Interview with Mariana Pickering: Women Driving the Passive House Industry

Women Driving the Passive House Industry is iPHA’s interview series to highlight the remarkable women working in the Passive House community. As part of our International Women’s Day celebrations, the iPHA team interviewed a handful of the many women who’ve contributed substantially to the growth of the Passive House Standard around the world. Here’s our latest interview featuring Mariana Pickering.

Mariana Pickering, Co-Founder of Emu, is a recovering architect and an expert in communicating the construction industry’s movement towards a better understanding of building science and sustainability. With over a decade of work on high-performance projects and products across three continents, she is passionate about translating data, results, and needs into stories that help shift the cultures and mentalities of building professionals towards change. Past experiences include interning with Bill Becker on the Presidential Climate Action Plan, acting as a 2017 founding member of Passive House Rocky Mountains, and being elected as the 2018-19 elected Chair of the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. She currently manages strategic partnerships and the licensing of Emu’s Certified Passive House Tradesperson curriculum, organizes the Colorado Passive House Happy Hour, and makes the wheels turn at Emu.

What drew you to your current profession in the building industry?

As a young child, I always wanted to be an environmentalist of some sort. I started an extracurricular club with a couple friends at the age of 7 called Kids for Saving the Wildlife. We took it very seriously – saving ALL the wildlife. So in high school, when I chose architecture as my path for University, I knew I would be most interested in making the built environment more environmentally friendly. During my undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, I was in the group of students that started the first sustainability workshop for the Architecture School there. By the time I was looking at Masters programs, I was drawn to the sustainable design program at the University of Sydney, which is where I ended up meeting my business partner, Enrico Bonilauri. We started as architects with a small studio in Italy, and as we got more and more interested in integrating responsible design practices, we quickly found the Passive House standard and adopted it as our internal benchmark. While my skill set was always more on the side of architectural design versus building science, like Enrico’s, I learnt to be a business owner and leverage our impact as much as possible. In 2017, we decided to move the company to Colorado and really focus on training and standardization of systems that would help our colleagues be able to reach Passive House in their own projects at a larger scale. That’s what draws me most to my current profession – figuring out how we can educate and spread knowledge about best practices to people who have the ability to make meaningful changes in the built environment.

How did you first get into the Passive House Community? Was it through a job? A specific project? What was your first impression?

As I mentioned, we were architects in northern Italy. We were intentionally seeking guidelines, certifications, and best-practice standards to serve as our framework for designing as best we could. Enrico, who speaks German as well, ended up taking a class with PHI, and we immediately fell “down the rabbit hole”. We were fortunate in that we were designing and building two homes for Enrico’s family members, who were more subject to our whims than a usual client. We convinced them of the standard we wanted to pursue, and I think they were just along for the ride based on our passion. It was a fantastic opportunity for us to learn as we designed and built, and we still monitor those houses to this day to learn from that process.

What made you decide to found Emu? Can you tell us a bit about your work?

The beginnings of Emu (Emu Architetti when we started) were really born out of necessity. Enrico and I arrived in Italy, fresh out of our Masters degrees, right in the middle of the economic crisis of 2009. Jobs in our industry were impossible to find, and so we picked up a couple of small projects for friends and family to get by. One thing led to another, and we found ourselves deciding to name our business Emu – as you could write that word the same way in English and Italian, and it reminded us of our Australian experience. When we pivoted in 2017 to the US market and a focus on training and systems, it was a very intentional move for us. We felt that, as architects, we only had an impact on a project by project basis, but we had a lot more to share that could have a wider audience. We have both always had a thirst for learning and an education-first approach to everything. I was raised by two teachers, myself. So with the current form of Emu, it’s really all about removing hurdles to better building for other professionals – mainly through training and standardized systems. Our aim is to help make Passive House more accessible and less niche. Our company mission, which we repeat to ourselves and our community frequently, is to close the gap between mainstream construction practices and advanced building science.

What do you like most about working in the Passive House industry?

Honestly, I think it’s that I can sleep at night knowing we are a part of the most progressive and forward-thinking folks in the construction industry. I genuinely believe that the built environment is the largest contributor to the human footprint on this planet, especially when you consider all of the un-measurable factors like the physical and psychological health associated with spending time in buildings. The Passive House community understands that this standard is a performance metric, but must also be combined with good materials, water, and site practices. Often, professionals who practice Passive House also have deep knowledge in other areas of design – such as natural materials, biophilia, urban density, just to name a few. We are constantly challenging each other to do better, and there is always more to learn and then teach to others.

