Passive House Heroes

Over a week ago the New York Times ran a feature article in their Sunday edition entitled Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green? about the Passive House project we’ve been involved with. I discussed that same project in my last post on this blog. The NYTimes story (and video) hit a good nerve and was widely read, frequently emailed, and subsequently discussed on several green building blogs. Even though it brought up some of the obstacles to achieving the Passive House standard, there’s no doubt the article was a boost to the movement.

I was introduced to the Passive House idea in 1997 during one of my trips to Europe. A friend took me to see a house under construction that was going to be insulated so well that it wouldn’t require a heating system! It was exciting, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Twenty years earlier I had written about my dream of houses of the future with “energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels.”**

Even at the beginning of my career, I knew it would be eventually possible to unplug the fuel lines by maximizing the insulation, air tightness and passive solar contributions. I just didn’t know exactly how to do it. Leave it to the Germans to figure out how an idealistic notion could be a reality by solving the science, doing the math and therefore making Passive House an objective and achievable standard.

Over the years, I watched in frustration as the numbers of Passive Houses built in Europe kept rising by magnitudes while few people in the U.S. had even heard of the concept. By 2006, Passive House was reaching maturity in Europe and becoming commonplace. On one memorable Alps-crossing mountain biking trip, a builder-friend from Austria, a Professor from the University of Innsbruck and a carpenter from Germany talked over a lunch break about half a dozen PH projects they were separately involved with. I only listened and hoped to someday be “in” the conversation.

Finally, our company has built one. What took so long? I’ve believed in the idea since my early professional days and I’ve known about Passive House since its early days in Europe. More than most builders, I have no good excuse. I do have an explanation, though.

Until recently, I didn’t know Steve and Barbara Landau.

I can dream all I want, but I had no way of making our clients want one. We had nothing to show and no experience or costs to reference. The first of anything is always difficult. It’s hard to promote what you haven’t done.

So when the Landaus asked about our interest, the answer from myself and our team was immediate. We also offered to cut our costs, knowing there would be some learning-curve inefficiencies. As our work on the Landau house is done, I can say it’s been a rewarding experience, even without profit.

But is Passive House worth the cost in general? It depends on the calculation you use. If you use a cost-benefit analysis based on 2010 U.S. fuel costs, the answer might be no. If you think, as I do, that we should be building and calculating for multiple generations, then the answer is yes, many times over.

We can build homes that last centuries, not decades. My career has been dedicated to that proposition. We can also build homes that use NO fossil fuels during all those long years of service, for allthose generations of inhabitants, yielding a home that provides a rare brand of security and comfort. Tens of thousands of Passive Houses prove that. Put those two ideas–uncommon durability + uncommon energy efficiency–together and you will have a model for a sustainable future.

We need these model buildings to prove the possible. But more importantly, to prove the possible, we need model clients.

We need more Landaus.

These are people who are willing to put unselfish numbers into the denominator of their cost/benefit equation. Some calculations should be about OUR earth, not just MY bank account. If the equation is stretched out to 25 or 30 years, PH and Zero Net homes will almost always show a return. Do they need to make it back in ten? Why not 50? 100? 200? Is that too absurd? How about just the duration of the three generations most people know in their immediate family? If our time frame of consideration can’t stretch backward and forward to include the people we know and love, what hope is there?

That’s why the Landaus are my heroes. When the project started, their calculations were about maximizing energy efficiency, not demonstrating their own return on the cost investment.

Still, the Landaus struggled with the basic calculation of how to afford the kind of building that has no fuel lines. The substantial walls and roof cost more. Better windows cost more. Thick blankets of insulation under and around the foundation cost more. It’s a better building and itought to cost more. (It bothers me when PH proponents try to deny the added costs, as if it’s an embarrassment.)

To deal with the costs, the instinctual wisdom of the Landaus was to cut amenities and save costs on the finishes. What they understood was that they had one shot at building a good structure with the very best thermal characteristics, while the amenities and finishes could be added or upgraded at any time. They didn’t compromise the long-term layers of the building, while they willingly cut back on the short term layers.

Brilliant? Yes, but it should be obvious. When building homes, most builders and homeowners do the complete opposite. Typically, the structural and thermal performance of new homes is severely compromised to make room in the budget for better carpets, fancy light fixtures, all-around shower heads and the-mother-of-all-new necessities: the home theater. People seem convinced that the only things that matter in a home is what they can see and get entertained with, when what really matters most is mostly not visible.

How did the Landaus afford a Passive House? A simple approach; their own kind of math: they added to the envelope until they subtracted fossil fuels, then they subtracted the superficial until the substantial was affordable.

That is how good homes are built. Good builders need good clients and in that regard, we’ve been very fortunate. Over many years, we have been built many wonderful buildings. They are ALL tributes more to our clients than to us. We are in service to their aspirations. We are just grateful when they take us in new and better directions. Right now, I’m grateful for the Landaus.

I don’t think all our homes will be Passive Houses. That’s not necessarily my hope or expectation. On the other hand, I do think our entire country could learn from the Landaus about what is important and what is not; and therefore how to add and subtract, and about the number in the denominator that makes the cost/benefit consideration about building a better future; the one beyond ourselves.

**from Building the Timber Frame House: The Revival of a Forgotten Craft

2 thoughts on “Passive House Heroes

  1. Mr. Benson,

    Recently a Passive House was built in Yellow Springs, OH. (There is also a strawbale builder in the same town-Andy Holyoke). On another topic, I have recently been introduced to timber framing and have been enjoying your book “Building the Timber Frame House”. Thanks. John Sayre

  2. This was an extremely informative post. Personally I had only heard about the idea for Passive Houses a couple of weeks ago and the whole thing sounds like a brilliant concept. However it is also the sort of thing that needs to be widespread and such heavy costs would prohibit it at the moment. With any luck the sorts of technologies used will become increasingly affordable over time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *