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By building an ultra-energy-efficient home for his own family, Turett hoped to show clients what’s possible in sustainable design. (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

Wayne Turett’s modern Greenport house, overlooking North Fork nature and Sterling Harbor Basin, is truly an architect’s home. As I stepped inside for a tour this winter, my eyes traveled around the bright loft-like rooms to the sky-lit cathedral ceiling, mobile-like floating light fixtures and sky-high interior doors that elevated the space. Multiple sliding patio doors made it feel like a house of glass, and it was hard not to wonder on this chilly day, “How in the world do you heat this place?” 

The answer came as a large car barreled down Main Street, seen but not heard. “Triple-paned glass,” said Turett, an award-winning architect and principal of New York-based firm Turett Collaborative. “Keeps the sound and cold out, and the heat in. It’s all about sealing the envelope.”

Such is one key criteria for a passive house — or Passivhaus in Germany, where the movement originated in 1988. A passive house follows a voluntary yet rigorous standard for energy efficiency, which reduces the building’s ecological footprint and requires little energy for space heating or cooling. Turett’s carbon-neutral endeavor consumes about 90% less heating energy than existing homes and 75% less than average new construction.

Turett grew up on Long Island in North Bellmore and earned architecture degrees from the University of Illinois and Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He knew about energy-efficient design from his professional architectural training, but it wasn’t until he stayed in a true Passivhaus in Berlin — the residence of a friend of a friend — that he really got hooked on the movement. “That was the event that changed my passing interest to something more serious,” he said. “It was a real eye-opener that you could have a contemporary house with large windows that was extremely energy efficient.” 

After three years of research, sketching and planning, Turett designed his own all-electric house in Greenport, acting as the general contractor and overseeing each detail, from aesthetics to efficiencies. He completed it in 2018, and now spends most days on the North Fork with his family, returning to his Tribeca loft in Manhattan only once a week for client visits. North Fork living has long attracted Turett, who has owned three homes in the area in so many decades — a fixer upper on Shelter Island, another home in Greenport and now his first ground-up passive house. 

A Healthy Home

Turett’s healthy North Fork lifestyle – being outside, getting healthy food from the farms and sailing often – naturally spills over into his home, which isn’t merely energy efficient, but also promotes superior air quality. One key is to not use any gas. “My feeling about gas, be it in a kitchen range or in a house, is that it introduces toxic waste into your house,” said Turett. “Plus, it’s flammable, which can be dangerous. Cooking produces carbon monoxide, and if you don’t have a great ventilation system, you’re introducing pollutants into your home.” 

Turett designed exhaust ducts for the kitchen and bathroom that blend with the aesthetics of the home. “Many people don’t think to turn on their kitchen exhaust unless there’s smoke. But a passive house is constantly being exhausted, or vented,” he said. 

It saves money, too. His highly efficient Energy Recovery Ventilation, or ERV, unit vents indoor air and exchanges it for outdoor air with a strategic ducted heat pump. On a cold day, for example, the heated interior air vented to the exterior actually warms the chilly, fresh outside air on its way in. Separate ducts ensure no contamination occurs (the crossing airs never touch), and the warm air you just paid to heat doesn’t go to waste since it helps heat the air coming in. The system works in reverse in summer, with the exiting air-conditioned vented air cooling the warm outdoor air entering the house. The key is to keep windows closed and “the envelope sealed” in extreme temperatures. 

Another trick up Turett’s sleeve was strategic outdoor overhangs. The North Fork has four seasons, and it can be tricky for the layperson to imagine how a design that maximizes the sun to heat the home in winter won’t work against itself in summer. But the system works. “The sun has a higher arc in the summer and a lower one in winter, so it’s a bit of the law of averages to best capture it year-round,” explains Turett, who hasn’t gotten into solar panels … yet. To maximize the sun’s energy for his “upside down” house — which has ground-floor bedrooms and upstairs loft-like living space and kitchen — he strategically built overhangs. These help to prevent the higher sun in the summer from overheating the big rooms, yet allow the lower-angled winter sun  to come through.

Actively Spreading Passivity

Like the converted, Turett is eager to spread his passive house love on the North Fork, where he is expanding his architecture business. “You can’t push people into this, but I do try to explain that while there’s an initial outlay to create a better insulated, vented and sealed-up home, it does translate to smaller and therefore less expensive HVAC systems and lower energy bills each month.” 

You don’t have to build a passive house from the ground up like he did; there are ways to tiptoe into it with efficiency modifications. To seal your own envelope, for example, Turett advises homeowners to do an energy audit including a blower door test to spot leaks or drafts (residents may qualify for a free audit from PSEG or the nonprofit project Anyone can make an effort to better seal doors and windows, and some may want to invest in newer, larger windows for enhanced natural light, heating and fewer air leaks.

Then insulate, insulate, insulate. To skip chemical spray foams, Turett recommends a mineral wool insulation like Roxul, dense-packed cellulose, and notes some people even go au naturel with elements like raw wool. 

To improve air quality, assess via inspection which elements of the home may be “off-gassing” — meaning the release of airborne particulates or chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from common household products. In the attic, consider adding an ERV unit like Turett’s. Homes with ducted heat or cooling source can also follow Turett’s lead and add charcoal filtration to the HVAC system for additional purification. As Turett strives toward a more sustainable future, he is hopeful about the future of the North Fork, where home buyers contribute to Peconic Land Trust and ubiquitous farms inspire a healthy lifestyle. He’s also a realist. “As an architect I can introduce people to these concepts and they mostly get excited about a higher quality of inside air, less expensive heating/cooling bills and new sustainable materials,” he says. “But it’s complicated. I need the whole building ecosystem to get on board otherwise they can discourage homeowners from doing the right thing by saying that all this costs too much.”

He recognizes companies aren’t used to building the passive house way and says local regulations could do more to encourage energy efficiency. But he believes that with more houses pushing toward energy efficiency and sustainability, contractors will come around. 

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” he insisted. “I am OK with incremental change.”