Architecture for the Future

Leading innovation for the future

By Graham Irwin

Since 2008, my practice has addressed these unprecedented challenges, including climate disruption and the availability of housing with inspiring and innovative designs. We use Passive House (Passivhaus) as our technical basis and design to eliminate toxicity, minimize the environmental impacts of construction, maximize water efficiency and to enable rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse. Our projects are hardened against wildfires, and adaptable to address housing challenges by enabling multi-generational and multifamily living, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), and aging-in-place.

Passive House is a rigorous methodology with a 30+ year track record and tens of thousands of built examples around the world. Carefully designed and meticulously constructed building enclosures make these buildings “passive” – balanced with the environment and requiring minimal active heating and cooling for year-round comfort. Centralized ventilation with heat recovery maintains indoor temperatures while supplying filtered, fresh outdoor air – all coupled with best-in-class lighting, appliances and equipment for the world’s highest standards of air quality, comfort, quiet and durability. 

Passive buildings are perfectly suited to renewable energy, looking beyond net zero to good renewable grid citizenship. Much smaller solar systems are needed to zero their utility bills, and smaller batteries are required for power during grid outages. The buildings themselves act as thermal batteries, maintaining comfortable interior temperatures for days without power and allowing any supplemental heating or cooling to occur during lower grid demand. As the U.S. transitions toward a zero-carbon grid and weans itself from natural gas, this is simply the most effective construction approach. We’ve studied the savings from Passive House in each of California’s climate zones and it is significant statewide.

We utilize standard materials and techniques whenever possible and continually refine construction details for feasibility and effectiveness. We optimize every project with proprietary software and for 10-15% more than code-minimum construction, we can deliver world-class levels of performance.

Much of our work in the San Francisco Bay Area involves remodels and retrofits. For these projects, we focus on “renewal” – making them better than new, and suited to contemporary lifestyles, while radically upgrading their performance. 

Midori Haus converted a dilapidated 1922 Craftsman in Santa Cruz into one of the best performing homes in California, while enhancing its vintage architecture. It now uses about one quarter of the energy of a typical home. It has a rainwater harvesting system that supplies the laundry and toilets and greywater irrigation for the landscape. The house won numerous city and state awards and was recognized by the Passivhaus Institut in Germany. The owners have published a book and a website www.midorihaus.com

Midori Haus (1,569 Square Feet, 3 Bedrooms, 2 Baths) Photo Credit: Kurt Hurley

A recent project transformed a cramped, dark and dated Mid-Century Modern home in Sunnyvale into an all-electric Passive House with soaring ceilings, ample, glare-free daylight and outstanding connection to the backyard via two large “lift-and-slide” doors. The builder, Earthbound Homes, was awarded local, regional, and national Platinum green building awards by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI).

Sunnyvale MCM Re-Envisioned (1,767 Square Feet, 3 Bedrooms, 2-1/2 baths) Photo Credit: Agnieszka Jakubowicz Photography

To make these benefits more widely accessible, we’re developing a series of stock designs in our “CaliPASSIV” collection, inspired by iconic locations throughout California.

The “Healdsburg” evokes a modern, wine country escape and is great for taking in, and toasting, the view. The interior stairs are exactly centered in the floorplan for exceptional site-responsiveness, with four configurations possible by mirroring the upper and lower floors independently, or together. 

The “Healdsburg” (2,790 Square Feet, 4 Bedrooms, 3-1/2 baths)

Originally designed for a fire-ravaged Sonoma County neighborhood, the “Mendocino” brings a fresh twist to the agricultural building forms of the northern California coast and their heralded, modernist interpretations. The dynamic geometry maximizes interior space and volume and facilitates indoor/outdoor connection while providing privacy from neighbors, even on narrow infill lots.

The “Mendocino” (2,270 Square Feet, 4 Bedrooms, 3-1/2 Baths)

 Both designs feature an accessible, ground floor bedroom suite that can function as an ADU, an au-pair unit, a space for relatives or guests, a home office, a primary bedroom for aging-in-place, etc. They also have provision for easy conversion of the garage/carports into semi-detached ADUs.

The “Rosecrans” was conceived to up-zone single-family properties in Los Angeles. To allow for mass customization and future adaptability, it is a series of modules that are combined into a site-specific configuration. This example has six units, ranging from a studio to a three bedroom, as well as four single-car garages at the back of the building.

The roof is a communal outdoor space covered by a bifacial photovoltaic (PV) “solar trellis” that offers sun and rain protection while admitting light. The trellis is sloped to direct rainwater to the opening above the interior courtyard for harvesting and should generate enough energy to make the building a net energy exporter.

The “Rosecrans” (4,800 Square Feet, Up to 6 Units, Modular)

The U.S. needs inspiring new architecture for our times. For more than a decade we’ve worked at the forefront of high-performance design, combining crisp modernism with casual indoor/outdoor ambiance and state-of-the-art technology for homes we describe as architecture for the future. We believe that the optimism that made California a world leader in innovation is echoed in our work and that the future of our state is bright.

Graham Irwin, AIA, is the principal of Essential Habitat Architecture, a design firm dedicated to high-design, high-performance homes for the future of California. He can be reached at graham@essentialhabitat.com