Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Boston Hosts the World’s Tallest Passive House

What Lessons Can Your Home Design Take From the Winthrop Center?

Winthrop Center, on right. (Winthrop Center)

Greg and Barb Whitchurch

The Winthrop Center in Boston ( is the tallest and largest office building in the world to earn Passive House certification. Located near Faneuil Hall in Boston’s historic district, it also meets the LEED Platinum standard (www, set by the U.S. Green Building Council and has been WELL Gold certified (

Passive House (PH) is a pretty basic energy, comfort and health standard, which is no longer difficult or costly to meet (~2.5%). LEED includes sustainability of design and materials, as well as effects upon the surrounding community, while WELL focuses on human wellness and comfort. (PH includes many of the particulars of LEED and WELL.)

This project is different from the usual approach, in that the owners were willing to assemble a design team which put the interests of the owners at the forefront by allowing internationally recognized institutes to approve their design and then certify their product.

Handel Architects ( in collaboration with Steven Winters and Associates ( were the designers, assisted by a group of MIT professors led by John Fernandez, director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative ( Together with the Passive House Institute (, they achieved the goal of incorporating PH design in the office portion of this 62-story mixed-use building. (PH for residential is addressed in the “Housing 2.0” article on page 31 of this issue.)

But What About Me and My Home?

This article,, is well worth four minutes of your time; and we won’t waste our space here by repeating its contents. The principles and techniques addressed in that article apply to one’s private residence as well — PH is mostly about focus and care — not style, size or purpose. The rest of our article is meant to supply context and perspective to what the longer piece, above, presents: a holistic design strategy for buildings that addresses health, comfort, safety and resiliency; boosts happiness and productivity; and better protects the occupants and our environment.

Energy use of a “high-efficiency home” compared to a Passive House home. (Passive House Institute)

The Passive House standard has been misunderstood in the U.S. for a couple of decades now. First of all, “House” in “Passive House” is a rather unfortunate word. PH actually refers to any kind of building: office towers, homes, hospitals, universities, resorts, ice rinks, you name it — tens of thousands of these buildings are currently in existence, and the rate of adoption continues to accelerate.

Second, PH has been thought of as the Gold Standard, or the highest-end, most effective design. Nope, it’s only a gold standard in that it provides the best bang for one’s buck ( It soon returns monetary savings far in excess of any slightly increased front-end cost. One can get far pickier about energy savings, comfort and sustainability than PH, if one has the money and the desire.

As we continue to treat our air as an open sewer, we’re experiencing increasing extremes of unstable weather (heat, storms, floods) and air pollution (vehicle exhaust, chimneys, forest fires). PH helps us to achieve security from the accelerating pace of our changing climate by giving us more control over our indoor environment with far less effort and expense than ever before.

The common, old-timey building styles and codes we have become used to are long out of date. Medicine, vehicles, home building and advertising were all art forms at one time — they are all sciences now. Building science, engineering and new materials finally allow us to construct buildings that are increasingly healthful for the occupants (using highly-filtered, balanced ventilation to ensure fresh air), far less energy-intensive (all-electric homes), lower maintenance, a much more valuable investment, and far less dependent upon external sources of energy.

Unfortunately, most designers and builders are still stuck in their past and are not willing to take the time to catch up — so they denigrate PH and threaten owners with false claims about imagined high prices and difficult techniques. Some of these builders do not want an owner’s representative checking up on them. However, finding someone who can and has built a PH is less and less difficult as time goes by. PH is designed to be a base building code standard; it’s NOT a heavy lift, even for newbie builders (as our own personal PH residence attests — see our bio below).


Much like Underwriters Laboratories (UL listing), NHTSA (for our cars), and other certifications around the world, PH is meant to avoid shoddiness, guesswork, inexperience, rules-of-thumb, and covering up mistakes. Having an owner’s representative verify the design, keep tabs on the construction, and then check it all out in the end is worth the small extra cost to many people. They are investing the largest sum they will ever spend for a home in which they will spend most of their time. And they will pass it along as legacy, or convert it into value as they move on to their next destination. Buyers and their lenders have representatives for home inspections and for their real estate purchases. Why give that up for the house itself?

Boston and the surrounding five cities have adopted PH as a building standard that provides a shortcut through the usual permit process and inspections — saving the city and builder time and money, as well as emergency planning — since the resilience and stability of PH mean that emergency services are less taxed during disasters. These are some of the reasons PH is now becoming the base building code for most buildings. New York City and many more cities across the U.S. are also following this path.

PH is a win-win-win: for the owners, occupants and the environment. Avoiding a “legacy, retro” home design in favor of a “future-proof” design is just common sense. The impediments are not the cost or difficulty, rather they are the emotional risk of adopting the unknown and hesitation to make the effort to change.

The Whitchurches live in a net-zero Passive House ( in Middlesex, Vermont. Their solar PV also provides grid backup, and powers their Bolt and Niro EVs, lawn, garden and chainsaw tools.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>