED buildings have used better products, but they have not looked at the building as a system and tracked and reduced its energy performance. The Passive House standard focuses only on the energy consumption of a building and does not have requirements for which products are used to reach the targets.If we merge these systems together we will probably get the best of both. 

And how is the response from Austria with regard to rising opportunities in the U.S. green building market?

The response is very good. One would have to offer some prototypes for demonstration. What is most needed is a company involved with prefabrication. My advice is not to use products that are too advanced or costly, but rather those used a few years ago in Austria in order to create an understanding for this new technology and to keep the price low in order to encourage a shift in how we design and build.

Nabih Tahan founded BauTechnologies in 2009 as an architectural, engineering, and energy consulting firm focused on implementing residential and 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.

For additional information, please contact:  Nabih Tahan, BauTechnologies

Telephone: (510) 848-5311

Email: nabih [at] bautechnologies.com

Austrian Trade Commission Chicago Telephone: (312) 644-5556

Email: chicago [at] advantage.org

www.advantageaustria.org/us