In 1977, a group of Canadian researchers built a demonstration house in Regina. Called the Saskatchewan Conservation House, the nearly airtight building had triple-glazed windows, R-40 wall insulation, R-60 roof insulation, and one of the world’s first heat-recovery ventilators.
The home’s design and engineering team included Robert Besant, Oliver Drerup, Rob Dumont, David Eyre, and Harold Orr. That same year, Gene Leger, a Massachusetts builder, finished a similar superinsulated house in Pepperell, Mass.
When it became clear that these two houses used extraordinarily low amounts of energy, progressive builders and energy researchers throughout North America sat up and paid attention. Among those taking notice of the Saskatchewan and Leger houses were Ned Nisson, the first editor of Energy Design Update, and William Shurcliff, a well-known Massachusetts physicist who regularly collaborated with Nisson.
A prescient press release
In June 1979 — almost thirty years ago — William Shurcliff issued a historic press release that bears quoting at length. Shurcliff wrote:
“Consider the Saskatchewan Energy Conserving Demonstration House. Or consider the Leger House in Pepperell, Mass. They fit none of the … listed categories [of solar houses]. The essence of the new category is:
“1. Truly superb insulation. Not just thick, but clever and thorough. Excellent insulation is provided even at the most difficult places: sills, headers, foundation walls, windows, electric outlet boxes, etc.
“2. Envelope of house is practically airtight. Even on the windiest days the rate of air change is very low.
“3. No provision of extra-large thermal mass. (Down with Trombe walls! Down with water-filled drums and thick concrete floors!)
“4. No provision of extra-large south windows. Use normal number and size of south windows — say 100 square feet.
“5. No conventional furnace. Merely steal a little heat, when and if needed, from the domestic hot water system. Or use a minuscule amount of electrical heating.
“6. No conventional distribution system for such auxiliary heat. Inject the heat at one spot and let it diffuse throughout the house.
“7. No weird shape of house, no weird architecture.
“8. No big added expense. The costs of the extra insulation and extra care in construction are largely offset by the savings realized from not having huge areas of expensive Thermopane [windows], not having huge well-sealed insulating shutters for huge south windows, and not having a furnace or a big heat distribution system.
“9. The passive solar heating is very modest — almost incidental.
“10. Room humidity remains near 50 percent all winter. No need for humidifiers.
“11. In summer the house stays cool automatically. There is no tendency for the south side to become too hot — because the south window area is small and the windows are shaded by eaves.
“What name should be given to this new system? Superinsulated passive? Super-save passive? Mini-need passive? Micro-load passive? I lean toward ‘micro-load passive.’ Whatever it is called, it has (I predict) a big future.”
The Passivhaus concept is born
Eleven years after William Shurcliff’s landmark press release, a German physicist, Dr. Wolfgang Feist, adopted Shurcliff’s list, suggested a few further specifications, and coined a German word, Passivhaus, to describe the construction method. In a January 2008 interview, Feist acknowledged, “The building process for the first Passivhaus prototype started in 1990. At the time we knew about other similar buildings — buildings made by William Schurcliff and Harold Orr — and we relied on these ideas.” Feist and his colleague Bo Adamson went on to champion the Passivhaus concept in several European countries.
In North America, however, the lessons of the Saskatchewan and Leger houses hardly spread beyond a small band of dedicated custom-home builders. In the intervening 30 years, mainstream American builders completed tens of millions of leaky new homes, most with 2×4 walls haphazardly filled with fiberglass batts.
Scanning the horizon for the latest new thing
Some U.S. builders look expectantly to research labs, hoping that technical breakthroughs will help get us through the next energy crisis. While such hopes are understandable, they show little understanding of history.
To design and build extremely energy-efficient houses, no new technical breakthroughs are required. We’ve hardly begun to deploy the simple lessons learned 30 years ago; so why are we still scanning the horizon for new whiz-bang inventions?
Last week’s blog: “Simplicity Versus Complexity.”