Early adopters often make good news stories. Some of the most popular focus on early adopter compulsion: the spectacle of thousands of people lining up to purchase an electronic gadget – a game console, cell phone, video player, laptop, or tablet computer – the day it is released.
But there also are stories about early adopters whose behavior is driven not by a need to stand at the forefront of high-tech consumerism – an exasperating cause, in many cases, since improved iterations are launched only months later – but by rational assessments of the long-term benefits of a new product, technology, or strategy that involves a far larger financial and emotional commitment than the latest electronic gewgaw. That notion came to mind over the weekend with the publication of a New York Times story about a home being built in Norwich, Vermont, to meet the Passivhaus standard.
Passive House’s early adopter status in the U.S.
The story, “Can We Build a Brighter Shade of Green?,” offers a consumer-oriented overview of the Passivhaus strategy and the perspectives of Barbara and Steven Landau, who have been working with architecture firm ZeroEnergy Design and builder Bensonwood Homes as they wend their way through the details of equipping the 2,700-sq.-ft. house to their liking while also keeping the calculations for its eventual performance in line with Passive House requirements.
What’s encouraging about the Times piece is that, thanks to the paper’s relatively large distribution in print and vast reach online, it can add significantly to the consumer conversation about energy efficient homes in general and their highest performance standard, Passive House, in particular, whether the focus is comfort, upfront costs, energy savings, durability, environmental concerns, or all of the above.
It’s also helpful that the article, which includes comments by Passive House Institute U.S. director Katrin Klingenberg, points out the disparity between Passive House adoption in Europe, where the standard has been applied to almost 25,000 structures, and its adoption in the United States, where it has been applied to a little more than a dozen new buildings so far, with a few dozen more aiming for Passive House certification.
A quest for performance, but not necessarily certification
The Landaus’ three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath house is designed to include R-60 above-grade walls, an R-87 roof, R-36 basement walls, and an R-75 basement slab, according to ZeroEnergy Design. Whereas the price premium for building a similar structure in Europe would be just under 5%, in the United States it is about 15%. Design and construction costs for the Landau house likely will top $550,000.
“If we were in Europe, most of the materials and equipment would be off-the-shelf and readily available from local suppliers,” Bensonwood Homes’ owner, Tedd Benson, told the paper. “And they would have already been vetted and certified by the Passivhaus Institut (in Darmstadt, Germany), with their performance specifications already linked into the passive-house software. Here, we have to invent the systems and try to find the materials, products and equipment that will help us meet the passive-house standards.”
But for all she and her husband have invested in the airtightness, insulation, equipment, and amenities in the house, Barbara Landau added that earning Passive House certification is secondary to having a comfortable, energy efficient, and durable home to live in.
“Many times along the way, we thought ‘Why are we trying to meet this standard to be certified as a passive house?’ ” she told the Times. “And we talked about it a lot and I think we came to the conclusion that we don’t really care about the certification. What we really were interested in was making sure that when we built this house that it would work the way we wanted it to work.”