Adam Cohen’s new component was developed on the concept of Lego with energy efficiency in mind.
STRUCTURES Design Build founder and President Adam Cohen started building healthy homes — houses with no glue, no chemicals and first-generation solar panels — 30 years ago.
“We were doing what I thought was really important work,” he said. “I thought, ‘Ten years from now, everybody is going to do this.’ Years later, I had a family of five and the only people who wanted it were poor hippies who could not afford it.
“I started doing my own thing,” Cohen adds. “Eventually, came around and did Structures. The focus was more making money.”
The builder, architect and self-proclaimed energy geek founded Structures in 1999 and discovered a form of success building what anyone asked him to build, efficient or not.
About 10 years ago, his then 12-year-old son asked him about carbon footprints and reminded him of what he used to consider successful.
“Everything I believed in, I had kind of sold out,” Cohen says. “I was building metal buildings and shopping malls and anything else anyone would pay me to build. I was willing to not pay attention to what my passion is and what I really believed in. It was a real awakening for me and brought me back to my roots.”
Cohen started building “Passivhaus,” a numbers and physics-based approach to create optimal energy efficiency.
Though he crunched energy-model outputs and financial data to the point where he could offer affordable Passivhaus buildings, Cohen gained traction nationally — not locally.
“Passivhaus takes a fabric-first approach to energy efficiency,” Cohen says. “It takes the least expensive things, such as insulation, and it leverages that in a clever way to create these very robust envelopes.”
Already, he has built the first Passivhaus dental office and the first such public school.
“In my office, I still get people who have no idea what I offer,” he said. “From around the country, I get calls every single day.”
The business slowed — Structures dropped from 42 employees to seven — but Cohen did not. He founded two other companies to expand beyond Structure’s market. Quantum Architects focuses on high-performance architecture in Maryland, Colorado, New Hampshire and Vermont. Passiv Science is a consulting firm of five. A fourth company is planned for launch in July – Passive Structures, a manufacturing company to make and sell his newest innovation: a component system.
“One of the things I have done is developed a way of using pre-manufactured components kind of like Lego pieces,” he says. “They are standardized pieces of kit that can be snapped together to make these very robust envelopes.”
A number of beta testers have jumped on board already. A 43-unit, $9.5 million senior- housing community proposed for a Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for example, would include the component system, which, in that case, offers about 65 percent energy savings at an additional cost less than 2 percent.
Since promoting the component system among industry circles, Cohen has priced over $3.5 million of work.
“People are definitely interested,” he says. “There is a real market for this.”
Through the transition, Structures Design Build has provided a test bed for the new ventures. The company also has shifted from the hands-on builder to a management role as projects unfold.
Cohen’s vision for Structures is it remains lean and offers that does integrated project delivery methodology, an ideology that springs, again, from Passivhaus concepts.
“In design/bid/build, no one is really talking together about where to exploit synergies within systems,” Cohen says. “That is exactly what Passivhaus does. It looks comprehensively at the building as a whole, as a system finds synergies in a holistic way to get energy savings.
“The same way you do that with energy, you can do as a design builder,” Cohen adds. “I have been able to leverage that into cost savings.”
The component system is gaining momentum, especially as awareness grows for Passivhaus concepts.
“The one thing about this system is it allows me to hit a lot markets and help a lot of early adopters get their projects up and built,” Cohen says. “The component system is very simple. It is based on having a standard builder build it.
“There is nothing fancy. If you walk inside, you see studs. From the outside, you see Zip wall, just like any other house,” Cohen adds.
In his aim to build cleaner, Cohen has achieved some goals.
He is no longer just like any other builder. He has returned to his passion, but he sees room for more than improvement. He wants a transformation.
“Right now in the U.S., between 40 and 50 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from our buildings, but 97 percent of that is through operations and maintenance,” Cohen says. “Our first goal is to cut the operation and maintenance carbon. After that, we will cut the embodied energy carbon. I am after zero-carbon buildings.
“I am after buildings that will offset the total carbon content of the building, including the embodied carbon plus the operations carbon,” Cohen adds. “That is what my goal is.”