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A Proposed Passivhaus Amendment for New England

Energy efficiency specialist Marc Rosenbaum suggests ways to address deficiencies in the Passivhaus standard and revise it for New England’s climate

PEC limits. Passivhaus consultant Marc Rosenbaum developed a procedure for calculating primary energy consumption limits for prospective Passivhaus projects in New England based on the home’s number of bedrooms. The limits are a key focus of Rosenbaum’s proposed amendments to the Passivhaus standard.
Image Credit: Marc Rosenbaum

There has been no shortage of discussion lately about modifying the Passivhaus standard to make it more adaptable to, and address more precisely, regional climate conditions.

Passive House Institute U.S. is exploring ways to fine tune the Passivhaus heating and cooling requirement, and possibly impose a load requirement for dehumidification, to enable Passivhaus builders to cost-effectively address the variety of climate conditions in North America. That initiative prompted architect and Passivhaus consultant Hayden Robinson to suggest in an online petition that PHIUS use a name other than Passive House for its certifications should the group’s requirements deviate from those of the existing Passivhaus standard.

While the debate over the appropriate use of the name Passive House has been lively, it doesn’t seem to have curtailed suggestions from those who believe the standard is extremely valuable but also in need of improvement. A case in point is a document titled “Proposed New England Passivehouse Amendment,” which was posted online on March 31 by energy efficiency specialist Marc Rosenbaum.

A focus on primary energy

Rosenbaum identifies what he believes are five principal deficiencies of the Passivhaus standard:

â— The standard’s annual heating demand and annual cooling demand (AHD and ACD) limits are the same for all regions, leading to extreme solutions in severe climates.

â— Meeting the AHD requirement in severe climates diverts focus from the overall primary energy consumption of the building and its occupants.

â— The Passivhaus standard limits are set per unit of usable floor area, which means large houses meet the standard more easily than small ones. That creates a perverse incentive to build big houses. Accordingly, the standard sidesteps the core issue of resource-use equity.

â— The standard counts solar input from direct-gain solar heating and solar thermal hot water, but it does not allow solar electricity to be used in meeting the standard.

â— The standard does not require performance reporting beyond a blower-door test that shows a maximum of 0.6 air changes at 50 Pascals.

Addressing these issues, Rosenbaum points out, means focusing more on primary energy consumption (PEC) per person and less on the building’s annual heating demand (AHD). A focus on AHD – the most challenging criterion of the Passivhaus standard – leads to “extreme solutions” that are not only costly but diminish the attention that should be paid to PEC.

An AHD-centric approach, he says, “can lead to buildings with excess south glazing, with increased heating season temperature swings (and higher cost). It can lead to quantities of insulation that likely exceed any defensible rationale when compared to investments in renewable energy.”

The Passivhaus standard’s AHD, he adds, is based on the idea of lowering the design heating load enough to deliver heat via the home’s ventilation air system – 10W per square meter, which in the climate of central Germany, where Passivhaus concepts were developed, yields 15 kWh per square meter per year. In New England’s climate, it is “extremely challenging” to push the annual design heating load down to 10W/m2, Rosenbaum says.

Key features of the amendment

He contends that building comfort and durability can be achieved with less aggressive levels of insulation than those that would be required to meet the existing Passivhaus AHD criterion. The shift in focus should be to a design heating demand (DHD) limit of 30W/m2 (or 9.5 btu/hr/ft2) based on treated floor area — which, he says, better reflects the fact that primary energy consumption attributable to heating in New England is 25% to 30% of total PEC.

The standard’s annual cooling demand criterion would be eliminated for New England because cooling in the region accounts for too small an amount of overall energy usage. Rosenbaum adds, though, that a separate dehumidification calculation (as yet to be developed) should be incorporated into the PEC calculation.

As mentioned, the amendment makes PEC the principal focus of the New England amendment, with the PEC limit set according to the number of bedrooms — a surrogate for the number of occupants — in the building rather than setting energy-use limits according to total usable floor area. This per-person budget for energy consumption is intended to help address the fact that, under the current criteria, it is more difficult for smaller houses to meet the Passivhaus standard than it is for larger homes.

