Report and Insights From The Passive House Conference – Part 1

A school in Reidberg, Germany, built using the passive house approach
A school in Reidberg, Germany, built using the passive house approach

I got back yesterday from the 13th Annual Passive House Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. My biggest takeaways from the conference are:

  • While the growth of passive houses in Europe is impressive, even in Europe there are still marketing challenges
  • The opportunity to use energy efficient buildings as a hedge against climate change is immense
  • We are way behind on energy efficient building here in the U.S. – in fact, essentially no one in the U.S. is doing this kind of building.

Over the next few days I’ll be posting about things I learned at the conference, and also about the implications of what I saw for building – and for climate change mitigation – in the U.S.

Not only are there more than 30,000 certified Passive House buildings in Europe, representing a lot of tons of CO2 averted, their level of building science and technology is very advanced. The exhibitors showed a number of innovative insulation materials (most of which are not available in the U.S.), many different very highly efficient window and door options (most of which are not available in the U.S.), highly efficient heat recovery ventilation systems (most of which are not available in the U.S.), and several innovative building technologies (available in the U.S.? I don’t think so). Even so, I thought the exhibition was remarkably small, with about 70 vendors, indicating that even in Europe, there’s a huge amount of growth potential.

Several of the presentation sessions reported on studies comparing the performance of buildings constructed or renovated using the [intlink id=”368″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]passive house approach[/intlink] – super-insulated, super-airtight, with heat recovery ventilation – to buildings using other energy efficiency approaches such as the European “low energy house” standard (which is more similar to U.S. energy efficiency codes). They found, as expected, that energy use in the passive house buildings, as well as comfort levels and measured air quality levels, were significantly improved. One study compared to identical apartment buildings, next to one another on the same street, one of which was renovated as a passive house, the other as a low energy house. Both buildings were instrumented with a variety of sensors, and then tracked over a two year period. The energy bills for tenants in the passive house were 1/3 those for the low energy house.

Obviously, these results reflect not only a savings for the tenants, but also a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, at a relatively low additional cost for the building.

Some future post topics:

  • What do you do if you want to build a highly efficient house, using the passive house approach, in the U.S.?
  • How does the passive house approach compare to other energy efficiency and “green” standards like California’s Title 24, LEED, Green Point Rating, and HERS?
  • How does the passive house approach work for buildings other than single-family residences?
  • If passive houses are so great, how can we get more of them in the U.S., and what will it take to make a significant dent in the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions via energy efficient buildings?
  • How do passive houses and  “zero net energy” interact?
  • How about passive houses in temperate and semi-tropical climates like California and Florida, where it’s not heating, but cooling, that takes the most energy?

If you have other questions about the passive house approach or the conference, let me know in the comments and I’ll tell you what I know or find some answers for you.

6 thoughts on “Report and Insights From The Passive House Conference – Part 1”

  1. Great post nils and looking forward to more insights you had from the conference. I have been a bit obsessed with the Passiv Haus standard for the past two years and finally decided to call up PHIUS and have a go at building one on a budget. I’ll take a quick stab at your bullets at the end of the post.

    – Now, you have to contact one of the very few licensed Passiv Haus consultants. PHIUS is training more, but we are using them now due to lack of anyone else more local.

    – Passiv Haus blows the energy portion of LEED away in terms of requirements. If you build a Passive House in the US, you will get so many points from LEED that it will be a piece of cake to hit your target level in other categories. Energy Star requires a HERS of 85 in the US and a Passiv Haus will hit well below 50 most likely. There is no comparison in the US in terms of efficiency, bottom line.

    – Works pretty much the same for buildings other than single family. Standards remain the same and measures to achieve them will differ. It is not a completely different set of rules like LEED.

    – Either the market has to demand Passive Homes or government has to enact regulations to increase demand in the US. I don’t see either happening any time soon, but we can always hope.

    – Passive Houses and Net Zero Energy interact perfectly. With a properly built Passive House, NZE can be met with as little as a 2kW array. That’s tiny when most need 5kW or more to even get close. The upgrade cost is a very reasonable decision for any home buyer at less than $15K before incentives…

    – I can’t comment too much on this one, but the same principles should apply. Passive solar shading will be even more important in these climates and ventilation during cool nights if possible could eliminate the majority of the need for mechanical cooling during the day.

    Chad Ludeman’s last blog post..Postgreen at the 2009 Family Energy Festival

    1. Chad – thanks for the comments. I’m completely in agreement with you on the passive house approach. Once you look at the way it works, it’s obvious that to truly get an energy efficient building, you do it the passive house way. Regarding the market demand, that’s where I see my role – I’m not a builder or an architect, but I am a marketer. (There’s also a need to get some incentives in place from local, state and Federal agencies, which I’m also working on.)

  2. Hi Nils: I’m enthusiastic about the Passive House idea. My thought, though, is that people can do a lot of changes to their houses without going whole hog. For cooling, for instance, 1) get your roof changed to white, or almost white. And, of course, make sure it is well insulated. 2) Install enough photovoltaics to run your air conditioner. (Does the Passive House require ANY electricity?) For water heating, install enough of a solar water heater to meet your needs. What does the Passive House do for hot water?
    For heating, When it’s time for a new furnace put in a ground source heat exchanger, with heating coils just under your floor. Yes, It’s expensive, but it really works and uses power mainly to drive pumps. It will also replace your air conditioner and your hot water heater. The question is, can we save the environment by these kinds of incremental changes?

  3. Great article Nils and I will be back to read some more about the conference. I appreciate all your good information and presentation. I am going to a conference (Ethics) this week but it is just across the State! How lucky for Germany.

    Tom’s firm made some more inroads on the new Pierce College Science Building and some new windows are going to be used and now it looks like they can go ahead with some solar panels. Finally, finally – this is exhausting.
    Where are those incentives?

    Seems like we should be further down the pike on these issues.
    Thank you for this good “stuff”

    Patricia’s last blog post..Winning Homes

  4. Nils,

    I came back from the conference energized. We need to move the bar in America and not settle for marginal reductions. Creating markets for these types of buildings will allow US manufactures to do R&D and provide more options. While I admit some frustration with our Country I am also optimistic that once people are aware of these options the industry can change. Spread the word!

    1. Jarrod – I’m with you on this – I think the tide is going to turn on super efficient buildings. People want energy efficiency, and they think they’re getting that with LEED and all, but as we know, those don’t guarantee anything about energy efficiency. I believe that as people begin to learn the reality, how easy it is to get really efficient buildings, they’re going to step up. And that’s our job – to let them know, and to get make sure builders and suppliers can respond to the growing demand.

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