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Feature photo by Alice Ng

PHIUS takes a deep breath: Reappraising Passive House

Katrin Klingenberg, co-founder and executive director of the Passive House Institute of the US [PHIUS] is a visionary leader and inspiring teacher.  Since 2006, she and Mike Kernagis built the first Passive House in North America, established the Institute, and trained hundreds of professionals–myself included–in the Passive House system. During that period, at least 106 read more


from Steve Mouzon: good advice on sustainability

Architect Steve Mouzon is a proponent of New Urbanism–not only as a means to “livable”–and as he puts it, “lovable” homes and communities–but also as a means to sustainability . His thoughtful blog post on Earth Day 2014 is worth reflecting on:   http://originalgreen.org/blog/earth-day-2014—lean-is.html                


Cliven Bundy’s got a beef: On sustainable foods

Dunno where you are on the controversies surrounding Cliven Bundy’s stand against the Federal Government; there are arguments on each side that echo the same issues that Hamilton and Jefferson wrangled with, back in the day. But this controversy obscures an arguably more important issue: how sustainable is the production of meat? Amid the swirling read more


Alex Wilson on Affordability

    Alex Wilson, founder of Environmental Building News, and more recently, the Resilient Design Institute, has through the years been one of my primary influences. You could say it is a sort of love-hate relationship, because Alex has always been ahead of the pack, taking on issues that continually shake up my faulty assumptions read more


Sustainable Living: Some Alternate Takes

Not everyone can afford to build a passive house, or do a green remodel of their home. But they may be living a more sustainable lifestyle–even if it is not their intent. Here are two vivid examples. The first is a brief film by Time Video,  Off the Grid in Slab City–about an ad hoc read more


Passive House Moment of Truth: Air Tightness Testing

With most of the rough mechanical, electrical, and plumbing work (MEP) complete, it was time to test the Grant Residence Passive House for air tightness. We scored approximately 0.75 air changes per hour (ACH) at 50 pascals (PA) of pressure. Although this is four times tighter than the current energy code requires–it’s not good enough read more


Bill Hutchins: Our Home is an Organism

Anyone who follows this blog knows my tendency to veer off into a technical weed patch. So I am all the more fortunate to have Bill Hutchins as a friend, to help pull me back to a more profound perspective. Whereas I can lapse into an account of our homes as mere systems, Bill clearly read more



 as vile as the proposed pipeline–and the tar sand crude that it would carry–as vile as all that may be, to vilify the project is much like condemning a syringe maker because it might be used by a heroin addict. the point is that each and every one of us, here in this wealthiest of read more


Historic Preservation policy needs to look to the future as well as the past

A list-serve colleague sought advice on selecting an affordable line of wood windows, for a project regulated by local historic preservation mandates.  I replied as follows: I hope Yogi Berra will forgive me if I say that the best and most affordable wood windows today are made of fiberglass. Here’s where I’m coming from. I’ve read more


A Passive House Reality Check

passive house certification stamp

My previous post, “A Post-Passive House Paradigm for Energy Efficient Design” was recently re-published in The Green Building Advisor.  This generated some lively follow-up; you can check them out here. As it turns out in these dialogues, they lead you to reconsider your own assumptions, and things that you have been taught. Here are two read more


Building Designer Certification

Although I am a certified professional building designer, and append that title to my signature, I am often referred to by my clients and friends as an architect. I am careful, however, not to use that title, because as loath as I am to define myself in the negative, I lack the formal education and credentials read more


marginal benefit$ for high performance homes: energy is cheap

Here are some piquant comments from John Straube, Ph.D., a professor of building science and principal of the Building Science Corporation. BSC is presently working with the Passive House Institute of the US (PHIUS) to develop energy performance standards and methodologies for residential buildings. The energy cost for a decent size IRC 2012 or EnergyStar v3 read more


A post-Passive House paradigm for energy efficient design

Last night, I enjoyed an intense conversation with my friend, Bill Updike.  Bill, who has been closely following the developing partnership between PHIUS and Building Science Corp,  is the green building specialist at the Washington, DC Department of the Environment. We were talking about cost effective energy design, and Bill tossed off a comment that read more


A Delicate Question

Looking back, some of my most successful—and deeply satisfying–projects have been for gay and lesbian clients. I could not help wondering why this is so. It’s one thing to wonder, and another  to say this aloud. So I decided to first direct the question to the clients themselves, to determine if it would be offensive read more


