Aggressively Passive: Building Homes to the Passive House Standard

Houses built to the Passive House building standard use as little as 10 percent of the energy that standard homes use. The best part about them, though, is how good they feel to live in.

  • Catherine and her dog, Max, love the home’s indoor-outdoor connection.
    Photo By Ned Bonzi
  • A vertical garden wall near the entry helps keep the home cool.
    Photo By Corey Saft
  • Catherine O’Neill’s California home is the first U.S. retrofit to be certified by the Passive House Institute U.S.
    Photo By Ned Bonzi
  • Adaptable to every climate, Catherine O’Neill’s certified Passive House incorporates fresh air and indoor-outdoor connection.
    Photo By Ned Bonzi
  • Builder Rick Milburn planned Catherine’s home to emphasize ventilation and natural light.
    Photo By Ned Bonzi
  • University of Louisiana architecture professor Corey Saft designed this rental home using the Passive House standard. Most of the year, its utility bills average less than $10 a month.
    Photo By Corey Saft
  • Well-placed overhangs prevent Louisiana’s blazing summer sun from penetrating the home’s interior.
    Photo By Corey Saft

Imagine spending a long Illinois winter in a cozy house with no cold corners or drafts—and heating bills half the norm—or sailing through a sultry Louisiana summer in cool comfort with bills that cost a fraction of the neighbors’. Passive House, the latest set of building standards sweeping North America, uses seven simple principles to make these housing dreams come true.

Passive Houses are so well designed, insulated, sealed and ventilated that they require as little as 10 percent of the energy standard homes use for heating, cooling and lighting. A tight envelope (roof, exterior walls and floor) and thick, heavily insulated walls keep winter cold and summer heat at bay with little reliance on furnaces and air conditioners. In winter, Passive Houses hold in heat from the sun, inhabitants’ bodies, lights and appliances. In summer, they keep cool air in and hot air out, though additional cooling may be needed in very hot, humid climates. Energy-recovery ventilators (ERVs) circulate fresh air for even temperatures and humidity.

Though the movement traces its roots to the American superinsulated house movement of the 1970s, the Passive House principles were further developed and codified by German professors Wolfgang Feist and Bo Adamson in the 1980s and 1990s. Using the standards of the Passivhaus Institut (PHI) founded by Feist in 1996, thousands of European homes have been built or remodeled, and many provinces and cities require projects built with public monies to achieve PHI certification. Architect Katrin Klingenberg brought the Passive House movement to the United States, co-founding the Passive House Institute United States (PHIUS) with builder Mike Kernagis in 2008. Close to 60 Passive House projects have been completed or are underway around the country.

Selfish Altruists 

In Europe, the Passivhaus Institut has worked out many of the system’s kinks, but the United States encompasses a different range of climates, aesthetic tastes, and financial and property practices. Every U.S. Passive House breaks new ground. With Passive House construction costs at 6 to 15 percent above average, early adopters must be committed to long-term, deep energy conservation and be willing to work out the bugs for the rest of us.

Margaret and Gregory Stanton, who built a Passive House in Urbana, Illinois, don’t feel altruistic. “We’re selfish,” Greg jokes. “We’re free from volatile energy prices.” The Stantons love their thick walls and deep windowsills, energy savings and the absence of drafts. In response to Urbana’s cold winters and hot, humid summers, the Stanton house has R-87 roof insulation (20 to 24 inches of loose-fill cellulose), 18-inch-thick R-64 walls and a thick slab floor insulated to R-51. Direct solar gain provides much of their heat, backed up by a heat pump and an inline heater in their ERV. The Stantons collect rainwater to irrigate their garden, use solar-thermal panels to heat their water, and salvaged much of the wood from the original house on their 2.5 acres.

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