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Building Science

Is the Passivhaus Program Truly Innovative?

Joseph Lstiburek said it's the ONLY place where innovation is happening — but is he right?

Triple-pane windows like this one from Zola Windows are often used for Passivhaus projects.
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard

Last month, Joe Lstiburek gave the fifth annual Twitterview † from his crawl space. (Peter Troast of Energy Circle has published the transcript of this year’s event.) One of the pearls of wisdom dispensed by Joe was that, “Passivhaus is the only place where real innovation is happening.”

That statement got more retweets than any other that night, so let’s take a look at it. Is the Passivhaus standard really innovative? If so, is it really “the only place where real innovation is happening”?

Not many projects have been certified yet

The Passivhaus program gets a heck of a lot of attention for having reviewed — not certified — only about 100 projects. They must be doing something right to get so much attention with so few certified projects. Is it because they’re innovative?

Let’s take a look.

Superinsulated, airtight building enclosures. This is where the rubber meets the road in the program. The main idea is to reduce the energy consumption of Passive Houses drastically, and that has to start with lots of insulation and air-sealing.

The thing is, this isn’t innovative. By 1985, we’d figured out how to build superinsulated, airtight houses in North America. Don’t believe it? See Martin Holladay’s presentation on The History of Superinsulatied Houses in North America.

Probably the main reason that knowledge didn’t get embedded in our codes and practices was the big drop in oil prices in 1986 when Saudi Arabia opened the taps after years of holding back. When a barrel of oil went from $32 to $11 and the Reagan administration cut funding for energy efficiency programs, the superinsulated, airtight house trend went into hibernation.

Windows. The Passivhaus standard requires that windows have a maximum U-value of 0.14, which is equivalent to an R-value of 7. (Lower U-values are better; higher R-values are better.) That’s pretty darn good … for a window.

They get to that level of performance with three panes of glass, low-e coatings, argon gas in the spaces between the panes of glass, and frames with thermal breaks. The window sample shown above is from Zola Windows, which makes some of the best windows for Passivhaus projects.

Those are all great, but again, we had triple pane, low-e windows in the ’80s. Yes, the materials and assemblies are definitely better, but is that innovation?

Thermal bridges. Thermal bridges allow heat to pass through the building enclosures of most buildings because we don’t require continuous insulation. Building codes say it’s OK to put your insulation between the studs of a stick-built home, so you have 14.5 inches of insulation and 1.5 inch of wood in every 16 inches of a typical wall, floor, or roof. Then there’s also the extra wood around window and door openings as well as at corners and intersections with interior walls.

A typical house has a framing factor of nearly 25%. That means that if you had a square house and put all the wood together, it would take up nearly one whole wall of the house.

The Passivhaus standard requires minimizing thermal bridging. They even give you a number you cannot exceed (0.006 Btu/hr-ft-°F). Their modeling tools, the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) and WUFI Passive, are more sophisticated than anything designers had in the ’80s, so they probably do a better job here than the old guys did back in the day. But the old guys knew the benefits of continuous insulation.

Ventilation systems with heat recovery. Airtight homes need mechanical ventilation. Passivhaus buildings are supertight. The requirement for air leakage is a maximum of 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals (ACH50). Our code in Georgia right now requires 7 ACH50 or less.

If you’re trying to conserve every bit of energy in a building, you don’t want all that energy you used to condition the indoor air escape when you ventilate. So you use a device that allows the outgoing stale air to pass close enough to the incoming fresh air that the warmer air gives up some of its heat to the cooler air. The device that does that is called a heat recovery ventilator (HRV). When the two airstreams also exchange moisture, you have an energy (or enthalpy) recovery ventilator (ERV).

And guess what? HRVs were around in the ’70s and ’80s. They’re more efficient now, and we have ERVs as well, but it’s evolution, not revolution again. Not that evolution is bad. Zehnder makes an HRV that’s 84% efficient, about 10% better than a typical HRV, and their best model checks in at 93% efficient.

Minimal energy use. The original idea, I’ve read, was to build the best enclosure you can so you could heat and cool the building passively. That’s no longer true, and mechanical systems are allowed to heat and cool a home as long as they don’t exceed the Passivhaus limits. The official criterion is that the home needs to use no more than 4,750 Btu/ft2 (15 kWh/m2) per year for heating or cooling.

