Introducing New Silicon Valley Passive Homes Website

Silicon Valley From Space
Silicon Valley From Space

Over the weekend I put up what I hope will be an important resource in the goal of achieving 100% zero-net energy homes in California by 2018 – a new website for the Silicon Valley Passive House Coalition.

From the site:

SVPH is helping local municipalities to set challenging but practical goals for maximizing energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction in the local communities of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California.

In particular, many communities are creating “climate action plans” which include incentives for the use of design options that promote energy efficiency and carbon savings. SVPH promotes including an incentive related to the use of extremely energy-efficient design and building approaches such as super insulation, zero-net energy, and the “Passive House” concept.

Please take a quick look and let me know via the comments what you think about the new baby (both the site and the organization)!

Update on California Passive Homes

UC Berkeley
Berkeley - site of this week's Passive House California meeting (image by basykes, CC 2.0 licensed)

Nabih Tahan, who spoke two weeks ago at a BuildItGreen event on the passive house concept, just told me about Passive House California. They are “a group of building professionals from the San Francisco Bay Area working together to increase public and media awareness of Passive House.”

You can check their website for more information, including their meeting this coming Sunday in Berkeley:

Date: Sunday, February 22
Time: 3:00PM (new participants) | 3:30PM (returning members)
Place: Babette Gee’s office: 950 Gilman St. Suite 210 (at 9th), Berkeley, CA

By the way, Tahan also provided me with some corrections and updates to [intlink id=”393″ type=”post”]my post about his talk[/intlink], which I’ve updated.

Nabih Tahan on Passive Houses and European Home Building

Nabih Tahan's passive house remodel in Berkeley
Nabih Tahan's passive house remodel in Berkeley

Last night BuildItGreen’s South Bay Professional Guild hosted Nabih Tahan, a Berkeley-based architect who was recently featured in a New York Times article on passive houses. Nabih discussed the passive house concept and how it is being applied in Germany and the rest of Europe, as well as his experience building Low Energy Houses (Niedrigenergiehaus – the generation of homes before the passive houses) in Austria and remodeling his conventional house in the Berkeley flatlands into a passive house.

The term “passive house” reflects the concept that these houses do not have heaters to provide warmth. Instead, they  “passively” recover heat from all the other activities in the home – such as cooking, lighting, and even human activity. To enable this, a passive house is highly insulated, with an airtight building envelope, so that no heat can escape. To keep the air quality high, passive houses use “heat recovery ventilators” or “energy recovery ventilators” with air-to-air heat exchangers to constantly replace the old inside air with new outside air, while keeping the heat from the old air inside.

Passive houses typically use about 80% less energy for heating and cooling than conventionally-built houses.

(See more about passive houses in this post on my blog, and the Passive House Insitute U.S.’s web site.)

Tahan’s talk covered a huge amount of ground. Some of the high points included:

  • A description, with a number of photos and a video, of the current German and Austrian technologies for building houses and multi-family residences. These homes are built in factories, by automated, computer-controlled machines, and assembled in a few days on site. Because all the pieces are designed to high tolerances, the building sites are very quiet – if you hear a power saw on one of these sites, you know someone made a mistake.
  • He showed a picture of “model home mall” in Austria (here’s something similar in Germany – in German), where more than 40 of these pre-built home builders have built 80 model homes that you can tour. The homes range in size and style from modest single family houses to large mini-mansions, to apartment buildings.
  • I asked what one change in the U.S. would make it easier to build passive houses here. He said better windows and doors. Insulated and well-sealed windows and doors, often with triple-glazing and special coatings on the glass, comprise a key component of passive houses in terms of keeping the building envelope airtight. There are many manufacturers of these components in Germany and the rest of Europe, but none to very few in the States. In fact, Tahan is currently in discussions with investors on starting a factory to build these components, in partnership with an Austrian company.
  • For his Berkeley house, he decided to work with a U.S. supplier, Sierra Pacific, to demonstrate that the passive house standard is possible in the California climate with local products. In any case, buying the windows in Austria would have cost less than buying them here, but the cost of shipping would have made the Austrian windows more expensive.
  • In building a passive house, airtightness is as important as the insulation – they work hand in hand. And it’s the most difficult part, especially in the United States where buildings are not constructed by computer-controlled machines.
  • In Europe, building a passive house costs 4-5% more than conventional construction, but it saves 80% of the energy. Currently it’s a somewhat bigger premium to build a passive house in the States, due to lack of suppliers and know-how.

The passive house concept and approach is clearly a component of a zero-net energy home program. Reducing the amount of energy a home uses means it’s a lot easier and cheaper to generate that energy onsite. Architects like Tahan will be a key enabler of getting to the [intlink id=”329″ type=”post”]2018 goal of 100% zero net energy homes in California[/intlink].

This was an excellent talk, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from Nabih Tahan, and attending more BuildItGreen functions. If they’re all at this level, they’ll be a great resource for getting California to the goal of 100% zero net energy new houses by 2018.

Update (2/13/09): Nabih tells me that the Passive House California Group has just set up their website, where you can read about their next group meeting and other topics.

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 5 – Passive Houses

The Smith House - A passive house in Urbana, IL
The Smith House - A passive house in Urbana, IL

What if you didn’t have to heat your house at all, no matter the climate? Or at least, never turn on the furnace? Well, that’s practically what life is like in one of the “passive houses” designed with the principles of the PassivHaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. Recently featured in an article in The New York Times, No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’

… these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace.

The idea of keeping all the heat inside a house and all the cold outside has been around for decades, but it took a number of technological innovations to do so while preventing stagnant air and mold. Passive houses are characterized by extreme levels of insulation (R-40 or more) and extremely air-tight construction to prevent drafts and heat leakage, coupled with sophisticated mechanicals – called air-to-air heat exchangers or heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) – that constantly refresh the inside air with outside air, while making sure the heat stays in.

Because they use 80% less energy for heating and cooling, passive houses are going to be a critical part of the goal of zero net energy homes. The less energy that’s needed to operate the house – and heating and cooling typically is 40% or more of the energy use in a house – the less energy has to be generated with solar panels or a wind turbine, lowering the cost of energy generation and improving the payback period.

And the cost of building a passive house, at least in Germany, is typically only a few percent higher than building a regular house of the same size, and the energy payback and the savings versus installling a traditional central system – not to mention the improved indoor air quality – makes the payback quite fast.

Over 6,000 passive houses have been built in Germany, but their take off has been slower here in the States. There are about a dozen “official” passive houses – sanctioned by the Passive House Institute US, the U.S. arm of the PassivHaus Institut –  in the U.S., although there are a number of unofficial ones as well, including quite a few mentioned on their forums.

The take off in the US has been slower for a variety of reasons – the different climates across the country, the fact that the expertise is primarily in Germany, and that much of the mechanicals – like the HRVs – need to be imported from Germany.

I bet you’ll be seeing passive houses going up on your street any day now, as the concepts are propagated into practice. The PassivHaus Institut website even features a section on renovating existing houses to passive house standards.