UPDATED 4/5/2012 with new blog links
Product names, program names, brands, and logos can be potent symbols of identity, so much so they’re often at the center of all kinds of marketing initiatives, corporate litigation, and cultural iconography. For people in the building industry, the term “passive house” – or Passivhaus, as we call it here – has come to mean a specific performance standard, and some say that if the criteria behind the standard are loosened to accommodate, say, climate conditions, a name other than Passive House (or Passivhaus) should be used.
That is the core idea of a petition that has been circulating on the Web since March 16 via SignOn, a petitioning tool sponsored by civic action group MoveOn.org. Hayden Robinson, an architect and certified Passivhaus consultant based in Seattle, launched the petition to suggest to Passive House Institute U.S. – which has been examining data from 100 PHIUS-certified projects and fielding comments from the building community about possibly relaxing the Passivhaus standard for some projects in extremely cold climates – that the group’s initiative, while worthy, should proceed with a name other than Passive House.
Multiple standards would create confusion
Here’s the text of the petition: “The Passive House building energy standard is widely recognized in North America and internationally. In the United States, the standard is used by hundreds of businesses and professionals, and its criteria are maintained by a number of certifying agencies offering services across the country. In its blog post, ’15kWh is dead. Long live 15kWh,’ PHIUS publicized a plan to create its own certification criteria and promote them using the Passive House name. PHIUS’s desire to innovate is commendable, and the larger conversation around potential improvements to the Passive House standard is healthy; however, having multiple standards competing under the name Passive House would create confusion and controversy. We therefore ask PHIUS to distinguish its program by giving it a distinctive name.”
Several of those who signed the petition are in Western Europe, a few are in the U.K. and Canada, and at least one is in Australia.
What gets to define “passive house”?
In their accompanying comments, most of the signatories seem to have no problem with PHIUS’s plan to modify criteria for the colder parts of North America, though they agree with Robinson’s contention that, should PHIUS modify its criteria, marketing the revised standard as “Passive House” would create confusion.
“ ‘Passive House’ is not a trademark or brand, but it does have a recognized meaning internationally and in the U.S.,” wrote Greg Duncan, an architect and certified Passivhaus designer based in Brooklyn, New York. “I believe that if PHIUS starts certifying buildings that do not meet this standard, they should use a different term.”
Katrin Klingenberg responds
PHIUS director Katrin Klingenberg told GBA she regards the petition as a “pretty normal response to our proposal for change” – a response, she said, that stems in part from misunderstandings about PHIUS’s study of building science and building performance as it relates to climate zones in North America.
“We haven’t been doing our best to communicate what we’re doing more clearly,” she said, noting in an e-mail that PHIUS’s data analysis “will address climates that are very different from the central European climate. Some climates might see a slight relaxation in the annual energy target (Duluth, MN, very cold), some will see a tightening (San Francisco, CA, much milder). It only makes sense to not make Passive House cost-prohibitive/impossible in very cold climates.”
Klingenberg also wrote, “Modifications will be in line with critiques of Passive House from leading building scientists and energy experts in North America like John Straube, Marc [Rosenbaum], Martin [Holladay], etc.”
Klingenberg pointed out that in dry, sunny climates of the sort found in New Mexico, hitting the annual energy target could lean less on superinsulation and more on the output of a solar thermal system.
“Modification doesn’t change the core value of PH,” she wrote, “it only makes it more accessible and cost-effective, and enhances its chance to become mainstream (without compromising comfort and envelope). It makes it the best it can be.”
Discussion heats up in the blogosphere
Several bloggers have chimed in on this dispute, including:
- Mike Eliason of Brute Force Collaborative: On Peti- & Certifica- tions
- Lloyd Alter of Treehugger: A Plague On Both Their Passive Houses
- Andrew Michler of Inhabitat: Passive House Debate Heats Up
- Mike Eliason again: Monitoring the Petition Fallout
- Matt Hickman of Mother Nature Network: Active Aggressive
- Roger at the EdgewaterHaus blog: When is a Passive House NOT a Passive House?
Get building science and energy efficiency advice, plus special offers, in your inbox.