The people pushing superinsulated houses in the ’70s and ’80s may not have had a hard number they were trying to reach, but energy conservation was clearly their goal. Creating a program around a goal for maximum energy consumption doesn’t really seem so innovative.

Is anyone innovative?

Hmmm. Well, if we’re going to limit ourselves to buildings, mainly residential, in North America, then there may well be no true innovators. We know a heck of a lot of building science now. We’ve built a lot of homes and been able to study the various ways they fall short.

Yes, we have a lot of programs and concepts out there, but I’m not sure anyone is doing anything really new. Energy Star has stepped up its game, but it’s not innovative. LEED, NAHB, net zero … none of these programs is innovtive, not really. They’re all taking ideas that are out there already and trying to get them some traction in the marketplace.

What IS innovative?

When I think of innovative ideas in housing, I think of Buckminster Fuller and his Dymaxion House. I think of Paolo Soleri and his experimental town called Arcosanti. I think of the very odd houses in my copy of the book Shelter.

The problem with innovation, though, is that it leads to ideas that are often too far ahead of their time. The Dymaxion House never really got going. Even Robert Heinlein, who ordered one in 1945, couldn’t get his order filled. Arcosanti is a beautiful idea, but after more than 40 years of construction, the town that’s supposed to have 5,000 people has only about 100.

Maybe innovative is overrated. Or maybe, as King Solomon said, there really is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps making the old stuff better is really where we should focus our energy.

Passivhaus makes energy conservation sexy

Maybe it’s just because they’re the new kid on the block. Maybe it’s because they’re trying to take energy conservation further than anyone else in the game. But Passivhaus definitely has a lot of buzz. I felt it when I went to the PHIUS conference in Denver last year.

Even if what they’re doing is refinement rather than innovation, they’re doing a great work. Some of the biggest problems we’re trying to solve are how to deal with moisture properly, how to ventilate enough but not too much, and how to get the highest performance we can when we build. The Passive House folks are zealots in their attempt to understand and conquer these issues.

If you don’t believe me, just try building a Passivhaus in south Louisiana. Ask Corey Saft how easy it is to deal with humidity when you’ve reduced your sensible loads so much that you barely need an air conditioner.

Another big issue for some people is how to avoid using petrochemical products like spray polyurethane foam, extruded polystyrene foam, and other plastics. I personally am fine with spray and board foam products used appropriately, as are many in the Passivhaus movement. If you’re looking for alternatives, though, a company that’s deep into Passivhaus may have what you need: 475 High Performance Building Supply.

Finally, Passivhaus is clearly leading the pack by making the best promotional video of any program. It’s from Europe and is slightly NSFW (not suitable for work) because it’s a little risqué. It’s in French, though, so don’t worry about the sound unless you have Francophones around.

So, yeah, Passive House is really testing the bounds of what’s possible. Whether we call it innovative or not isn’t so important.

A closing note

The 2013 PHIUS Conference will run 15-19 October in Pittsburgh, PA. I’ll be there again this year.

Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, energy consultant, RESNET-certified trainer, and the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.

Footnote

† Twitterview (noun) – An interview in which the interviewers ask questions, and the person being interviewed is supposed to respond with answers no longer than 140 characters. The interviewers and attendees then publish the questions and answers through the social media tool, Twitter, usually with a hashtag, such as #bscamp.

4 Comments

  1. Sonny Chatum | | #1

    Who cares?! We are going to that passive house place
    Allison,
    You ask if the Passivhaus program is truly innovative, write extensively in an attempt to show that it is not, and then end by writing: "Whether we call it innovative or not isn't so important." Ahh, right, who cares?

    What has GBA gained by continually nitpicking at Passivhaus for the last several years?

    Passivhaus stands simply for passive house, a place to shelter people that is as self-sufficient as possible in terms of its energy use. The world is going to that place, and even farther, in terms of peace with the environment.. The U.S. just does not have as much foresight and honesty with itself to recognize that we are going to that place. Instead we pretend that the future is now; we design for the latest, contrived energy economics. If only nuclear fusion energy could be harnessed on earth, then, perhaps we could keep ignoring that houses will end up needing to be as energy self-sufficient, as possible or passive houses, or Passivhauses.

    Passivhaus has been truly innovative. It has been innovative in that it has packaged all those elements you listed that many people already knew about., Passivhaus has been innovative in that it actually proposed to use those combined elements now, recognizing that the world is probably going to that passive house place. It has not been innovative in helping to wake up the U.S., and then start us arguing over who was the innovator--that has happened before.

