PassivHaus – Is it the Future of Home Building?


Image source: www.huntwriter.com

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.


Image source: http://blogs.umass.edu

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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Tags: Code, Homes, PassivHaus, Sustainable, efficiency, energy, for

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Comment by David Eakin on February 25, 2013 at 3:54pm

Tom - but at a rate of about 760,000 total new homes built in the USA (which, again, will be with us for the next 100 years), it is a very small success.  And now with Energy Star for New Homes V3, many previous builders are dropping from the program (that "profits being #1" thing again) and sticking to "code built" houses. If typical home buyers bought new houses more frequently then they might be incentivized to learn about advanced building science options.  But if you're only building 1 or 2 per lifetime, most individuals are prone to implicitly trusting the builders/sales agents (which the builders just love - after all, their houses meet code).  Now if the USA had a single, high-performance building code to go along with our advanced national energy policy...

Comment by Tom Delconte on February 25, 2013 at 1:24pm

OK, lets use the 80/20 rule: More than 130,000 new homes earned the ENERGY STAR in 2011. That means there must be more than 250,000 new Energy star homes out there somewhere in the good old U.S.A.! Compare that to a mere 14,000 energy efficient homes certified under the DOE Challenge home program. Bottomline: DOE Challenge home program hardly exists, also, why do we have the DOE? It doesn't do anything, does it? Didn't at least one politician want to eliminate it, for that reason? At least the USEPA does something for our tax buck!

Comment by Greg La Vardera on February 25, 2013 at 11:57am

"the DOE has integrated Passive House into their "Challenge Home" standard"

That is not quite how your link reads. It simply states cooperation, and explains that the Challenge Home Standard is a bit less stringent than Passive House, and that "DOE Challenge Home certification will be a prerequisite for projects achieving PHIUS+ Certification". This seems unremarkable as any PH qualifying project will have exceeded the Challenge Home cert by definition. 

I'm sorry, I read your post to suggest that the two were equal, when clearly they are not. I would even say "Integrated" is a reach. Perhaps my misunderstanding, but worth a clarification. I don't read into it any suggestion that a merge of the standards is inevitable, although it would look like a good strategy for PH as Energy Star is much more widely known and accepted. However even the lite Energy Star is far from being universally required by code. 

I think in the end its more instructive to look to places like Sweden who have already completely changed the standards with which they build. In their case codes took up the rear, following the market trend, and not driving it. The future of Home Building is not Passive House. It is increasing market demand for better performance. Builders will implement that through adoption of higher performing standardized assemblies, not by hiring Passive House consultants.

There is a lot we can do to hasten that outcome along. I don't happen to think that focusing on certification standards is the way to do it.

Comment by Graham Irwin on February 25, 2013 at 11:31am

Tom,

I would add that the DOE has integrated Passive House into their "Challenge Home" standard, which is the flagship program for Energy Star: http://apps1.eere.energy.gov/news/progress_alerts.cfm/pa_id=787

Personally, my intention is not to "bother" anyone, but to ensure that correct information is presented. I would also suggest that the details are extremely important. A good deal of money has been, and will be, spent on response to climate change and its impacts. My strongly-biased view is that the Passive House focus on building efficiency is the most cost-effective approach and that this stuff really does matter!

Cheers,

Graham

Comment by Tom Delconte on February 25, 2013 at 11:11am

Hello Lenka,

I feel passivated by PassivHaus! Just kidding, being a Thomasinkopf! ( a Dumkopf). Kidding again.

Ok, in all seriousness to some of these commenters, how do the fine details matter here. We all know what is going on in the U.S., and we all know that a Euro standard is not going to happen here! For new homes, basically only Energy Star matters here. It's taking hold by new builders here. For used homes here, nothing matters. Energy Star doesn't apply, and only LEED and other pseudo certifications matter here, but no one will pay for a certification on a used house in the U.S. At least it's rare.

As far as the U.S. government and U.S. labs are concerned homes here built after year 2000 are "good." It's just assume that they save energy compared to homes built before year 2000 which are labeled "bad." Eventually the U.S. national BOCA building code will catch up, but there's no rush, since anyone with a bit of good old american horse sense(common sense) understands that we are way past the CO2 tipping point globally, which has been confirmed by the 'father of global warming.' check wikipedia!

Why bother the only poster who's doing a great job of posting articles that are one: on point, two: timely?

ps : I also translated for & defended Dr. Thomas Pabst, originator of TomsHardware.com, who became a multi-millionaire when he sold it!

Comment by Graham Irwin on February 25, 2013 at 9:54am

Lenka,

I was confused by a number of assertions in your article:

1) You state that PassivHaus (Passive House) does not focus on CO2 emissions. In actuality, the standard sets a limit on primary energy, which is directly correlated with CO2 emissions, and the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) modeling software computes both carbon emissions from energy use and reductions brought by photovoltaic systems. I have no experience with British building codes, but I can say from experience that Passive House addresses building energy use (and associated CO2 emissions) in a more stringent and comprehensive way than any other methodology I've seen in the US.

