Passive Houses Show the Future of the American Home

Passive House (or in its original German, Passivhaus) is neither a new Netflix reality show nor a trendy electronic dance music subgenre. It’s a building standard that helps builders and architects develop energy-efficient houses. “Doing more with less,” Passive House International calls it. With the combination of window installation, insulation, and the latest HVAC technology, Passive Houses reduce heating and cooling energy use by as much as 90%.

The Need for Energy Efficiency

The average American household spends 65% of its power usage on heating and cooling, according to a report by the Energy Information Administration. The average family spends upwards of $2,200 a year on power bills.

In addition to its dollar cost to American consumers, it also has a charge on the environment: in 2010, the residential sector’s heating alone sent out 324 million metric tons of CO2, and commercial buildings produced 161 million.

With governments around the world urged by scientists and institutions to come up with concrete solutions to reducing carbon emissions, a large part of the focus for this change has been in the building sector.

A New Standard

The building sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 12% of all emissions in 2018. Because of this, many designers and builders have shifted their focus to making buildings more “green” or energy-efficient.

Building standards such as LEED outline a wide range of design and construction techniques and practices that can certify a building at a certain level of energy efficiency. Still, there are none as laser-focused on creating ‘net-zero’ houses through insulation and ventilation as Passive House.

electric bill report

Airtight and inexpensive

The Passive House works by basically making your home airtight, with as little temperature and air leakage (drafts) as possible so that the homeowner’s energy demand for heating and cooling are minimized. They do this with:

  • a ventilation system that automatically extracts moisture and improves air quality while also providing a constant supply of fresh air
  • triple-glazed well-insulated windows that let thermal energy from sunlight in than it lets out during winter, and reduced solar heat getting in during hot weather
  • superior insulation that prevents heat from escaping when it’s cold outside, and keeps outdoor heat from getting inside the building.
  • efficient HVAC systems with technologies like PICV control valves and HVAC systems that dynamically control airflow and temperature to ensure both efficiency and comfort

All these features may give the impression that Passive Houses, like many efficient and green constructions, are expensive. But they’re not– Habitat for Humanity has designed and assembled Passive Houses for their housing projects, and published position papers about their simplicity and affordability.

What do Passive Houses look like?

The short answer is, like all other houses. While Passive House is a building standard, it doesn’t dictate a specific style or layout (aside from the placement and shading of windows). Its features can be applied to Euro-style homes, contemporary designs, Cape Cods, and Four Squares, making it ideal for blending in with the neighborhood.

There are more than 30,000 Passive Houses in the U.S. today, but you’d be hard-pressed to pick them out on the street.

While we look for solutions to CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that we can apply to everyday living, it’ll take a multi-sectoral approach to implement these solutions. Whether it’s construction, transportation, industry, or agriculture, it will take the application of the latest, most efficient technology to bring down emissions and head off the looming climate change crisis.

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