Passive House Certification

Now that the rough carpentry is nearing completion, it was a perfect moment to bring out our Passive House Rater, Andy Corral of Elysian Energy, to see things in the flesh.  I spent a good part of yesterday morning compiling a set of plans and documents for Andy to review, including a revised Passive House Planning read more


Progress on Passive House

As winter closes in, work continues on this Passive House project.  The Intus triple glazed doors and tilt-turn windows are due to be delivered next week.  When they are installed, we can perform a preliminary blower door test, to see how close we are to the mythic air tightness requirement  of 0.6 ACH. In the read more


Historic Preservation in Montgomery County, MD: Past, Present, and Future: PART ONE

“…it is right to build houses as people wish them…to subordinate tradition…” Gustav Stickley, from More Craftsman Homes, 1912 After more than 33 years of designing and building in the historic districts and vintage neighborhoods of Montgomery County, MD, it seems fitting to reflect on this experience. What does the historic preservation process already do read more


Passive House in Derwood, MD takes form

It was a gorgeous day to bike out and visit this Passive House project, located in Derwood, MD.  The site is surrounded by forest, and abuts Lake Bernard Frank.   The bike trail passes over the earthen dam, where I saw great blue herons sunning on the berm, and a banded kingfisher perched in a read more


Sandy Wiggins: Going Ever Deeper Into Sustainability

  Last night, I had the honor and deep pleasure to host a “Beer Talk” (a monthly soiree dedicated to sustainability and green building, created by architect Bill Hutchins), where Sandy Wiggins gave a presentation featuring the redevelopment of the Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center.  Hard Bargain had committed to using the Living Building Challenge read more


Green Remodel and Addition Project Achieves an Arlington Green Home Choice Award

ALL PHOTOS BY KEN WYNER Here are photos of a recently completed energy efficient remodeling and addition project in Arlington, Virginia.  The project earned a Silver Award in the county’s Green Home Choice program. The project included a three story addition, as well as a remodeled kitchen, and other improvements to the existing house.  Features read more


New Passive House Rises Up

Here’s a snapshot of progress on the new Passive House.  The DC region has sustained unprecedented rainfall over the past four days.  By the luck of the draw, Janet and I were on vacation, at a beach in South Carolina–where the weather was sublime.  While there, we went kayaking on a backwater that flows into read more


More on Passive House from The Green Building Advisor

Guest Blogger Monte Paulsen has written a stimulating entry for The Green Building Advisor, called Ten Misconceptions about The Passive House Standard. As always on this site, the dialogue in the comments section is informative and thought provoking.  It addresses many issues I struggled with in the design of our current Passive House project–most notably, read more


a Passive House and Cosmic Consciousness

An uncanny resemblance to a new Passive House Walking down Carteret Street in Beaufort, South Carolina, this house–by its looks over 100 years old–caught my eye.  It bears an uncanny resemblance to my Passive House design, presently under construction in Derwood, Maryland.  It calls into question what forces of cosmic consciousness are in play here. read more



The essence of Passive House–or any kind of excellence in building–is attention to detail.  Here is a prime example:  air tight design, even under a concrete slab.  If there is any hope hitting that hitting that important mark of 0.6 ACH@50PA–almost hermetic construction–it will be achieved by sealing every penetration in the building envelope.  



Work on the Passive House continues in Derwood, Maryland. The rough plumbing that goes under the slab–or “groundworks”–is now in place. You can see stubs of white pipes sticking up where the bathroom, powder room, kitchen, and laundry are located. The interior of the foundation has been backfilled with gravel, and is now being capped read more


“there is no separation between sustainability and design excellence”

From some comments on what underlies sustainable design by William Leddy, FAIA. Although he does not mention them by name, Leddy puts into perspective our arguably exaggerated emphasis on green certification programs such as LEED and Passive House: “‘Green’ design is ‘good’ design…Sustainable design isn’t just about engineering and building codes. It isn’t just about read more


New Passive House Under Way in Derwood, Maryland

One of the most gratifying moments in the course of any project–whether for a new home or an addition–is that point when the foundation is in place. The design has long been completed, and has been finally approved by Montgomery County. The Passive House analysis and design features have been precertified by PHIUS. The bank has read more


The Greenbuilding Advisor features our recent Condo Renovation Project



a not-so-enthusiastic review of Passive House

Sandy Keenan reports on the status of Passive House in the New York Times. Her story is somewhat glib–what’s really interesting are the readers’ comments. They demonstrate a lack of understanding–as well as a lack of appreciation for how new the Passive House system is, and the speed at which it is adapting to the read more


Marcus Sims and Treincarnation

There have been countless decisions involved in this latest project:  renovating another apartment here at Parkside Plaza, and leaving the home that Janet and I have shared for the past seven years.  But no decisions have been so gut wrenching as what to do with some of the built-in features by our friend Marcus Sims, read more


A Shortcut To Sustainable Living: Downsize!

