PassivHaus – Is it the Future of Home Building?

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The idea of energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions is not a new one. But it is one we are hearing more and more about in recent times. and when it comes to reducing energy, the name PassivHaus can easily be thrown into the conversation.

The Architecture?

Passivhaus architects are the people who are carrying forward the method designed by Dr Wolfgang Feist in Germany. The method first came to the fore some two decades ago, so you could say he was ahead of his time. His method for home building doesn’t focus on CO2 emissions or using materials from sustainable sources. Instead it focuses on building homes with two energy requirements – that of space heating and another which applies to other energy requirements as well. These include main appliances and hot water.

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Do we need to ensure we adhere to the ideals of this method?

In a word, no. In the UK we have to build according to the Code for Sustainable Homes. Some self builders are excited about the German model for building and are sticking with this method too, giving themselves even more targets to hit in the process.

But how effective is the PassivHaus standard? The cost of a new build is typically worked out to how much you pay per square metre. It has been calculated that this German ideal will cost you significantly more to adhere to, as it affects every single part of your new home. Suddenly a standard that sounded like very good news doesn’t sound quite so appealing, especially since this is optional and the Code in the UK is mandatory.

Does it suit your lifestyle?

This is the main thing to think about before you opt to meet the conditions imposed by one of these German houses on top of the conditions applied through the Code for Sustainable Homes. If you were to compare a Code built home with one built to the German standard, the main source of energy is very different. More than half the energy in the PassivHaus goes to power, while just over half the energy in a Code built home is given to space heating. In fact the amount of energy given to power in a UK Code built home is half that of the PassivHaus.

So you have to bear this in mind when you are thinking about this option on top of the requirement laid down by the Code for Sustainable Homes. If you are going to build a brand new home you have to adhere to the Code. But you don’t have to pay any attention to the ‘passiv’ way of building. While some home builders have become obsessed with the German way, it may not have been prudent to do so. After all, it is said the UK Code for Sustainable Homes provides a far more in depth and demanding set of criteria to adhere to. Isn’t that the main thing you should bear in mind when building your own eco-friendly home?

What are your thoughts on PassivHaus?

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Comment by Tom DelConte on February 27, 2013 at 2:37pm

I want a house built to PassivHaus, DOE Challenge, LEED, EnergyStar, RESNET, BPI, IECC, and IBC current standards, with extra insulation! There's only one problem: this is our last home. We were fortunate to have this as our second tract(not custom) home built for us, and we are some of the lucky ones. Most people purchase used, never called that, but politely called previously existing, housing. They don't care what it's certified, and most people in the U.S. don't care about having low heating/cooling/dehumidification/fresh air bills. They don't understand insulation types, heating, cooling, economization, or optimization. They've been sold on the idea that an internet connected smart thermostat will make them happy with convenience!

My propane supplier just visited so I could talk to him while he installed an hvac heat pump fan which I purchased on the internet for $76. I paid him $150, as we didn't have time to do it ourselves. I believe that I'm the 'world expert' on this York Stellar Dual Fuel System, because I've never met a techician who understood it. I've never met another person who can give me a reasonable answer on building science, design, light bulbs, etc. Where have all the Joe DiMaggios gone? The answer is always just what the have on the shelf to sell, including the management of the leading home energy publication!

 While he was here I picked his brain on a new heat/cool/water system to replace this 22 year old system. He told me $7000 to $9000 on his favorite brand, which has low durability. And he's a good guy!

I believe the real problem in low energy housing that we've been discussing really has to do with two things: personal integrity, and newly built costs. It has nothing to do with building codes. It also has to do with vested interests.

Until the leaders and people in the HVAC, architecture, building, design, and code bureaucrats decide to become honest people, not looking out for their own interests, we are lost in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Living in a U.S. Passivhaus would be like living in a Disney World Epcot Center Fantasy Home. Enjoy!

Comment by Greg La Vardera on February 27, 2013 at 2:04pm

If there was such an insulation, it would be expensive - because it was doing something that other insulations could not. And the manufacturer would know it, and they would price it accordingly. That is the way the world works, unless you want to wait for some disruptive product that is cheap and exceeds standard performance levels - but that's a hail Mary pass. You are not going to count on that.

Better performance costs more. You get better performance by putting more value into walls, and that value costs more to build. You do it because that value saves you more in energy than it costs. Always. Its just the return time that varies, and the amount of time somebody will spend in a house determines wether that payback period will make sense in the market.