Mariana on a jobsite in Wyoming

What are your suggestions for talking to sceptical clients about the Passive House Standard?

The first thing I always say is that you should stop thinking about it as a “green” certification and start thinking about it as what building code should be. Codes are there to legally set the bar for what should be considered unsafe. It’s just that the bar that has been set, in most cases, is quite low and slow to change because of the nature of politics. Passive House demands a higher bar, and most importantly – a verifiably attainable one. Passive House standards are met all the time, all over the world, in all kinds of buildings, all kinds of construction methods, all kinds of markets. Dismissing the Passive House standard as unachievable diminishes the work of hundreds of professionals who have already done so.  For those who fall back on the typical complaint – “it might cost me more upfront” – I would argue that (a) it doesn’t have to, and many professionals have proven this as they learn how best to approach integrated design processes, and (b) step back and think about the word “cost”. How do you value your health? Your comfort? The durability of a structure that will live beyond you? What about your responsibility to future generations when you have the opportunity to build in a way which we know is better for their future? That may sound a bit sensational, but it’s true – we know that there are best-practices for achieving high performance and resiliency from our buildings. And people are still choosing to dismiss them in favor of incremental steps, rather than challenging themselves to learn more and contribute as much as they can to a solution. Because our clients are typically professionals already in the building industry, we also hear skepticism about the need for certifying to a standard this high. That skepticism takes the form of “why can’t I just apply the principles and do something better than it would have been, but not get the certification?” To this, I encourage them to consider the notion of accountability. Science journals do not publish research that has not been peer-reviewed – not because of a distrust that an author is competent, but because the verification and challenges put forth by colleagues strengthens the position and holds the author accountable. Certifying a project as Passive House is a decision to hold yourself and your work to a higher standard. Without that accountability process, even the best of intentions is subject to a slippery slope of compromises.

Do you think the general approach towards the implementation of the Passive House Standard changed over time? Did it make any substantial improvements?

Yes, I think once more aesthetically design driven projects started showing up, it made the whole idea more digestible and less scientific. It feels like there is a substantial increase in the momentum behind the U.S. Passive House movement now, versus 2017 when we first started working here. A critical mass of professionals are realizing that Passive House is not so difficult as they may have thought, and really comes down to embracing the concept of more open communication with the entire team earlier in the process. Combine that with builders who take pride in their craftsmanship, and you have already overcome most of the hurdles. As communication of Passive House experts gets better, those teams will be able to leverage their expertise more effectively. I think the community is also collectively getting better at explaining the benefits to the end users and paying clients.

You were also a founding member of Passive House Rocky Mountains and Chair of the Denver Chapter of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. Can you tell us about your work with those organisations?

When I arrived in Colorado, I wanted to get involved with organizations that supported professionals trying to implement best-practices in building. Regional and local chapters are a great way for like-minded professionals to share stories, commiserate, and learn together. Pre-pandemic, I used to host quarterly Colorado Passive House Happy Hours, and had up to 75 people attending at one point, complete with manufacturer expo tables and job announcements. I’m hoping to get back to that type of social outlet soon, and meanwhile I’m volunteering time with PHRM and NAPHN (North American Passive House Network) to help support those organizations as positive resources in the Passive House community. While I am no longer Chair of the Denver CRES chapter, as I now live in Ft. Collins, I enjoyed my time with that well-established organization, mainly as a leader for attracting younger folks to the Denver chapter. CRES has an incredibly committed group of experienced individuals who have been highly influential in the Colorado policy scene for decades. In the last couple of years, they have seen their hard work pay off with some incredible policy initiatives by the City of Denver toward more responsible practices.

What developments would you like to see in the future of the Passive House Industry?

I would love to see continued development in the translation of advanced building science to language more easily accessible to the masses. I have always been a storyteller, myself, and I think the power of the narrative is so important. The skill of storytelling is unfortunately one that is often deferred by the more scientifically-minded experts, but they are the ones with the best stories to tell! I’d love to see our industry attract more people who are experts at communicating complicated information without sacrificing quality of information.

What did you think of the interview? Let us know! If you liked this one, then maybe you would enjoy the previous interviews of the series. You can find them here.

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