With the AHD and ACD limits eliminated, the design heating demand limit, based on treated floor area, is 30W/m2. (Rosenbaum notes that this is the limit before solar and internal heat gains are calculated, and so is not directly comparable to the 10W/m2 limit shown in the Passive House Planning Package worksheet, which shows net heating load after those gains are added.)

Other key features of the amendment: the domestic hot water limit per occupant is raised to 10 gallons per day from the German limit of 6.6 gpd; photovoltaic power can count for as much as 20% of the primary energy consumption limit (each kilowatt of PV offsets 2kW of primary energy); the dehumidification load is added; and certification is renewed annually based on energy use data.

Calculations and expectations

Rosenbaum developed an algorithm to calculate the PEC limits — in kWh per year and million btu (MMbtu) per year (see table above) — based on the number of bedrooms in the project. He also describes the processes for calculating design heating demand, annual cooling demand, domestic hot water, and auxiliary electricity and electricity for appliances, lighting, and plug loads – all as they would apply to the Passive House Planning Package program. The data, added together, show total primary energy usage, which can then be compared to the PEC limit for that particular project.

Rosenbaum, who founded Energysmiths consultancy, in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, to advance design and construction strategies that make buildings more energy efficient, notes that the Passivhaus standard has been modified to both suit climate conditions in other countries and focus more tightly on primary energy consumption.

But he also observes that his proposed amendment is unlikely to be adopted in eager, speedy fashion by existing Passivhaus organizations (including Passive House New England). Nor does he delve into concerns about whether modified Passivhaus criteria should carry the name Passive House. He does hope, however, that his ideas precipitate useful discussions about the standard’s benefits and weaknesses.

“At the least,” he writes, “the aspiration is that this proposal may guide a well-focused and thoughtful exploration of how to live ethically and effectively on this planet for practitioners and clients, rather than aiming blindly at what are ultimately arbitrary numbers despite our best intentions.”


  1. 4y23MuNF7N | | #1

    Water Consumption and Equity
    What is the rationale for suggesting that the inhabitants of Germany are dirtier, smellier and more dehydrated than those of New England ? Or does it simply reflect the difficulty of finding well-designed plumbing fixtures ?

    The Passivhaus standard limits are set per unit of usable floor area, which means large houses meet the standard more easily than small ones. That creates a perverse incentive to build big houses. Accordingly, the standard sidesteps the core issue of resource-use equity.

    This failing is to be replaced by one which creates a perverse incentive to build houses with many bedrooms. To guarantee, rather than merely aim towards, equity in individual energy use will require that the annual check of energy use would include a check that the number of people in the household tallies with the number of bedrooms. Households which were people-deficient would need to be encouraged to offer accommodation to more people in the following year if punitive measures were to be avoided. Bussing of refugees or the homeless might be one route. Of course, death of occupants would need to be handled sensitively with a suitable period for counseling before eviction of the recently-bereaved took place.


    reason for edit - add smiley-face

  2. albertrooks | | #2

    This continues to be valid response to conditions
    Regardless of how institutional adoption proceeds, I appreciate Marc's work on this front.

    He has made this argument for a while now: PE is the real "target", not AHD since all active systems flow from PE. In the colder climes, who can argue against this? In my opinion, it is an entrirly viable approach and would build excellent SFR's.

    The argument: ""An AHD-centric approach, he says, “can lead to buildings with excess south glazing, with increased heating season temperature swings (and higher cost). It can lead to quantities of insulation that likely exceed any defensible rationale when compared to investments in renewable energy."" by now is becoming circular. The problems with the ADA approach are really based on single family residences, not on larger multifamily structures.

