Friday, February 1st, 2013
January 30, 2013 By Paul Eldrenkamp
Passive House and Building Energy 13
One person has single-handedly transformed the conversation about high-performance building in the US, and it only took her a couple of years to do it. Katrin Klingenberg of PHIUS deserves enormous credit for the speed and passion with which the Passive House standard has gained traction in the US.
I first heard Katrin speak in the spring of 2008 and was so taken by her Passive House message that a few weeks later I found myself in Urbana IL participating in the very first North American-based Passive House Consultants training. There were maybe 25 of us in that class. It was hard. I was hanging on by my fingernails. But it seemed important—really important.
I wasn’t alone in thinking so. The Passive House message spread rapidly beyond that first training session, to the point where Passive House content has been central to the past several Building Energy conferences, as well as to similar conferences around the country.
Just what is it about the Passive House standard that enabled it to gain traction in the green building movement in the US so quickly?
I think there are three interrelated reasons: First, fertile ground for the message; second, the message itself; and third, the audience for that message.
Fertile ground. Two things were happening in 2008 that made Katrin’s timing particularly fortuitous:
One was a growing awareness that the green building movement in general had done a much better job of fostering awareness of the need for change than of fostering change itself.
The second was the mounting realization that twenty years of apparent economic boom had in fact been a bubble, largely inflated by a steady supply of cheap, disposable housing. As a nation, we had spent endless sums on real estate and had precious little of lasting value to show for that investment. Something seemed profoundly wrong with the way we were thinking about our housing stock—at every level.
The message. Katrin’s message was itself simple, quantifiable, and useful.
Simple, in that there were just three criteria, and they were pass-fail: either you met the criteria, or you didn’t. Passive House distills a whole range of objectives and priorities into those three criteria, and for those of us who are better with black-and-white than with nuance, this was really intriguing.
Quantifiable, in that the criteria were expressed as just three numbers: 15, 120, and 0.6. This is as objective as it comes: No backsliding or wiggle room or “yes, buts” or credit for bike racks in this world.
Useful, in that you could be pretty sure that if your building met those three criteria, there was a good chance it was going to be part of the long-term solution to the energy and environmental issues we face rather than the ongoing part of the problem that so much new construction seemed to be.
The audience. I think that those who heard Katrin’s message had two kinds of response:
One response was a kind of relief, if that’s not an odd way to put it. The same sort of relief that you feel when the doctor finally is able to diagnose the ailment you’ve been suffering from: Once you’re able to give it a name, you start to know what the treatment should be. Many builders and architects sensed that “green building” was less and less a meaningful or useful term, but didn’t have a clear idea of what to do about, or where to go next. Passive House provided a possible answer, and it was a particularly compelling one for the reasons noted above.
The second response is what I call “green macho.” The sorts of builders and architects who go to Building Energy conferences love the hard stuff. I’ve never seen a group of small business owners get so gleeful about how hard they can make things for themselves. Since Passive House seemed much harder than what we had been doing before, it went without saying that it also had to be much better than what we had been doing before. Only among the NESEA crowd is “It’s really hard” a winning marketing strategy.
As a result of the message and its receptive audience, there are now conversations taking place in the NESEA community on a scale that could not have occurred without Katrin’s introducing us to Passive House—conversations about topics like energy intensity, primary energy versus site energy, thermal bridging, solar heat gain coefficient, extreme air tightness. Yes, these are all topics in which several NESEA practitioners are national experts, but pre-Passive House these were terms and ideas that had not penetrated our language nearly to the extent that they have since. Some things just sound more convincing when said with a German accent, I guess. (This, of course, would be the place to plug Eberhard Pauls’ talk on heat recovery ventilation, which will be presented with a distinct German accent at 2PM on Thursday of BE13, with Andy Shapiro moderating.)
Our annual Building Energy conference is, of course, just around the corner, and BE has always been as much—if not more—about asking good questions as about getting good answers. Although Passive House has provided us with some really interesting answers, it’s time to consider the even more interesting questions that it poses.
Some are already getting a good airing:
You can use a massive and intricate Excel spreadsheet programmed by a team of German engineers (also known as PHPP) to design a low-mass passive solar home in 2013, and it will be almost as prone to overheating as the one your ancestors designed on the back of envelope, way back when Microsoft was still based in Albuquerque. How to deal with that?
