A Passive House Grows in Brooklyn

The house has a cheery green front door but otherwise looks like any other Brooklyn brownstone.

Peter Dressel 2018

If I say the words “passive house,” you might picture a storybook cottage surrounded by lush meadows and gently rolling hills, completely off the grid somewhere in the German countryside. At least that’s what I think of (maybe because that’s where the structures that use insulation, carefully placed windows, and a few other architectural tricks to heat and cool themselves without much energy originated). But Ruth Mandl and Bobby Johnston, the husband-and-wife architects behind CO Adaptive, are here to prove that a passive house with zero energy output can be anywhere and look like anything—even a 1889 brownstone in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

The couple found the townhouse in 2016 after six months of looking for a place to call their own and many drives through the streets of Brooklyn. “We could tell that the bones of the house were already great, and we loved the proportions of most rooms,” says Ruth. “It was totally livable,” she adds—in fact, they moved in and lived there for five months before renovating—“but there were nails sticking out of the subfloors, and the bathrooms and kitchens were last updated in the ’80s.”

But Ruth and Bobby’s vision went well beyond fixing a few nails. They wanted to brighten and update the whole place, carve out a spacious kitchen in the back of the house, and divvy up the two upstairs bedrooms to create three for their growing family. They also wanted to create a separate apartment on the garden level, with an eye to creating an income property. But by far the biggest undertaking of all was their plan to retrofit the entire structure into an energy-efficient certified passive house, all while preserving original details and century-old charm. The result is an airy, serene house that just happens to use zero (yes, zero) energy.

<div class="caption"> Before: The home pre-reno was totally livable, but Ruth and Bobby had big plans for it. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel Photography</cite>

Before: The home pre-reno was totally livable, but Ruth and Bobby had big plans for it.

Peter Dressel Photography

Before they took the interiors down to the bricks, the couple and their contractor, LB General Contracting Corp., salvaged what they could, including the intricate millwork, which they set aside and saved to reinstall later. Then they got to work. “A passive house involves a significant amount of insulation—about double to triple code, minimum—on both exposed facades, at the roof, and underneath the cellar slab,” Ruth explains. “In addition, there’s a smart membrane that wraps around the entire building. This membrane is moisture-open but airtight, and is probably the most important feature in achieving the 80 to 90 percent reduction in heating and cooling loads that passive houses exhibit.” With the house down to the studs, the team did both, and added triple-glazed windows, special exterior blinds that stop sunlight from heating up the house on hot days, and solar panels on the roof.

<div class="caption"> <strong>BEFORE: To retrofit an 1889 shell into a certified passive house, the couple had to strip out almost everything.</strong> </div> <cite class="credit">Bobby Johnston</cite>

BEFORE: To retrofit an 1889 shell into a certified passive house, the couple had to strip out almost everything.

Bobby Johnston

Ruth first fell for passive houses in her native Austria, when her father inherited her grandparents’ house in Vienna and retrofitted it into a passive house. “I ended up interning with the Viennese architects who renovated the house and learned a lot about the methodology, both through working on the design and later experiencing the quality of living in this house firsthand,” she says. “Since these buildings are so airtight, there’s an ERV system that filters and distributes outside air throughout the house. It heat-exchanges the air so that little energy is lost in this process. The result is that, in addition to the immense savings in energy, passive houses are very quiet, and the air inside them is always fresh.”

With the bones of the couple’s brownstone up to precise passive-house standards (and the gas line capped, since the house no longer needs a furnace), the team set about working on the interiors.

<div class="caption"> AFTER: The redone entry, with an old-new mix of modern brightness and original millwork, all sanded and painted in Benjamin Moore’s Cloud White. Ruth and Bobby say one of the biggest challenges was coming to terms with the fact that they couldn’t update the house to the level they wanted <em>and</em> save everything—the plasterwork, for example. “We had to say goodbye to some of it, and carefully measured other areas in order to replicate them later,” Ruth says. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

AFTER: The redone entry, with an old-new mix of modern brightness and original millwork, all sanded and painted in Benjamin Moore’s Cloud White. Ruth and Bobby say one of the biggest challenges was coming to terms with the fact that they couldn’t update the house to the level they wanted and save everything—the plasterwork, for example. “We had to say goodbye to some of it, and carefully measured other areas in order to replicate them later,” Ruth says.

Peter Dressel 2018

<div class="caption"> The finished living area features original details and large plywood-trimmed windows. Originally, damaged windows and dark millwork made the interior feel “a little dingy,” Ruth says. “But it received a significant amount of sunlight throughout the day, so we knew we could transform it into a bright and welcoming space.” </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

The finished living area features original details and large plywood-trimmed windows. Originally, damaged windows and dark millwork made the interior feel “a little dingy,” Ruth says. “But it received a significant amount of sunlight throughout the day, so we knew we could transform it into a bright and welcoming space.”

