Passive House is Coming - Ready or Not

In November 2015 I presented at the Homes Within Reach Conference - a great conference that focuses on issues in affordable housing. The conference was attended by developers, architects, consultants, and other related professionals. I gave a presentation about Passive House because it was recently adopted as part of the criteria for projects applying through PHFA for low-income housing tax credits. I have obviously drunk the Passive House Kool-aid, but I met with more resistance to the PHFA decision to include Passive House in their design criteria than I expected. In addition, there was a lot of discussion about PHFA’s decision to offer points for projects attempting Passive House. The general feeling from many in the development community is that we have so many competing agendas that are layered onto our projects already that this was just another in a long list of growing requirements. I have to admit that I am somewhat sympathetic to this viewpoint. As an architect our checklists can be daunting but I console myself with the fact that the quality in the projects I have been involved with over the past 20 years has consistently improved, including the projects that have extreme financial constraints. I also heard from architects, many of whom were reluctant to learn new skills just to stay in business. Again, I sympathize. 

I kept reiterating "but Passive House is different!"…and it is. In an industry that has been promised energy reductions in the past and been disappointed, the industry is naturally skeptical - understandably so. The nearly 70% energy savings that Passive House offers is for real and has been demonstrated repeatedly in projects across the country and the world. New projects continue to illustrate this again and again.  Energy consumption in buildings is the single biggest environmental issue we face in construction today. For this reason, Passive House is a game-changing development, and here is another compelling reason to implement it.

Passive House relies on increased insulation, air tightness, energy conserving lighting and equipment, and improved ventilation to hit its energy targets. Now the latest building codes are emphasizing the very same strategies. The International Energy Conservation Code of 2012 requires air duct tightness, mandatory blower testing, rigid foam on the exterior of houses in cold climate zones, additional wall insulation, increased glazing U factor and SHGC, as well as energy efficient lighting and equipment.

The requirements in 2012 IECC are not all that different from Passive House. It is as if the building industry that has long focused on improving energy efficiency in buildings by upgrading the efficiency of the mechanical equipment has had a collective awakening. It’s the envelope! The new codes recognize that the real key in reducing energy use is the building enclosure. Passive House is already part of the building code, to some extent, in Brussels, Lower Austria, Wels, Antwerp, State of Bavaria, Bremen, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Hanover, Heidelberg, Cologne, Leipzig, Kempten, Nuremberg, Munster, Lindenberg, Ulm, State of Saarland, State of Rhineland, Walldorf, Luxembourg, Olso, Norway, Villamediana de Iregua, Spain, and Marin County, California. There are currently other incentives to utilize Passive House in San Francisco and New York City.

So, whether you look at the increasing number of cities adopting the code or you look at the building codes themselves, Passive House is coming…ready or not.