Passive House Training, One Year Later
The Passivhaus approach compels a designer to collaborate with a team and to focus on quality
I have been asked about my Passive HouseA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. Consultant training by other architects enough times that I thought I’d write up a quick synopsis, one year later.
For me, the training was very useful for several reasons, not the least of which was the networking aspect. It is a small community with some really great conversation happening and it is fun to be a part of that.
There is a lot of controversy as well, especially here on GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com. Such as: Where does the law of diminishing returns kick in when it comes to insulating? And how to handle latent loads (excess moisture)? Plus there’s the whole U.S. vs. the rest of the world thing, which I won’t go into as I find it rather annoying, or at least boring.
It’s not just about certification
Passivhaus represents state-of-the-art science on how to build good buildings with an overriding emphasis on simplicity and quality.
ARTICLES BY ROBERT SWINBURNE
Passivhaus is really all about quality, and even, as I’m finding out, represents a necessary rethinking of how to get something built. A much more collaborative approach is necessary than often happens when building even high-end projects. The process gets much less linear.
I also like the idea that the Passivhaus approach is a valid part of the conversation, and not just about achieving certification and getting the plaque to hang beside the front door. I see projects being showcased that utilized the approach in a “value engineering” manner to get the most bang for the buck for projects that simply don’t have the budget to go all the way and attain certification. And I like the general consensus that that is okay.
More confidence and added authority
Much of my own work had been trending in the Passivhaus direction anyway, so it was good to undergo the intensive training. It helped me make decisions with much more confidence and with the authority that comes with Passivhaus credentials. As an architect who was never very (ahem) enthusiastic about the numbers and physics of things (and more into the airy-fairy poetic nature and scholarly aspect of architecture), it was also helpful in terms of training my weaknesses.
I call myself a Passivhaus designer rather than a consultant, in part because If I were to attempt a full-on certified Passivhaus, I would want to hire someone more experienced who does this on a daily basis to do the actual numbers part while I looked over their shoulder through the process — at least for the first few times.
A simple HVAC system is best
My approach to Passivhaus is similar to my approach to structural engineering. I try not to design anything too complicated to engineer myself. Similarly, I prefer not to design anything that would require a complicated heating and ventilating system. It does get more complicated in renovation/addition work though, for sure. My approach to structural engineering has always been very intuitive and very related to my own building experience and knowledge of materials, assemblies, and connections.
My structural engineering professor once told me that the intuition part is vital and more than half the battle. First you intuit the solution, and then you apply numbers and formulas to check yourself. The Passivhaus training augmented my intuition and gave me more confidence to apply the numbers as well as a perspective on when, where, and why.
Plus it was really good for marketing.
Robert Swinburne is a part-time architect and full-time homemaker living on 49 acres with his wife and two young children in Halifax, Vermont. He was a carpenter for several years after architecture school and is now a licensed architect and passive house designer with over 100 completed projects in the Northeast. Bob maintains a blog (primarily for therapeutic reasons) under the moniker “Vermont Architect.”
- Robert Swinburne
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