Peter Dressel 2018

<div class="caption"> All of the interiors are painted in Cloud White by Benjamin Moore—satin on the millwork, matte on the walls and ceilings. “It’s a slightly more soft and warm white,” Ruth explains. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

All of the interiors are painted in Cloud White by Benjamin Moore—satin on the millwork, matte on the walls and ceilings. “It’s a slightly more soft and warm white,” Ruth explains.

Peter Dressel 2018

<div class="caption"> Plywood lines a doorway that leads from bed into bath. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

Plywood lines a doorway that leads from bed into bath.

Peter Dressel 2018

The space under the stairs is cleverly fitted with hidden storage. “The tallest section is our pantry,” Ruth says. “We also have one compartment for cleaning items and the vacuum cleaner, one for winter and fall coats, and the lower ones towards the vestibule are used for shoes and smaller storage.”

<div class="caption"> Ruth and Bobby opened up the back of the parlor—and preserved an ornate archway—to create a bright pastel-hued kitchen. The couple also managed to fit two modern essentials into the first floor-footprint: a powder room and a washing machine, which you can see just through the archway, behind a glass divider. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

Ruth and Bobby opened up the back of the parlor—and preserved an ornate archway—to create a bright pastel-hued kitchen. The couple also managed to fit two modern essentials into the first floor-footprint: a powder room and a washing machine, which you can see just through the archway, behind a glass divider.

Peter Dressel 2018

<div class="caption"> The kitchen cabinets are Reform fronts on IKEA boxes. The mint-green color was matched to a favorite set of pendant lights, and the fridge is hidden behind the tall cabinets at right. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

The kitchen cabinets are Reform fronts on IKEA boxes. The mint-green color was matched to a favorite set of pendant lights, and the fridge is hidden behind the tall cabinets at right.

Peter Dressel 2018

<div class="caption"> An oversized pegboard covers the wall behind the sink, with modular shelves for storing dry goods and spices. “It was custom-designed by us, constructed of maple-faced ApplePly,” Ruth says. The sink is the <a href="https://fave.co/3auyJyh" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Riverby" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Riverby</a> by Kohler, which comes with an inset colander, tiny cutting board, and utility rack; the wall-mounted faucet and spray are by Vola. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>
An oversized pegboard covers the wall behind the sink, with modular shelves for storing dry goods and spices. “It was custom-designed by us, constructed of maple-faced ApplePly,” Ruth says. The sink is the Riverby by Kohler, which comes with an inset colander, tiny cutting board, and utility rack; the wall-mounted faucet and spray are by Vola.

Peter Dressel 2018

Upstairs, the couple divided a large bedroom into two smaller ones and redefined closet space to create an extra bathroom. Now, “the duplex has three bedrooms and a slightly unorthodox division of bathrooms,” Ruth says. On the second floor, there’s one powder room and two “wet rooms,” she explains: “one with a shower, a large tub, and a double sink, and the other with a shower and a sink. Dividing the toilets from the ‘clean bathroom functions’ in this way is a very Austrian or Viennese thing to do, but not very standard here in the States,” she adds.

<div class="caption"> A bath features an innovative detail: Glass, painted white on the back, lines the lower half of the walls. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

A bath features an innovative detail: Glass, painted white on the back, lines the lower half of the walls.

Peter Dressel 2018

<cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>
Peter Dressel 2018

So what’s the verdict, a year and a half after finishing work and moving in? “Life in the house is fantastic,” Ruth says. “We had a stark contrast when moving in, as we rented an older New York tenement building while our house was undergoing renovations. Some of the things that really stand out are that the heat is very even, day and night. I don’t have to worry about the radiators randomly coming on and off outside of my control, and either making my daughter’s room way too hot while she was asleep or becoming freezing cold quite quickly. The quiet is a fantastic aspect as well: There can be a block party going on outside, and she can peacefully sleep in her room without hearing more than the distant sounds of it.”

<div class="caption"> This sunny, clean-lined bedroom belongs to Ruth and Bobby’s daughter, Lucia, now three. “She was born just after we moved out of the house and started renovations,” Ruth says. The fourth inhabitant of the passive house? The couple’s nine-year-old cat, Mapi. </div> <cite class="credit">Peter Dressel 2018</cite>

This sunny, clean-lined bedroom belongs to Ruth and Bobby’s daughter, Lucia, now three. “She was born just after we moved out of the house and started renovations,” Ruth says. The fourth inhabitant of the passive house? The couple’s nine-year-old cat, Mapi.

Peter Dressel 2018

Best of all: You know that electricity bill you get every month? “Our energy bills are actually zero,” Ruth says. “Because we also have solar panels on our roof, over the year we put more energy into the grid than we take out—even factoring in that we charge our electric car.”

Here’s hoping Ruth and Bobby give more beautiful historic properties the passive house treatment. In the meantime, if you want to see what it’s like to sleep in a passive house, you can rent their garden-level unit, available on Airbnb.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest