On Thursday 23 April (tomorrow as I write this) I will be giving a brief talk about passive houses and my recent visit to the 13th International Passive House Conference in Frankfurt last week. The talk will be in San Francisco at the Prana Restaurant on Howard St., starting at 7pm.
[I] will provide a report on the 13th International Passive House Conference… This is the premier conference on passive homes, homes so energy-efficient that they don’t require a furnace or air conditioner to keep their occupants comfortable.
This meeting is designed for those interested in green homes to meet each other and discuss the topic. It is for anyone interested in building a green home or remodeling homes with green technologies/techniques. Learn about the techniques used and meet some of the green building thought leaders in the Bay Area. Architects, professional builders, suppliers, real estate agents, and anyone else with a special love of green homes are welcome to join in the discussion to help further general knowledge and interest. A great place to meet others with similar interests!
The location is:
540 Howard St
San Francisco CA 94105
I went to the Menlo Park City Council meeting last night to provide an in-person comment on their Climate Action Plan (CAP) draft. The draft has been circulating for comments for a few months and last night was the presentation of the comments from council staff to the council. As you may recall, my friend architect Matt Harris and I [intlink id=”450″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]provided a comment on the CAP[/intlink].
I have never been to a Council meeting before, so it was a new and very interesting and very long experience. The meeting started at 7pm, and the review of the CAP comments was agenda item F.2. Section F of the agenda was the most meaty, but even so it didn’t start until about 9pm. Agenda item F.1 consisted of staff recommending that the council find the traffic impact of a new development on El Camino Real (Menlo Park’s main street) was “not significant.” This consisted of a 1/2 hour presentation by two staff members who concluded that the development did not require installing “No Left Turn” signs at two intersections. The builder of the project, as well as the residents in the area agreed with staff on this point. It still took about fifteen minutes of council discussion to eventually agree. One of the council members did note that it seemed like a lot of effort to go to determine that no action was really required.
Anyway, that got done, then it was Climate Action Plan (CAP) time. The staff presented a summary of the comments, along with a request that that the council direct staff on how to proceed. Staff’s recommendation was that the draft plan be cleaned up with minor revisions, and published as version 1, acknowledging its shortcomings as delineated in the comments. They also recommended that the council further direct staff to begin work on a second version of the plan, addressing those shortcomings for publishing, with a target of publishing the second version in less than a year.
After the presentation from staff, the council accepted comments from the public. This was about 9:45 or later. There were two commenters. I was first, followed by someone from the Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens Committee, who recommended following staff’s proposal (as did I).
After introducing myself, I said:
First, I want to express my appreciation to the Menlo Park City Council and the staff for initiating the Climate Action Plan, and for soliciting and considering our comments on the first draft. (I was a commenter.)
I just came back from an energy efficient building conference in Germany. All over Europe they’re constructing and renovating buildings of all types, from single family residences to apartment buildings to schools to office buildings, to use 80-90% less heating and cooling energy. There are over 30,000 of these energy efficient buildings in Europe now, from Scandinavia to Italy and Spain, and the number is rapidly growing. They’ve avoided millions of tons of CO2 emissions. The city of Frankfurt, as well as other German cities, have committed to use these energy efficient approaches for all new and renovated municipal buildings. And the EU will soon be requiring all new buildings and renovations to meet the standard starting in 2016.
Energy efficiency of the built environment provides one of the best sources of leverage for municipalities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I’m happy to say that the initial version of the Menlo Park Climate Action plan suggests providing incentives for energy efficiency of new and renovated buildings. Future versions of the plan should then include specific performance standards for which incentives will be offered or specify that the planning commission will provide such a list, as well as the associated incentives.
Simply specifying a certain number of points on a LEED assessment or on a Green Point Rating assessment does not guarantee energy efficiency. Instead, I recommend the city specify specific energy efficiency performance standards, such as HERS, the German PassivHaus certification, or the TRNSYS building performance modeling tool.
The council thanked me and asked if I would be willing to provide additional information on these topics. I assured them I would. Then I sat down.
I stayed for another half-hour while the council discussed the CAP, then left to walk home at 10:30. They were still going, and there was still agenda item F.3 to go, which didn’t look it would start until after 11pm.
It was very interesting to see the wheels of local government moving (albeit slowly).
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.
David White, an architectural energy technical consultant at Transsolar, sent a letter to President Obama recommending the Passive House as a new energy efficiency standard:
I’d like to draw your attention to one approach to energy efficient building, which is called Passive House … the most stringent residential energy efficiency standard in the world.
White goes on to describe the Passive House approach in more detail, and ends with this call for a subsidy and/or mandate.
In considering how federal policy … one problem [with current mandates based on LEED, for example] is lack of assurance that the subsidies bring about real and cost-effective savings. Passive House certification offers a way through this: it ensures energy efficiency. … A subsidy of Passive House, or a US standard with the same level of quality assurance, would help defray added costs for early adoption and get a new industry on its feet.
