Passive House Design: Pushing the Envelope with the Passive House Standard

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Mark A. Miller is a practicing architect/builder/developer living in Chicago who designs projects around the country. His studio, Mark A. Miller Architects + Builders, designs and builds high-performing, energy-efficient homes that speak to the soul. Mark recently co-founded the Passive House Alliance Chicago and is lecturing about the Passive House standard throughout the Midwest. You can learn more about his unique approach to designing thoughtful homes at his websites: Zen + Architecture and Passive House Midwest. 

I have been studying energy-efficient design since I decided to study architecture at the University of Arizona in the mid 1980s. Today I am a registered architect and the principal of my own architecture firm, Mark A. Miller Architects + Builders Inc. I also own a Passive House consulting company, Passive House Midwest, and am in the process of becoming a certified Passive House consultant. The past several homes my architecture firm designed have been very energy-efficient. They not only met energy star certifications, but also exceeded it by 25 percent!  We have been making great strides up the energy-efficiency ladder.   

Many people have been asking me if we are LEED-certified (the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program), and to be honest, I just haven’t jumped on this train with all the others.  I recently attended a lecture given by a Chicago architecture firm that just completed a branch library for the city that achieved LEED Silver certification. The firm admitted that they had to charge the client an additional 20 percent in fees to fill out all of the paper work to get the certification.  My reaction was, “Wow! The savings the client was to get over the next 30 years from their energy-efficient upgrades just got spent on additional architectural fees to show everyone how green they are!” The owners won’t be seeing the savings—and isn’t that the point?   

passive house 
Passive solar design helps the Matson residence connect with nature while keeping energy bills low. Photo By Scott Shigley Photography. 

After the past few homes we designed, it really struck me that the trick is not about getting some fancy engineering gizmo that makes heat in some new way, but it’s really about keeping the heat, however it's produced, in the house.  So much of our energy is lost to poor building envelope design: minimal insulation; poor performing windows and doors; too many wall penetrations and places for air to leak into the interior.  Placing the focus first on the quality of the building envelope is best. 

I was so pleased when I stumbled on an article about this new building technique coming out of Germany called “Passive Haus.” The Passive House standard immediately resonated with me as confirmation of the conclusions that I was coming to myself about energy-efficient design.  Pack up the horn, 'cause this was the band wagon I’ve been waiting for—so I jumped.

I learned that the headquarters for the Passive House movement was in my own backyard, down in Urbana, Illinois, home of the University of Illinois.  Later I came to realize the symbolism of this, as the first “super-insulated” houses were designed here.  It turns out that the Germans caught wind of this, and (as the Germans have a reputation for doing) they studied it and engineered the heck out of it.   

I signed up right away to take the Passive House training over the summer.  It was very intense, but it was inspiring and enlightening at the same time.  Now I am making presentations on the benefits and techniques of the Passive House Standard, to get my next house project to implement these techniques.   

As I continue to blog about the Passive House standard, I will share my journey with you as I try and get the good word out to the building community and public.  Most people have not heard of Passive House yet or if they have, they don’t believe the level of improvement in performance a U.S. house could achieve without the fancy gadgets.  It will no doubt be an interesting journey.   

Read more thoughts from Mark Miller on Passive House design!