Sustainable Living Through Sustainable Design The purpose of sustainable design and green building is to achieve sustainable living.  To do this, we attempt to make best possible use of the assets at hand.  That could mean designing and building from scratch.  It could also mean taking an existing dwelling and nudging it in the direction read more


Correction! PHPP is not free!

In my recent blog “Makin’ WUFI,” I misspoke:  PHPP, the Passive House Planning Package is not free, not even to those who payed to enroll in Passive House training.  When the New York Times or Washington Post makes a mistake, it is published on page two in fine print.  When I make a mistake–particularly about read more


stirring the passive house pot

Martin Holliday, Senior Editor for the Green Building Advisor, recently posted a provocative critique of the passive house system on his blog: http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/passivhaus-buildings-don-t-heat-themselves In his blog, Martin identifies the most challenging issue in creating a passive house:  the design of its mechanical systems–particularly in terms of managing excessive heat gains. As the lively array of read more


Is Sustainable Affordable? Yes, even at a macro scale

The question, is sustainable affordable not only applies to such relatively trivial decisions as ceramic tile for a backsplash–but also occurs at a macro scale.  This morning, Stanley Reed for the New York Times reports on how investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy systems–in this case, wind farms in Sweden–can be read more


Phoenix Haus: the Modular Passive House

I am pleased to announce that I will be helping to develop modular Passive House designs for Phoenix Home Performance of Saginaw, Michigan.  The Phoenix Haus concept of super-insulated, factory built homes meeting the rigorous Passive House energy standard is the brainchild of the company’s visionary founder, Bill McDonald. The goal is to make passive house available read more


New Home Project achieves Passive House Precertification

After five rounds of revision, PHIUS has awarded the Grant Home project Passive House Pre-Certification status.  Youzza!  The reviewers delved into every detail of insulation, windows, and mechanical systems–even the amount of tree cover around the house site. The easy part is over.  Now, all we have to do is build it.  Over to you, read more


Ann Edminster, Green Building Advisor with a revolutionary mindset

In my last post, I mentioned that sustainabililty is a mindset. Ann Edminster, in a 2011 Green Building Advisor post “High Performance and Net Zero Homes” develops this concept, with revolutionary fervor, and no holds barred.   Her thesis is that for the green builder, there is a hierarchy of tools for transforming how we design read more


Is Sustainable Affordable, Part 2

Getting back to the core question:  “Is sustainable affordable?” The answer first requires a definition of sustainability—and offers an opportunity to distinguish sustainability from “Green.”  A sustainable method or material—or more importantly—a sustainable project, is one that can be produced in a way that does not significantly compromise other’s ability to produce the same thing read more


Is sustainable affordable? Part One

  “Doesn’t sustainable cost more?” a potential client asked me recently.  Normally at such times, a succinct answer to such a complicated question eludes me, but with a rare burst of presence I replied, “If something’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable.” But all this hides the more fundamental issue:  is this thing in question—which may read more


Makin’ WUFI – a new direction for Passive House

If you are ever suffering from insomnia, call me, and I will tell you all I learned about WUFI-Passive.  It is the blessing (or curse?) of geekdom that led me enroll in a three day long WUFI-Passive training class (sponsored by PHIUS—the Passive House Institute of the United States) in downtown Chicago last week. Don’t read more


Walking the Walk: A Green Builder Responds

Alan’s response to Janet, on the renovation of Apartment #1807 I’m not a fanatic by nature, and I’m really uncomfortable being a scold.  But to be a green builder requires being both. That’s because for every way to do something green, there are fifty ways to fall short.  Fifty ways to do it faster, more read more


A Small Design Build Firm Goes Green

by Janet Kinzer Alan Abrams, my husband, has been designing and building and renovating houses since he was a young man.  He’s been a green builder, building with a focus on sustainability for more than a decade now, and that is about how long we’ve been together.I remember, very early in our relationship, when he read more