Marc Rosenbaum has written convincingly about his concerns that holding a building in northern Vermont to the same annual heating demand as a building in San Francisco, for instance, inevitably leads to a poor allocation of resources. How to correct for this, without losing any of the rigor of a standard like Passive House?
Marc has also made the case that what we really need is a per-person energy budget, not a per-square-foot budget. It’s always easier to reach a lower level of energy intensity with a larger home than with a smaller home (if you don’t know why, be sure to attend Bruce Harley’s session on “Energy Calculations for Everyone” at 8:30 AM on Thursday of BE13). Should we adjust the standard to discourage larger homes, as LEED-H has done? On the other hand, do we really want to encourage the construction of more small, detached single-family homes, with their greater energy intensity?
Others questions are proving to be non-issues:
When I took the Passive House consultants training class in 2008 the big anxieties were hitting 0.6 ACH@50, getting good windows, and finding decent HVAC equipment. Within a year of that class’s graduation, it was clear that 0.6 was a non-issue—early adopters of the standard were blowing past that (no pun intended); that the marketplace soon enough was going to take care of getting us good windows; and, finally, that the Japanese were more than happy to provide some really very good equipment that could easily handle the H and the AC in HVAC, if not the V (which the central Europeans, in turn, seemed to have a good handle on). As with learning any new language, some early stumbling in Passive House has given way to near-fluency.
Finally, though, there are some questions that are only starting to be asked:
Passive House does not, by itself, come even close to representing the radical transformation that the design and construction world needs to experience in order to do its part towards addressing the energy and environmental challenges coming our way. It is quite easy to construct a new building to the Passive House standard that, in the end, makes us all a little worse off rather than any better off—because it’s too big, because it’s too far away from low-carbon transportation, because it further develops a region where water resources are close to the breaking point, because the purpose served by the new building is superfluous, because a retrofitted or restored existing structure could have served the purpose just as capably if maybe with slightly higher up-front costs. Is there a risk that Passive House will prove to be the next effort that, like LEED, makes a lot of well-meaning people feel really good about doing things that, in the end, don’t adequately change our current trajectory—that it ends up as a noble distraction?
Taken by itself, Passive House is an idea that most assuredly and effectively slows the pace at which we are heading towards the cliff—but by itself, it does not put us into reverse, headed away from the cliff.
To do that, we need more than Excel spreadsheets, truckloads of insulation, and blower doors with D rings. To do that, we need imagination, determination, and humility borne of experience—three things you will find in abundance at Building Energy 13.
Here’s the Passive House content featured at Building Energy 13…
Building Passive House Homes – Details, Process, Lessons Learned
Workshop Speakers: Declan Keefe, Placetailor; Chris Corson;, EcoCor Design Build Matthew O’Malia, G O Logic, LLC: Alan Gibson, G O Logic, LLC
An Introduction to PHPP (Passive House Planning Package) Software
Workshop Speaker: David White, Right Environments
WUFI Passive Workshop: Next-Gen Modeling Tool for Passive House and Building Professionals in North America
Workshop Speaker: Katrin Klingenberg, Passive House Institute US
Commercial Passive House Design Principles
Workshop Speaker: Adam Cohen, Structures Design/Build
Getting Real About Primary Energy – What it Means for Passive House Standards in North America
Workshop Speaker: Katrin Klingenberg, Passive House Institute of US
Passive House Standard: Suitability for the Mainstream Market
Session 6: Thursday March 7, 2:00pm-3:30pm
Session Speakers: Alan Gibson and Matt O’Malia, GO Logic
Three Completed Commercial Passive House Projects: Center for Energy Efficient Design, Malcolm Rosenberg Center for Jewish Life and Hickory Hall
Session 6: Thursday, March 7, 2:00pm-3:30pm
Session Speaker: Adam Cohen, Structures Design/Build, LLC
Heat Recovery Devices: Evaluation Criteria for Equipment Efficiency and Heating in a Passive House
Session 6: Thursday, March 7, 2:00pm-3:30pm
Session Speakers: Eberhard Paul
Floor show demos:
Stage 2, 4:30 Wednesday: Katrin Klingenberg on “Cool Passive House Gadgets”
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