This was recently reported on Danielle Sack’s Fast Company blog. Danielle went even further, suggesting that President Obama renovate the White House itself to Passive House standards!
I also found a link to a presentation David made at a conference covering some energy efficiency and solar power renovations he’s been involved with. The presentation also mentions the Passive House standard and shows some of the specific architectural details and mechanical systems used.
Someone entered this topic in an online forum to which I subscribe:
The main problem with lowering the carbon level is down to individuals, to behaviour, to good citizenship and that is the biggest challenge of all… how many times to you see careless behaviours? how do you change that?
I just had to respond. I think this attitude is the best way to make sure that end in the end, nothing good happens. I’m reprinting my comment on the topic below, unedited (even though you all know about passive houses already).
Individual action will not solve the problem. For example, my hobby horse is highly energy efficient buildings such as the Passive House approach. They use 80-90% less energy than a conventional house, at typically 5-10% higher cost to build. Simply building only passive houses and remodeling to the passive house standard for the next ten years would reduce the U.S.’s carbon footprint by at least 20%. In fact, because the energy use is so low, there will be lots of excess solar electricity generated, so our carbon footprint might even go lower due to the compounding effects.
But people won’t build them without a) a large-scale education campaign for both builders and home buyers, b) incentives for builders and owners from cities, counties, and states, and c) a compelling business case for the suppliers of the highly efficient windows and mechanical systems required.
Passive Houses “tunnel through” the efficiency cost barrier to achieve their benefits at a relatively low additional cost. But even though they have a great cost/benefit ratio, they’re not going to take off without those structural changes. That’s why, instead of becoming a builder of passive houses, I’m becoming a lobbyist for passive houses. Builders can make a difference of 2-5 houses a year. As a lobbyist, I can make a difference of 100-1000 houses a year, or more.
Individuals weatherstripping their houses, and taking shorter showers, can slow down CO2 growth a bit, but turning it around takes large structural changes. Yes, those are driven by individuals, but they are not individual changes.
I use passive houses as an example, but there are lots more in other areas. Same is true for car use – it will take structural changes for people to be able to live nearer where they work. Or for food energy use – most people are not going to be able to garden enough to make a difference in the U.S.’s agricultural energy footprint – that’s going to take big changes in commercial ag. Some of those changes are happening, and that’s awesome, but it’s not going to happen by you putting in a garden, no matter how good and useful a step that is.
As I discussed in my earlier post, [intlink id=”602″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Code changes and incentives are critical for energy independence[/intlink], it’s going to be tough to change the energy efficiency of our building stock until building and planning commissions provide incentives to owners and builders to take those extra steps, and spend that extra money.
So the question then arises, what should these building and planning commissions incentivize? “Energy efficiency” is not a sufficient answer, obviously. In particular because building codes are all now claiming to be energy efficient already. E.g., California’s new version of Title 24 is our “Building Energy Efficiency Standard.” Indeed, a house built to the new Title 24 standards will be 20-30% more efficient than a house built to the old Title 24. However, compared to a standard like the Passive House Specification, or the Architecture 2030 interim goals for 2010, it’s significantly missing the opportunity for energy savings of 80-90%.
OK, I’m preaching to the choir on this topic, I know. But the question then arises, what should the building and planning commissions incentivize? Here’s what I’m thinking, as a quick first cut:
Passive House Certification
22 points or more on the LEED for Homes Energy and Atmosphere category
X points (I don’t know the value for X yet) on the Green Point Rating system
My goal is to come up with several roughly comparable measures of advanced energy efficiency, any of which could be used to achieve the incentives. (Whatever they might end up being – I listed some in the earlier post mentioned above.)
I’m very interested to hear your comments on this list, and your suggestions for other additions.
Or rather, how do we get people to build and renovate houses to energy efficiency levels that are significantly above code?
The Architecture 2030 website has a great reference on how much beyond code you must build to achieve their interim and final energy efficiency goals. For example, in California’s we have a new 2008 version of the energy efficiency code, usually called “Title 24.” To meet the Architecture 2030 interim goal of buildings that use half as much energy as their conventional peers (the “initial 50% reduction target”), buildings in California need to be 10% more efficient than required by this new building code.
We all want this to happen, of course, and it’s relatively inexpensive to do so. But without incentives, it’s not going to happen. That’s why I’m working on the Menlo Park Climate Action Plan for example – we need the incentives.
And incentives will help. Have you ever wondered why so many Californians have bought Toyota Priuses, despite the fact that they are pretty expensive compared to regular cars, and you don’t save that money at the gas pump? It’s not because Californians are so green – although we are. It’s because there was an amazing incentive. If you bought a Prius or other hybrid, you could get a pass to drive in the carpool lane on California freeways – as a singleton! What does everyone in California really want? To get where they’re going faster! It didn’t cost the state much, and it got a lot of efficient cars on the road quickly. That’s the best kind of incentive.