  2. Eric Habegger | | #2

    Innovative- no, good at promotion - yes
    I think the fact that only 100 projects have been done under passivhaus standards and yet PH still has the buzz it does speaks for itself. PH is good at promotion and its value is in unifying and refining many themes in green building. Just because PH isn't really innovative does not mean that it doesn't provide a service, It does, and that's why people seem to flock to it. But without being good at promotion they would be nowhere.

    An example of true innovation would be to somehow eliminate the biggest bottleneck in energy conservation: the expensive HRV/ERV and the attendant ducting to different parts of the house. This part of the whole plan is just not well thought out. It works and is required in many climates and many kinds of building plans but in other homes and climates it wastes far more energy than its savings will ever pay back.

    Why not try to get fresh air into the house while it is already warm? It's very possible to use a open attic heat system in high sun insolation states, basically most of the states below the Mason-Dixon line and California. These systems use solar radiation barriers attached to the bottom of the roof rafters to channel warm air up to the top of the roof and then into a duct going down to the living area. Rather than let that warm air just escape through the roof vents you then install a large motorized damper that is closed during most of the hours of the winter months. On my system so far it has generated 35 to 40 degree F temperative differences over the outside air. That is with the roof damper open! I just haven't dared to close it while the days have been hot so far here in California. It makes one wonder what temperatures can be achieved with that damper staying closed and temperatures allowed to stagnate.

    One can easily envision a system with an additional motorized damper in the duct going to the living space that can be opened or closed as needed to warm the house. In a small open plan house that is very air tight one could even use the bathroom fan to overcome the stack pressure to bring that air down. Need I say that since the system can be designed for the air to go through an air filter that this air could be considered "fresh"?!

    The bottom line is that in many climates this warm fresh air can be used only when the air is actually warm. Instead of using a costly HRV/ERV run continuously, (they actually require a lot of energy to run), you could use a bath fan on a short duty cycle when the air in the attic is actually warm. You could easily replace all the air with warm fresh air within an hour or two once each day. Now this would be an innovative idea.

  3. Peter L | | #3

    Response to Eric Habegger
    Since you are circulating attic air, wouldn't such a system bring in dusty, humid, polluted, and stale air into the living space of the home? Attic air is not what I would call "fresh air" nor would I want to be breathing it with all the dust and particulates that are circulating up there.

    As far as HRV/ERV or mechanical ventilation goes. It has been well researched and engineered. Having conditioned, filtered and fresh air circulating in a home is not something I would want to write off as being unnecessary in a tight home. Commercial buildings have been using mechanical ventilation for decades, since opening a window in a commercial building is not really feasible. Many ERV/HRV systems use air filters to remove dust, pollen and other pollutants from the incoming air before it is pumped into the living space. Of course the main feature is that it conditions the air exchange, which is a huge plus in terms of energy savings.

    Unless I am missing something from what you stated, I don't believe circulating attic air back into the living space of the home is even allowed by code.

  4. Eric Habegger | | #4

    Peter L,I guess you didn't
    Peter L,
    I guess you didn't read my comment very closely. All the attic air goes through a filter in the duct that brings the air down to the living space. And besides that, the the radiant barrier attached to the roof rafters goes all the way down and meets the baffles channeling air from the soffits. At least thats the way it works on my house.

    It seems to me this is much better than a high efficiency HRV/ERV. For one thing it does not cost $5000 or more. Second, it brings in fresh air that is already warm so its not just recovering heat, like an HRV does - its actually used to warm the house. Finally, that heat used to warm the house is free because it comes from the sun. The only external energy required is the fan used to bring it into the living space and that can be efficiently done if the house is sufficiently air tight. This is in contrast to an HRV/ERV that in most cases must use a powerful fan to overcome the inherent air restriction in a serpentine air to air heat exchanger.

    I hope you understand. If you have any more questions please ask me before assumptions are made.

    Edit: Peter, I reread your comment and now understand your misunderstanding. My system is an open system where fresh air comes in directly at the soffits and which is isolated from the rest of the attic by the radiant barrier. It is not a recirculated air system. Usually these systems don't get hot enough to use the heat directly but mine does with the proviso that a system like probably has to be used in a moderate climate, like those south of the Mason Dixon line. I hope that clears things up for you.

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