Does Passive House Cost More???

Does Passive House Cost More? Where There is a Will There is a Way…

Does Passive House cost more? I get asked this question a lot and the answer is no… and maybe. It really depends on the priorities of the people involved in the project. There are thousands of decisions to make on every project: what to include and what not to include, what materials to use, how simple or complex to make the project, and many, many, more. Along with those decisions comes a hierarchy of decision making: what is most important and what matters least. If you are really committed to reaching ultra-low energy use, and ultra-high air-quality, and make those goals a priority, then Passive House will cost very little additional money, if any at all. If, however, you design an entire project and then decide to change out the windows, add extra insulation, install monitoring, and detail properly after, you can add as much as 10% to the cost of the project. (I may add, however, even with this approach Passive House is worth doing because of the return on energy savings.)

Objectors might proclaim: “We are sacrificing beauty for sustainability!” To which I say “Hogwash!” What I reply to those naysayers is that your designer(s) should be able to design a beautiful project within the constraints of that project. The constraints are the budget, the physical realities of site, structure, codes, etc., and the owner’s priorities. Hopefully, the owner’s priorities include Passive House. Where there is a will there is a way. 

My point is illustrated beautifully in a graph made in an earlier collaboration, showing both the cost and size of PHFA awarded affordable housing projects that competed for low-income housing tax credits. This was the first year that projects were awarded money for Passive House and it is safe to say that not many of the teams had prior experience with Passive House design and construction. Because the additional scoring points were awarded to teams seeking Passive House certification, it is safe to assume that those teams were committed to meeting Passive House standards. Passive House moved up on the hierarchy of the owners’ decision making because it was part of the criteria for getting money for the project. If Passive House projects cost more, then we would see all of the Passive House projects at the top of the graph. But we don’t… we see Passive House project costs all over the graph. Similarly, the graph shows that Passive House projects spanned the range of project size, just as conventional projects did. The graph clearly demonstrates that Passive House approach to design and build does not have to cost more, and is not limited to a certain square footage. Where there is a will there is a way.

The teams committed to Passive House design managed to bring those varied projects in on budget using Passive House criteria. The tax-credit scoring gave developers an incentive, and because Passive House moved to the top of the list of priorities, it happened within the budget. It is all in the hierarchy of decision making. What are your priorities? Where there is a will there is a way.

(I do have one caveat: Passive House certification does cost more. And that is precisely why I believe that using Passive House criteria is essential but getting a certification is optional.) 

I am weary of hearing that a project couldn’t be Passive House because the return on investment just wasn’t there. But let’s be honest – it is really because the will wasn’t there. When are we going to make energy use in buildings our priority? How about now?