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Green Building News

The Passivhaus Institut in Germany Disowns Its U.S. Satellite

The Passivhaus Institut’s decision to suspend its contract with Passive House Institute US raises important questions, most still unanswered

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Wolfgang Feist (left) has severed all contractual ties with the Passive House Institute U.S., an Illinois organization founded by Katrin Klingenberg (right).
Image Credit: Martin Holladay
Wolfgang Feist (left) has severed all contractual ties with the Passive House Institute U.S., an Illinois organization founded by Katrin Klingenberg (right).
Image Credit: Martin Holladay
As of August 18, references to Passive House Institute US's now-severed affiliation with Passive House Institute were still apparent on the PHIUS website.
Image Credit: Passive House Institute US

UPDATED 8/19/2011 with a link to PHIUS’s response

As of August 18, there were no obvious indications on the Passive House Institute US website that the group’s relationship with European-based Passivhaus Institut – considered by some as the final arbiter of Passivhaus design and construction protocols – had changed dramatically. But in fact, the relationship between the Institute in Darmstadt, Germany, and its satellite in Urbana, Illinois, had been officially severed.

Most people with an interest in Passivhaus construction by now know that Passivhaus Institut founder Wolfgang Feist, in a letter dated August 17, declared that “recent actions by PHIUS have culminated both in breaches of contract and good faith, unnecessarily reinforcing false divisions within the Passive House community. In light of PHIUS’ disregard for its standing agreements with PHI, we are left with no other choice but to suspend all standing contracts.”

The contracts include those authorizing PHIUS as a Passivhaus project certifier and testing agency for Passivhaus certifiers and designers, and also as a distributor of Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), the software program used by architects and builders to assess the effects of design elements on energy efficiency.

PHIUS is no longer authorized to sell PHPP software

While he acknowledged that PHIUS’ founder, Katrin Klingenberg, “has done much to bring Passive House to the American market and we appreciate what PHIUS has achieved in the US,” Feist wrote that there was evidence that PHIUS had compromised the integrity of Passivhaus certification for some buildings by certifying them “without the requisite documentation.” He also said that PHIUS had made unauthorized sales of and changes to PHPP – this may be a reference to a version of the software, available in the U.S., that uses English, rather than metric, measurements – and, perhaps most important, had abandoned PHI’s examination protocol for the Certified Passive House Designer designation.

Feist went on to say that PHI will continue to offer its own, English-language version of PHPP and will continue to offer and oversee Passive House Building Certification and Certified Passive House Designer testing and accreditation in the U.S. “We must make it clear that PHIUS may no longer rely on PHI’s name and expertise to bolster its own image,” Feist declared in his statement. “PHIUS is not authorized to sell the PHPP.”

What’s not yet clear is what PHI’s action will mean for PHIUS, PHI activity in the U.S., and, most critically, for industry professionals previously accredited by PHIUS to handle Passivhaus project certifications and design.

Reaction in the Passivhaus community

The August 17 divorce announcement was a response to an earlier announcement by PHIUS that the Institute in Illinois would not abide by European requirements concerning teaching methods and curriculum used to train Passive House consultants for certification. “We plan to keep moving forward with the CPHC [certified Passive House consultant] designation and will not remove it from the U.S. market,” PHIUS announced. “We will offer an exam, which distinguishes the North American specialists as having skills and expertise beyond the scope of those required for the Certified European Passive House Designer credential. … PHIUS will no longer administer the European exam.”

The announcement left American students in a quandary: they could either pursue certification from PHIUS — a certification that no longer has any international recognition — or could pursue a parallel certification from an internationally accredited training provider like the Passive House Academy of Wicklow, Ireland. (Sensing an economic opportunity, Irish Passivhaus trainers have been offering courses in the U.S. for several months.)

Many U.S. observers were troubled by the PHIUS’s decision to ignore European mandates. New York architect Ken Levenson said, “There was unhappiness and widespread concern about PHIUS’s recent announcement that they will be doing their own certifications.”

Levenson’s dismay is shared by many. “I’m very disappointed that the two organizations haven’t worked things out,” said Joe Giampietro, an architect and Passive House consultant in Seattle, Washington.

According to Jesse Thompson, an architect and certified Passive House consultant in Portland, Maine, “A lot of people have been attracted to Passivhaus because it is simple. There are just three numbers, which makes the standard attractive. Designers and builders usually don’t enjoy politics and infighting.”

Exam confusion

Many certified Passive House consultants in the U.S. have spent the last few days trying to figure out whether their credentials are internationally recognized. According to the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, there were two types of exams conducted in the U.S. over the last few years: exams leading to “PHIUS’s self-created CPHC [certified Passive House consultant] label” and “international exams” recognized by the headquarters in Germany.

According to a statement released by the Darmstadt institute, “PHIUS held these international exams, along with other course providers worldwide, in November 2010, January 2011, April 2011 and June 2011. The November and January exams have undergone final grading by PHI: all those who received the Passive House Designer certification directly from the Passive House Institute (PHI) following the taking of these exams have the international certification. This status remains unchanged by current developments.”

The statement continued, “As for the other two exams given by PHIUS in April and June, PHI will do its best to ensure that these exams receive their final grading as well. All others may take the International Passive House Designer exam with any of the the 45 examination bodies worldwide, or, better yet, may achieve the international certification through the submission of a report documenting a Passive House building, planned by the applicant and certified by a PHI accredited Passive House Building Certifier.”

What will happen next?

It’s also not clear what this will mean for the still-small Passivhaus market in the U.S. In some ways, the timing of the rift could be viewed as a setback for Passivhaus, because the standard is just emerging here. But the break also could be an opportunity for a group of stakeholders to launch a U.S.-only certification entity that is independent of PHI and PHIUS and, perhaps to avoid a few of the inevitable legal entanglements, independent of the names Passivhaus and Passive House.

We’ll post more about the PHI-PHIUS rift and its possible consequences as more information and feedback from stakeholders become available.

PHIUS responds

On the afternoon of August 18, 2011, PHIUS released a public response to Feist’s letter. For more details, see The American Passive House Institute Responds to Dr. Feist.

Martin Holladay also contributed reporting for this story.


  1. 4QgL3ti4A2 | | #1

    Any vacuums caused by the
    Any vacuums caused by the rift will be filled. I think its more important than ever not to
    Allow the "politics" to damage or slow the passive movement in the US. I think we need to move forward and build multifamily passive house and document the actual performance
    With "dashboards" and integrate the results over time. You can't beat actual performance data.
    We need to keep all lines of communication and dissemination of information open. I can live with metric software I don't find metric/imperial a deal breaker. I would love the phpp software to have a module for cost benefit analysis. I agree the theory of passive house is simple the execution is not
    Until we have full access to knowledge,techniques, materials (foam glass, thermal breaks etc) , data,
    Government cooperation and communication of the same amongst the stakeholders our ability to implement passive house in the US will face some headwinds .

  2. Alan Abrams | | #2

    I regret the rupture, but support PHIUS's work to make the PH system work for the US. Like it or not, we do not use the metric system here, and to compel users to make conversions to metric adds layers of effort and invites mistakes--anyone remember the lost Mars Orbiter?

    As for the training--and exam--which I received in '09-'10--although it gave me a solid understanding of the fundamentals--I would have benefitted from another 2-3 day session devoted to some of the subtleties of the PHPP. Likewise, I think the exam should have incorporated more elaborate questions or projects requiring use of PHPP.

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