The Human Factor Strikes Again–Energy Efficient Device Backfires

Following up on the frustrations of dealing with human frailty… With the arrival of our new chief building engineer, Robert Burgess, Parkside Plaza (my home) has been greening up. Robert is a LEED certified professional, and has been aggressively finding ways to reduce energy consumption in our 250 unit building, replacing fan controls, balancing pumps read more


Green Remodeling and Addition Project Nearing Completion

Green Remodeling: The Proof Is In the Energy Efficiency Test Results The countdown is on.  It’s seven days til move-in, as this Arlington, VA green remodeling and addition project nears completion. This green remodeling includes a three story addition, with new master suite on the second floor, a mud room, breakfast room and family room read more



what is it about curves, that add a sense of delight to space? photos by Ken Wyner a kitchen renovation near downtown Silver Spring. the arch and woodwork is made from urban harvest cherry, by treincarnation addition and kitchen renovation near downtown Silver Spring. the archway was created to link the old kitchen area with read more


Progress on our Passive House Project

The architectural portion of the plans for the new Passive House in Derwood, MD has been approved by the Montgomery County building authorities.   Site plan review is on going. Concurrently, PHIUS‘s review of the project is nearly complete.   Ryan Abendroth and Lisa White have scrutinized nearly two dozen, densly detailed Excel worksheets that comprise the read more


Ken Wyner and Alice Ng

One of the great joys of this field is working with talented and inspired artists and craftspeople. Ken Wyner has never driven a nail on any of my projects, but he has become an essential part of the process. Most directly, he is a window to the outside world. Without the images he creates of read more


Passive House and Green Remodeling

SOME FOLLOW-UP on the “classic bungalow” project. It’s difficult enough to build a new Passive House–at least for someone (like me) who hasn’t built one yet –but to remodel an existing house to Passive House standards is, well, infernally difficult.  And to take a house in a historic district, where there are limitations to changes can read more


What A Green Builder Can and Cannot Do

A Classic Bungalow Made As Green As Green Can Be But…. photos by Ken Wyner A LITTLE OVER A YEAR AGO we completed a major renovation and addition project for a vintage bungalow in the Takoma Park, Maryland Historic District.  We made some minor changes to the interior walls, popped up the back half of read more


Does A Passive House Have To Look Weird?

The short answer is, no. The “Tyranny” of Passive House In his Discourses, Plato has Hippias The Sage assert that “…law is the tyrant of mankind, and often compels us to do many things which are against nature.” The Passive House system is truly rigorous.  Often it requires modifying a decision or restraining an impulse read more


Launching a New Passive House In Maryland

A Green Builder’s Dream Come True At long last, plans for my first Passive House—a new home in Derwood, Maryland for Anne and Elliot Grant—are ready to submit for a building permit.  It is truly exciting to have clients who are committed to what is possibly the highest standard for sustainable design:  the Passive house read more


My friend Joe

My dear friend Joe Gilday–who created this marvelous website–is trying to teach me how how to use keywords in these blog postings, so my random utterings will not sink unread into the murky depths of the internet.  He seems to think I am resistant, however.  This is my perspective: All this KEYWORD jazz is lamentable, read more


Green Builder Says Conventional Home Building Is Broken

My Inner Green Builder Cries Foul EARLIER THIS WEEK I had occasion to visit the home of a distant relative, the brother of a cousin’s wife, someone I barely know.  The man is a physician, a specialist, and it is clear from his home and its contents that his world is about his family, his read more


Sustainable Design: New Green Home Sits Gently On Sensitive Site

As green remodeling is by its nature limited to making improvements somewhat piece meal, the opportunity to build green from the ground up is a wonderful opportunity to take a holistic approach that opens the doors to a full range of sustainable design and green building techniques. Because this project called for a new custom read more


Passive Solar Addition Keeps Home Warm and Cool Naturally

The guiding principle of this three-story home addition project is its passive solar design.   Passive solar follows one of the first and most simple rules of sustainable design and green building.  That is to orient windows and walls to take advantage of the natural lighting, heating and cooling effects of the building site.   Deep read more


Clean Green Kitchen Remodel Transforms Sligo Creek Hills Condo

Living Large In A Small Footprint This remodeling project involved not only a green kitchen remodel but also the greening of an entire condominium unit.  It came from a couple’s desire to soften their impact on the Earth.  Theirs is certainly not the right choice for everyone but it was a change they felt ready read more


