Architect Gary Handel on designing the world’s tallest Passive House residential project

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Handel Architects' Cornell University Residences. (Courtesy Handel Architects)

Handel Architects’ Cornell University Residences. (Courtesy Handel Architects)

As designers and builders around the world have, in recent years, embraced Passive House standards, one question has remained: will it scale?

Is the Passive House approach to sustainable design suited only to small-scale (“house”) projects, or might it be applied to other, larger, building types? Handel Architects has answered the latter question with a resounding yes in its Cornell University Residences, a 26-story tower for the institution‘s new Roosevelt Island Campus. When complete, the project will be the tallest and largest residential building in the world built to the strict Passive House code.

Handel Architects’ Gary Handel will deliver a keynote address on the challenges and opportunities represented by the Cornell University Residences at the Facades+AM DC symposium March 10.

The 26-story tower will be the world's largest and tallest residential building built to Passive House standards. (Courtesy Handel Architects)

The 26-story tower will be the world’s largest and tallest residential building built to Passive House standards. (Courtesy Handel Architects)

The building’s prefabricated metal-panel building envelope is a key contributor to its overall energy-saving strategy. “The facade design is the ‘passive driver’ of the thermal performance of the building,” explained Handel. “Higher thermal performance of the enclosure means less energy used to heat and cool the interior. This in turn means smaller, more efficient equipment to deliver the heat or cooling, which means lower energy input overall and thus a lower ‘carbon footprint’ than a conventionally enclosed building.” The high performance facade, in other words, is the metaphorical substructure upon which the project’s “active” systems are built.

As with any cutting-edge endeavor, the project has not been without hiccups. “Implementation of the details has probably been the biggest challenge, as some of these details have never been implemented in a building of this size,” said Handel. As an example, he cited the difficulty of installing sealing tape along portions of the facade interior that are obstructed by the building structure. In addition, explained Handel, “having the entire team—designers, suppliers, contractors—buy into the concept of a world class sustainable building and be committed to the goal has been a constant challenge.” The overall experience has nonetheless been rewarding. “Designing solutions to challenges . . . has been part of the learning process we’ve undergone,” concluded Handel.

Hear more from Handel and other key players in the world of facade design and fabrication next month at Facades+ AM DC. See a complete symposium schedule and register today on the event website.

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