Passive Activity

A Sky Ranch home under construction escaped flames from the Carmel Fire in part because builder Rob Nicely (left) is using passive house building concepts. He and Jay Gentry (right) are championing passive house construction in Monterey County.

WHEN JAY GENTRY WAS A YOUNG MAN HE THOUGHT HE WAS CALLED TO THE MINISTRY, BUT IT DIDN’T QUITE WORK OUT AS A CAREER CHOICE. Yet Gentry is a natural evangelist, and today he preaches but not from a pulpit. His message is about the need to combat the climate crisis through building sustainable and energy-efficient passive houses. Along with Carmel builder Rob Nicely, the two men have a goal to facilitate the building of 1,000 passive house units in Monterey County by 2030.

“I spend most of my working time addressing climate change for my kids and grandchildren and great grandchildren,” Gentry says. It’s what fuels his passion for meeting the goal.

The term passive house applies to anything from single-family homes up to large multi-family unit buildings. It’s been used in Europe for years and is now gaining followers in the U.S. through a network of nonprofits and companies actively working to build passive houses and influence policy. Gentry and Nicely both serve on the board of the nonprofit Passive House California and are active in local sustainability groups.

Passive home building uses strategies that reduce a structure’s energy demand by up to 80 percent while keeping occupants comfortably warm or cool. It uses insulation and high-performance windows and doors to create an airtight home keeping pollutants out. A focus is on reducing carbon emissions from the homes to as much as net zero. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in 2018 that we must cut global carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030. While burning fossil fuels is a big contributor, buildings are responsible for 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“That’s a fairly dire statement that gives you a clear cut mandate if you want to go out and influence policy and change the built environment,” Nicely says. “We have to be building up to the level of a passive house using 80-percent less energy than a conventional building.”

Nicely and Gentry are gaining traction in the region. Thanks to their efforts, Monterey city officials incorporated the concepts behind passive house building into a request for proposals to build 100-percent affordable housing units in the downtown area. There are other potential developments in the works elsewhere in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Passive houses may attract even more interest after the Carmel Fire destroyed 50 homes in 17 days in August. A three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home Nicely’s company, Carmel Building & Design, is constructing in Cachagua was untouched while other homes in the immediate neighborhood were reduced to ash.

There’s a burn scar that runs right up to the home’s back deck and stops. Only a few trees on the property were scorched.

“It was nerve-wracking because there were several days you couldn’t get any definitive information,” Nicely says. “I knew it had been designed not to burn, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

The structure didn’t burn for several reasons, according to Nicely and Gentry: The house is all electric so there are no gas lines or propane tanks to ignite; it’s airtight and made with a non-combustible roof and exterior walls plus compressed wood fiber insulation inside; it was constructed using a wildland-urban interface code, which regulates building materials used, landscaping management and other ways of mitigating wildfire danger.

The men are reaching out to jurisdictions where homes were damaged or lost to encourage them to incorporate incentives to use passive house building concepts for rebuilding.

Armed with data extolling the benefits of passive houses, from the personal – individual energy cost savings, comfort, filtered air, fire safety – to the overall good of the planet, the semi-retired Gentry volunteers nearly full time promoting passive houses to as many people as will listen and facilitating the creation of possible new passive house developments. He combines his passion for the cause with skills he honed throughout his career in sales then later teaching businesses how to take new products to market through his consulting business.

Nicely has the construction background, having spent the last 35 years in the business. About 20 years ago he started exploring green building practices, which eventually led him to passive houses. He was certified in passive house building in 2012 and built one of the first passive homes on the Central Coast in Carmel in 2013, which Gentry helped market.

Last year the two men decided rather than focus on moving the passive house concept forward throughout the state – something Gentry likens to shoveling dirt into the Grand Canyon – they zeroed in on Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. In January they invited about 500 elected officials, planning staffers and builders to the in-progress house in Cachagua, then in the early stages of construction. They gave tours and explained each feature of the house and its benefits.

That event was the catalyst for one Monterey city planner to be trained in passive house building and for city housing officials to include passive house concepts in the RFP for the affordable housing developments in downtown Monterey.

“We’ve had a remarkably good response, people are leaning in and wanting to do this,” Nicely says. “Having said that, it’s unfortunately a problem that needs to be solved. It takes time to get these things done. And we don’t have a lot of time.”

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