Green Roof Cools Home Addition in Takoma Park

Note: Alan Abrams designed this project on behalf of Heritage Building & Renovation, Inc. The decision to employ a green roof strategy on this project located near Washington DC evolved naturally from the objectives put to us by the client.  Those were: To create “a meaningful place” for the client’s string quartet to practice and read more


A Little Addition Achieves Net Zero Energy

Net Zero Energy Addition: An Addition that Subtracts Energy Costs Our subject for this project was a little house located in the heart of the Takoma Park historic district.  Our objective was to achieve a very high standard of energy efficiency.  Converting an existing screen porch into a sitting room we would increase the living read more


What is Passive House?

What Is Passive House Design Passive House design is extremely powerful because it achieves so much by doing so little.  The power of this approach comes from its stillness.  There aren’t a lot of moving parts demanding energy consumption.  So inhabitants enjoy year-round barefoot indoor comfort on a dime.  In the 1970’s we referred to read more


Passive House Consulting

passive house designer's rendering

Passive House Consulting by Abrams Design Build At this time there are approximately 200 Certified Passive House Consultants in the United States.  Alan Abrams of Abrams Design Build is one of them. When appropriate, Abrams applies Passive House principles to his green remodeling projects in Washington DC and Maryland.  He is also available to team read more


What is Green Remodeling?

In the near future green building and green remodeling won’t be identified as such because a sustainable design approach will have overtaken and replaced the status quo.  But for now, green and sustainable is the exception to conventional building and remodeling.  It is the best way to improve the performance of existing homes by making read more


A Design Build Approach to Green Remodeling

Design Build & Green Remodeling Alan Abrams takes a design build approach to all of his green remodeling and green building projects.  Alan’s body of work in Washington DC and Maryland demonstrates his commitment to perfecting a sustainable approach to making (or remodeling) real homes that people really love living in. With every client and read more


Net Zero Energy Additions

Net Zero Energy Home Addition: Get More Room For Less Energy Your growing family is pushing the limits of your lovely home.  You are fast running out of room and it’s way too much trouble to move.  This scenario is commonplace in metro Washington DC and our nearby Maryland suburbs due to the abundance of read more


Green Kitchen

Green Kitchens: Design & Remodeling In terms of taking a green design approach, a kitchen remodel is the most rewarding and fun type of project.  You and your designer may choose beautiful kitchen cabinets and finish materials (flooring, lighting fixtures, tile and countertops) that have been ingeniously fabricated from sustainably sourced, responsibly manufactured, leftover, re-used read more


Green Bath

What Makes A Bath Remodel Green When we talk about green bath remodeling we talk about water—how much we use, how much we waste and how much energy we expend to heat water and keep it hot.  So water conservation and energy conservation are the key points of focus in a green bath remodel.  Let’s read more


Our Passion for Sustainable Design


We all design our lives—intentionally or not. What if we could live every day in a way that was more in tune with nature? And what if we could build that way? The answer is we can. It’s a choice that requires intentional living and a deep level of care that results in sustainable design. read more


Our People


Alan Abrams, Owner Alan Abrams is a thinker who aspires to make things as he imagines them.  That explains his life long pursuit of the knowledge and technical expertise needed to carry out his vision. His self-propulsion, fueled by inspired stubbornness, shapes a dedication to “do better” that no failed idea can defeat. “The greenest read more


Press & Awards for Abrams Design Build


PRESS Washington Post September 2011 Article Home Designed For Aging ‘In Place’ Washington Post February 2011 Opinions Not To Worry, The Mall Can Absorb The Solar Decathlon letter to the editor in response to the article entitled “Give The Mall A Rest” Builder Magazine December 2010 Article Low Cost, High Style Frederick News Post November read more


Professional Affiliations


Alan Abrams maintains close professional affiliations with a small group highly regarded organizations in the sustainable design community.  Abrams Design Build has been recognized by and is an actively engaged member of the following professional organizations: AIBD—American Institute of Building Design NCBDC—The National Council of Building Designer Certification PHIUS—Passive House Institute US GBI—Green Building Institute read more


Praise for Abrams Design Build


“I didn’t seek out the green to begin with, but I found the designer and he brought the green along with him and I’m glad he did.” —William Flint, Silver Spring Maryland “The graciousness of the space, the placement of the windows, the way the walls and angles play off the light, and the beauty read more