But this is not universal. There are people out there with the long view, and they would obviously be the target market to serve. And in the process of serving them you teach builders how to build more efficiently to higher performance standards and you spread the word. When people start demanding better from spec builders, then they will pay attention. When they can't sell their houses as fast as the guy with higher R-Values then they will start changing the way they build. 

And cinching the codes up behind them makes sure they don't turn back.

Comment by Ken Watts on February 27, 2013 at 12:10pm

Greg, I agree with you that codes will not make an immediate difference.  So what can?  We need innovative building products that result in improvement in building performance at near the same cost.  Builders would embrace these products and codes would follow.  Maybe we need more money in product research and development.  For example, if we had a closed cell spray foam insulation with an R-value of 7, seals, adds structural support and was environmental friendly, builders would embrace it and building performance would improve.

Comment by Greg La Vardera on February 27, 2013 at 11:19am

I find that to be a pretty meager improvement over 40 years.

And Code does not provide for retrofitting of the vast body of existing houses which are the ones using all the energy. Building codes are just not the way to make a difference. You need to focus on other efforts. Codes will take care of themselves.

Comment by Jim Baerg on February 27, 2013 at 10:43am

If you compare the energy codes of the late 1970s to the 2012 IECC you get this for Zone 6:  Ceilings, R-19 to R-49, Walls, R-11 to R-25, Basements, R-0 to R-19, Windows, U-.5 to U.32, Air leakage, no requirement to 3ACH, Lighting, no requirement to 75% high efficiency lamps.

To be clear, the 2012 IECC is a big step above 2009, and the 2012 is just starting to be adopted around the country.

Compliance with new code requirements is dependent on variable enforcement by code officials, but over time, construction practices do follow the code.


Comment by Greg La Vardera on February 27, 2013 at 6:32am

"Stricter codes are the only answer"

And how has that worked for you for the past 40years since the global oil crisis made the man on the street realize energy was an issue? That was in the mid 70s, and how much progress have we made with codes?

Cheap natural gas has been a big blow to convincing people to build high performance houses, no doubt. We may be another 40years.

Comment by Ken Watts on February 26, 2013 at 10:51pm

How do you convince a client to add more insulation, use better windows, or seal a house better when natural gas prices are so low and going lower?  The client does not see a return on investment for decades.  "Follow the money."

Stricter codes are the only answer but it is a hard sell because natural gas is cleaner than coal.

Comment by Greg La Vardera on February 26, 2013 at 12:45pm

Right - codes bring up the rear. This is why the notion of instituting a leading edge certification like Passive House as a code is preposterous. PH advocates really don't need to delude themselves this way. There are so many more productive ways to apply yourself. Model wall systems for your particular climate based on your PH software tools. Bringing homeowners around to demanding more performance. Thats where we need to concentrate to make headway.

Comment by Jim Baerg on February 26, 2013 at 11:17am

The IBC is upgraded every 3 years nationally, as is the IECC (International Energy Conservation Code). Each state has the option of adopting these new codes.  Currently, most states are using the 2006 or 2009 IECC.  The 2012 code has been adopted nationally and includes some substantial energy upgrades.

Generally, programs such as LEED, Energy Star, and Passiv Haus are voluntary programs intended to develop technologies and practices.  The Energy Codes bring up the bottom, where most houses are built.

Comment by Tom DelConte on February 26, 2013 at 7:07am

David, we in the U.S. have a standardized building code. It's called the International Building Code, published in 1997, and adopted by most municipalities by 2000. Chicago is the exception, but as you know, they do everything differently there! It may be lacking in extreme energy specifications, we live here, so we know that doesn't matter. Your energy bill is strictly up to you. You have personal freedoms in the U.S. that most other parts of the world don't enjoy! Just enjoy them.

We have the right, by birth, to: use as much fuel, electricity, and water as we would like to. It's called in the rest of the world " American Arrogance." You have the right to bear firearms, even against your own government, in the gold old constitution. Enjoy it while it lasts. When China actually becomes the largest economy in about 15 years, many of your personal freedoms will end when they become the world's protector and traffic cop. This is not a political opinion, just reality. Burn as much as you can, right now, or save as much as you'd like, right now, it's up to you, the individual.

If there are about 500,000 homes in the U.S. built within the last three years without energystar specs, so be it.

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