    The circle this follows is: ADA requires too much in passive systems because the size/occupant ratio is to small. How do you justify more/less insulation etc? By cost comparison to renewables? OK, thats one way to value it. What is not "on the table" in this closed circle are two more consideration that are hard to deal with:

    1, The rational to set ADH secondary to PE is because PE, according to Marc's 2011 PHIUS Presentation, is really the Climate Change problem that we wish to solve. However, the switch from passive systems (insulation etc) to the active systems ( add more energy- even though it's renewable) is a finical justification, not an enviroment / climate change justification.

    2, Making the target easeir to hit: PE vs. AHD is really supporting the idea that we all get to live in small single family residences. I think that this is a far more valid issue to raise than the "PHPP creates a perverse incentive to build big houses" because more TFA is easier.

    The problem is not with the fact that the PHI's Passivhaus Standard uses TFA vs bedrooms as a measure. The problem is that we expect low cost SFR's in cold climes.

    I think that it's not unreasonable to "over-invest" in the envelope if we wish to continue to live independently in SFR's over the next decades. Justifying the investment on current cost of envelope vs cost of renewables is an "arbitrary" decision. Is the only measure finical? Is there zero environmental value in eliminating the AHD load altogether?

    That said, don't think too much of my hairsplitting I think Marc's proposition is excellent. It's admittedly a FAR better house than I live in now.

    We need more of these. And... we need a multitude of these programs (and their amendments) to be successful. Long live PHI, PHNE, PHIUS, NZE, PRETTY GOOD, HALF-ASSIV. I wish them great success.

  3. AndyKosick | | #3

    Thinking out loud.
    The fundamental problem with an objective energy standard is it can never be guaranteed to reflect reality. What should be vs. what will be. The bedrooms vs. actual occupants is a great example and besides homes being built to this level could easily have more plug loads than anything else. If PEC the is the concern (and I think it should be), what about a certification standard that starts after the first year of occupancy and renews every year based on actually occupancy and utility data. I realize that something up front is necessary to get an efficient house built in the first place, but maybe it could be more about guide lines to help meet a goal. If it became popular this kind of standard could improve occupant behavior and get everybody watching there energy habits like us energy geeks are already doing at home (you know you are) and also help gather accurate real world data.

    By the way, good article.

  4. fjW6mU4wNU | | #4

    Criteria for a new standard.
    Let me start by acknowledging that I am in no position to match wits with Marc on this. And that my comments oversimplify the conversation. That said:

    Perhaps, as an architect, I am biased toward better building enclosure systems and not quite interested enough in mechanical and energy systems, but I am not yet persuaded that we will create optimally efficient buildings through a renewed emphasis on energy production and mechanical equipment capacity. For the past couple of generations, cheap, plentiful energy has combined with advances in mechanical technology to shape our buildings and settlement patterns in ways so fundamental that it is easy to think of them as givens: Americans often live far apart in intrinsically inefficient, detached buildings; we often commute long distances and do it in inefficient vehicles. These may be preferences, or they may simply reflect the fact that we have created policies and infrastructure that make these choices financially attractive. Whatever the cause, this is the reality with which we are confronted. But it is also a reality that the 21st century U.S. is not a nation of yeoman farmers, and it takes a degree of self-serving denial to adapt our conception of energy performance to accommodate our inefficient lifestyle and consumption choices. Softening CAFE standards wouldn’t make gas guzzlers fuel efficient, and relaxing heating criteria wouldn’t take the A out of Q = U A delta T. Heating demand and load standards don’t penalize detached houses, they acknowledge the energy-use implications attached to that building type.

    Life-style demagoguery aside, I am not convinced that there can be a supply-side solution to energy problems. Resource use is a function of availability. When a commodity becomes more available, more gets used. I am in favor of PV, but wish it would be used to charge our vehicles, suspect it would end up powering larger TV’s, and wouldn’t bet on it actually being used to offset heating energy demand as intended.

    That said, we are talking about finding the right balance and should not be throwing money at energy savings if PV gets us to the same place more effectively. But, though willing to be open minded, I remain skeptical of performance criteria that encourage inefficient building types and lifestyle choices.

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