Our municipalities (and eventually the states) can do the same kind of thing. For example, they could reward people for deciding to build houses to meet the “initial 50% reduction target” of Architecture 2030 by:
Expediting the building permit for free
Waiving some fees
Promising quick turnaround on inspections
Providing an automatic bump of 2% in their FAR requirements as a variance (floor area ratio – or how much of the lot can be covered by a house)
Those are just some of the options that municipalities have. Even just stating, in their climate action plans for example, that they have a goal of meeting the Architecture 2030 targets, or supporting the building of Passive Houses, would go a long way.
People want to do the right thing. They’re even willing to pay extra to do the right thing. But they often don’t know what the right thing is. And if they don’t have an incentive, they might do the wrong thing, or just something else, with that extra money that they’d be willing to spend. Many people, if they had the right “nudge,” would happily put more insulation in their new house or their remodel, and forgo the most expensive marble countertops. They’ll get the same resale benefit, they’ll save money over the life of the house, they’ll feel better about themselves, and they’ll actually make a significant individual difference in our planet’s future.
Let me know your thoughts, and if you have examples of code changes or municipalities providing incentives for efficiency in buildings, especially significantly surpassing code requirements, I’d love to hear about them.
I was contacted the other day by Bronwyn Barry, a designer and rater at Quantum Builders, and a member of the Passive House California organization up in Berkeley, so I did what any normal internet user would do – I Googled her. And I was excited to find, as one of the first results, a slideshow she’d made and put up on Slideshare. It’s a trip report from her visit to the 3rd Annual North American Passive House Conference held in Duluth last November. And, not only is Bronwyn’s presentation there, but there are several others, including one from Tim Eian, a German-born architect now working in Minnesota, and several others:
I find these presentations to be very helpful in understanding the Passive House concept better. Each time I review one of them I get additional nuggets of information to use as I work to get Californians to build passive houses and super-efficient houses instead of conventional ones.
The other day I posted about one of the [intlink id=”565″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]first passive houses built in the U.S.[/intlink] I just ran across another passive house example – this one is the first U.S.-built home to be certified to the German Passivhaus standard. The house was built at the Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota in 2006, partially funded by the first-ever grant to a U.S. recipient by the German environmental foundation Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU).
Under the guidance of architect Stephan Tanner of INTEP, LLC, a Minneapolis- and Munich-based consulting company for high performance and sustainable construction, Waldsee BioHaus is modeled on Germany’s Passivhaus standard: a highly-efficient building design (beyond that of the U.S. LEED standard which improves quality of life inside the building while using 85% less energy than comparable U.S. structures.
The building materials and mechanicals were primarily sourced from local suppliers, although a few components were imported from Germany. These were items that either were not available (at that time) in the States, or which were provided by sponsored by the funders. Here’s another link to Waldsee Biohaus information.
It’s fascinating to me that only a handful of these houses have been built here in the States so far. Each of the houses I’ve posted about uses 80-90% less energy than a comparable conventional house. Their build out costs are comparable to conventional houses in their area, and lifecycle costs are definitely less, based on actual measurements. The approach has been proven extensively in Europe, and has been shown to be effective in every country in Europe, not to mention multiple climate zones in the U.S. It’s simple and has just three key components. The European Community is moving to make passive house the EU standard.
But despite this, here in the U.S., where buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy usage, where we have Architecture 2030, a Federal mandate for zero energy buildings, and efforts like the California Public Utilities Commission’s 2020 project, none of our codes – state building codes, LEED, Green Points, or local codes, call out the three key components of passive houses as desirable, much less required. I think this has to change.
Your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.
While the passive house concept is taking off in Europe, where over 10,000 passive houses have been built, there are still very few in the States. I have posted before about [intlink id=”393″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Nabih Taleb’s passive house remodel[/intlink] in Berkeley, and I’ve heard about a few more which I’ll be posting soon. But this month the Taunton Press’s Green Building Advisor website is featuring an article on America’s first “passive house.”
Built by Katrin Klingenberg, a European-trained architect who is co-director of the Passive House Institute U.S., the house uses massive amounts of insulation – including 14″ inches below the slab, as well as up to 16″ in the walls. Klingenberg also took care to site the house for maximum solar gain in the winter, as well as many other details to increase the house’s energy efficiency.
The results have been excellent – although not without some learning opportunities. Those windows that allowed the sun’s heat to warm the house in the winter overheated it in summer. Klingenberg installed a grape arbor over the windows, and now its bare branches in winter let in the sun, and its leafs provide effective shading for the windows in summer, while also giving a beatiful view.
Klingenberg was not just after efficiency, but also affordability in this house. And the results on both sides were very good:
At $94 per square foot, the house topped the highest averages for new construction in the region, although not by much. With Katrin’s modest budget and her goal of using the home as a model for affordable housing, however, the cost was more than she would have liked. But she points out that this was a prototype that would likely cost less on a production scale. Besides, in her opinion, the successes in the area of sustainability, efficiency, and comfort were well worth the investment.