Needed: A Passive House Architectural Style

Passive Houses are at the leading edge of energy efficiency and comfort. A Passive House approach to design and construction can reduce heating energy demand to as little as 10% of that of a standard, code compliant house. That’s a 90% reduction in energy demand, while meeting a very high standard for interior comfort and air quality.

So, why aren’t passive houses being built by the tens or hundreds in communities all over the U.S.? Why aren’t they the standard fare of the homebuilding industry? Why have passive houses not eclipsed the ranch house or cape?

One of the reasons that passive houses are slow to catch on in the U.S. market may be the name itself (adopted from the German Passivhaus) and the lack of a clear identity that can compete with widely known, popular styles or more easily adopted concepts like Net Zero. Passive Houses are not really passive in a psycho-social sense; they are passive in the sense that they are so energy efficient that they do not need a conventional mechanical heating system with a boiler or furnace. The term Passivhaus serves the model better in Germany and other European locations where it apparently has acquired a more attractive cultural meaning. The widely known and popular styles like the California ranch (or, more simply, the ranch), the raised ranch, and the cape (probably from early Cape Cod houses) have become ubiquitous across the U.S. The real estate market uses these style names in describing houses, and for many home buyers or dreamers they have become part of the basis of selection. We know what the names ranch and cape mean; we can visualize them without driving by or standing in front of them; and owners, buyers, sellers, agents, and builders can talk about them without having to explain the basics. Although not really a style, the Net Zero concept has caught on because the concept is so simple: offset 100% of energy demand with on-site energy production.

Passive House does not yet enjoy the easy name familiarity of the popular home styles, and it is not readily identifiable as an energy efficiency concept, despite the fact that it is the most energy efficient standard of the time, and it takes very little in the way of on-site energy production to make it Net Zero. Passive House organizations and enthusiasts commonly promote Passive House as an approach that can be applied to any style (like frosting to a cake), so you could have a Passive House ranch or a Passive House cape, and it could still be identifiable as a ranch or cape, though perhaps not in the purest sense. The insulated walls and insulated roof would be much thicker than they are in a conventional ranch or cape, and fenestration (windows) would be different in keeping with energy efficiency needs, so the appearance would in most cases be different than you might expect for a ranch or cape. And these “add-on” or upgrade features would make the house cost more than the conventional model. Why, then, are Passive House organizations and enthusiasts trying to market Passive House as a concept that will readily fit a popular style but make it cost more? That does not appear to be the most effective approach to Passive House design and construction.

The proven Passive House concept is strong in terms of energy efficiency and comfort. Building designs (and new, fitting aesthetics in unique style or styles) should be developed around the strengths of the Passive House concept in ways that optimize construction economy instead of adding layers of material and labor to a base model that is less efficient. And the designs should incorporate features that people want for comfort, convenience, utility, and livability, including adaptable layouts that meet common user needs, effective daylighting, and indoor-outdoor connections that offer views and opportunities for seasonal expansion of activities to outdoor spaces. In other words, the design focus should be on the users of the building.

One or more identifiable Passive House designs are needed for the mainstream market. Thus far, most Passive House builders or buyers have been outliers with access to financing that does not need to be responsive to market demands. Yet, mainstream consumer willingness to invest in a different model can be seen in the recent evolution of the hybrid and electric automobile markets (witness most recently the buyer response to the unveiling of the Tesla Model 3), where consumers are spending or investing based on different value priorities than in the past.

So, what should a Passive House look like in order to be the best it can be? If consumers can identify with it and imagine living there, then it can grow in popularity. And if do-it-yourself consumers can also see how to use it, monitor it, and modify it without losing the essence, then so much the better.

Posted in Design, Energy Efficiency

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