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Passive House Design: An Introduction to the Passive House Standard Part 2

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. 

Mark Miller continues his introduction to the Passive House standard with additional questions and answers about Passive Houses.

Q: There are a lot of green certifications out there: LEED, Energy Star, Green Globes, etc. What makes Passive House different? Why should a homeowner choose this certification over others? 

LEED, for example, is more focused on how many “green goodies” can be incorporated into a building project—the more items used on the list, the more points you “win.” Energy Star and other systems focus on the overall performance of the components that make up a building. Passive House is in this category, as it looks at the whole of the building and its systems.

Passive Houses are the result of studying the cost versus performance of building systems, and this seems to be the best bang for the buck. Twenty years of studying the earliest passive houses has gone back into the computer software that analyzes how these buildings perform, so the projected results are extremely accurate. When you design a passive house, you know exactly what you will get, based on your design decisions before you build it. You know how much energy your home will use—and that's powerful knowledge. This is just a great tool to have. You won't see $150,000 spent on a PV system in a Passive House to claim you get $5 back each month from the power company. That just doesn't make good sense.

Q: Is there any system in place to track the building's performance after construction to ensure the projected energy use matches up with the actual energy use? 

The Passive House consultant helps with this. He or she monitors fuel usage and balances the home’s ventilation system. More and more smart home technologies are giving homeowners the ability to monitor their energy use and performance themselves, however.

Q: What does Passive House certification cost? Are Passive Houses more expensive to build than non-certified homes? 

Passive Houses are slightly more expensive to build than conventional homes. In Germany, where most building materials have already been improved to meet Passive House standards, building a Passive House costs about 5 percent than a regular home. In the U.S., it's not as easy to get high performing products. Windows, for example, aren't even close to matching up with the performance of German windows. This is, and will be, changing as the Passive House standard spreads through the U.S.

Certified Passive Houses in the U.S. aim for being no more than 10 to 15 percent more expensive than a conventional house. Homeowners can find ways to save, however. For example, having a much simpler HVAC system instead of expensive geothermal or radiant heat can save money. On the other hand, super-efficient windows will cost more than even the best Marvin windows. Most builders buy Passive House-certified windows from Germany, such as Optiwin. The only company in the U.S. that makes windows efficient enough is Serious Materials, but other Passive House-certified building materials are also in the works for the U.S. marketplace.

Q: Are there any subsidies or tax benefits to having a certified Passive House? 

Yes, in some states, and they will continue to increase as the Passive House movement continues to grow. Keep checking as Passive House consultants are working with municipalities to get Passive Houses added to their lists of approved subsidies and tax benefits.  Incentives can also be found for using insulation and alternative energy systems.

Q: What does it take to become a Passive House Consultant? 

A few times a year the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS) holds a nine-day training program. To become a Passive House consultant, you must complete this program and then pass a very difficult final exam. But you're not done after that! Following the exame you now have to actually complete one project and have it meet Passive House certification standards. After this, you can become a certified Passive House consultant.

The beautiful thing about this movement is, like the beginning of computers where there was this wonderful exchange amongst the early computer inventors, everyone is sharing information to help push the limits of what this new tool can do. Likewise, there are Passive House Alliances in key areas in the U.S. Passive House consultants are sharing the latest building science information and discoveries with each other, so they can all make the highest performing buildings available. The goal is to help our planet by reducing one of the largest users of fossil fuels—the building industry. 

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