Building for a Changing Climate in DC's Ice Box Challenge

As temperatures in DC’s Farragut Square hovered around a hundred degrees this July, faces started sweating, ice cream started dripping, and two 1,800-pound blocks of ice started melting. 

The European Union (EU), be.brussels, Golden Triangle Business Improvement District (BID) and Nicholson Kovalchik (NK) Architects partnered together to create DC’s Ice Box Challenge from July 7-20 to break the ice on energy-efficient architecture.   

“It is a fun public science experiment,” executive director of the Golden Triangle BID Leona Agouridis said at the big reveal party in Farragut Square. “The goal of this experiment is to compare the impact of energy-efficient building practices to building-code standard practices.” 

ice boxes in Farragut square
Ice boxes in Farragut square. Photo by Rina Torchinsky

The exhibition featured two seven-foot-tall boxes, each loaded with an 1,800-pound block of ice. One was coated in a patchwork of reds and pinks and built to standard building code, while the other was covered in a collage of cool colors and built to a higher-performance Passive House standard. The “challenge” was to see which box preserved its block of ice the best.  

Both boxes were painted by Belgian street artist Oli-b. While his bright brushstrokes were purely aesthetic, the vivid colors likely played a role in attracting over 300,000 passersby to the chilly challenge over a span of two weeks. 

When the boxes were lifted from their pedestals at the end of the challenge, 460 pounds of ice remained in the standard building code box (image below), and nearly twice that—838 pounds of ice—remained in the Passive box (header image). Given the energy-efficient architecture, it comes as no surprise. 

standard house reveal
Reveal of the ice left in the standard house. Photo by Rina Torchinsky

Passive House is a green-building certification that requires new construction and retrofits to adhere to high standards of energy efficiency. According to NK Architects, the high-performance standard can reduce building energy by 75 percent. 

The buildings often feature triple-glazed windows, shading devices, and exterior insulation. The shades and windows harness natural light while preventing overheating. Between the heavy-duty windows and insulation, these buildings are completely sealed.  

“I like to describe [a Passive House building as] kind of like a thermally insulated lunchbox,” staff architect Alyssa Swisher of NK Architects said.  

Because there is minimal airflow, the buildings feature energy-recovery ventilation that supplies a steady source of fresh, filtered air. Due to the lack of ductwork, Passive House design allows for more flexibility in the floor plan, according to owner of Crux Homes, CJ Thouret, who built the colorful boxes. 

“It isn’t a matter just concerning energy, but of providing buildings that are just simply better,” CEO of Passive House Canada Robert Bernhardt said. “They’re more comfortable, have better air quality, they remain cool in the summer, warm in the winter, [and] they’re free of mold and mildew.” 

Brussels, Belgium, the headquarters of the EU, began requiring the Passive House Standard for all new construction in 2015. Since the switch, there has been a 15 percent reduction in energy consumption and a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the city, according to the Delegation of the European Union to the United States.  

Ambassador to the US David O’Sullivan said in a press release that Passive House construction has played a significant role in helping the EU to reach ambitious energy-efficiency targets it set starting in 2016. 

"We're already seeing the benefits of new energy-efficiency measures in the European Union with lower energy bills, more comfortable dwellings,” O’Sullivan said.  

Given that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in DC are derived from commercial and residential buildings, a move to high-performance buildings could greatly reduce DC’s carbon footprint. 

“If we really focus our energies on energy-efficiency and buildings, we can actually have quite a bit of impact,” EU programs officer Tim Rivera said.  

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