While net-zero and/or carbon neutrality are not required, Passive House efficiency make these targets easy to reach. Ultimately, Passive House yields far lower "gross" CO2 emissions than a "net" scheme with higher energy consumption and renewable production, which means a lower environmental impact from building operation.

The Passive House standard is completely focused on energy efficiency. As you assert, ecological building materials are not required/specified/mandated, but are considered "best practice." In this way, Passive House dovetails nicely with other sustainability metrics that are broader in scope but shallower on energy efficiency.

2) You state that "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." Again, unfamiliar with the specifics of UK construction, If I apply this statement to the US, it is certainly true that a much higher percentage of total energy use goes for heating in a code home than a Passive House and, conversely, that a higher percentage of total energy use goes to appliances and lighting in a Passive House than in a code home. Regardless of the percentages, however, Passive House has a much lower absolute allowance for both space heating AND appliances and lighting. I wonder if this is the case in the UK as well? If so, your conclusion that "...the amount of energy given to power in a UK Code built home is half that of the PassivHaus." would not hold true. If your statement is true, the allowance in UK Code for lighting and appliances is startlingly low, for Passive House power limits are stringent!

3) While Passive House is a voluntary system in much of the world, it is widely recognized as an unprecedented target for efficiency. If it is true that "...the UK Code for Sustainable Homes provides a far more ...demanding set of criteria to adhere to." it is indeed noteworthy news, particularly if it also achieves such performance at a lower cost. I would welcome more details if this is the case but caution you to avoid jumping to conclusions if it is not.

Thanks,

GRAHAM IRWIN
principal
 
CPBD, CGBP, LEED AP
Passive House Consultant & Designer
 
ESSENTIAL HABITAT
healthy spaces for humans

 

Comment by David Eakin on February 25, 2013 at 9:42am

I wish the USA had a singular building code like you do in the UK.  I'm not familiar with the details of your building code, but it is much easier to update/change/enforce if there is only 1. And if energy costs keep doublling every 5 years (typically) future changes will definitely need to be made.  However if you use the logic that every home will last for around 100 years (a realistic goal if properly maintained), then the shell should be engineered to provide its occupants proper shelter, comfort, and energy efficiency for that future point - not for today's energy costs - since the shell cannot easily be improved (unlike windows, doors, appliances, HVAC systems, etc.)

RE Passive House (as it is known in the USA): it is a more stringent set of energy saving requirements than most building codes require, but these requirements can be achieved with little more trade training/attention to detail than most nay-sayers would admit (e.g., the air tightness requirements are frequently met or exceeded in my locale by non-Passive House builders; the thermal bypass issues can be overcome with more pre-construction planning/coordination; the thermal boundary in today's code building is only limited by the amount of glazing and insulation). Can Passive House construction costs be brought down to the same cost as code construction?  I have seen examples in both the UK and USA that say yes.  Will it necessitate additional planning, communication, inspections?  Yes - but those are all required (to a lesser degree) for any code-constructed home today; and all builders who want to maximize profits over creating excellent homes for customers have always complained about anything that does not add profit. Does building a Passive House necessitate building a custom designed house?  Not necessarily - it really depends on building code stringency, builder adoption and customer demand.  In fact, it should be much easier to construct Passive House-compliant modular homes where construction conditions, product variations, processes/quality, supply pipelines, available talent is constant versus the scattered examples we have currently.  And the cost per conditioned floor space measure will be dramatically reduced (as anything produced in mass quantities does).

I compare the home building industry of today with the automobile construction industry of the very early 1900's. Until Henry Ford developed the assembly line to construct automobiles that were affordable even to the factory workers, every automobile was constructed as a 1-off project even if there were interchangeable mechanical parts (demonstrated by the 1908 Cadillac - ironically the company was built on the previous Henry Ford Company assets after that firm was dissolved (it was Ford's second firm and his third firm - Ford Motor Company - is the one that succeeded)) and only affordable by the wealthy.  Sounds quite a lot like today's home building industry.

Comment by Jim Baerg on February 25, 2013 at 9:05am

Seems like a little German bashing going on.  Passiv Haus, of course, has been very influential.  Here's hopes for the Code, especially if it addresses demand loads to a similar extent.

Comment by Greg La Vardera on February 25, 2013 at 8:08am

On a practical level Passive House is a Custom Designed House paradigm. The question "PassivHaus – Is it the Future of Home Building?" is the same as asking "PassivHaus – Will Builders Be Willing to Spend Thousands on PassivHaus Consulting Where Previously They Spent None?"

Whats the answer to that question sound like?

Comment by Ken Watts on February 25, 2013 at 7:43am

CO2 can be removed from the discussion if homes are supplied with electricity from nuclear reactors.  Then the discussion is about efficiency and cost to home owners.  Nuclear reactors can supply electricity for 1000's of years, more if we build fast breeder reactors. 

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