Passive Homes- Sustainable Architecture at a Cost

A passive house like the one seen above, a project from Parsons the New School for Design in 2011, is so well insulated that it needs little or no energy for heating and cooling. PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT MCCLAIN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST/ GETTY

On National Geographic News, Wendy Koch writes an article piece with video included of new Habitat for Humanity D.C. homes: “Thermos-Like Passive Homes Aggressively Save Energy.” Intrigued, I read the article and watched the video to get a glimpse of the higher cost, certified PassivHaus windows needed for the homes. Morally, I think Habitat for Humanity does overall great work. I also love finding new materials and designs for sustainable and energy efficient architecture. Do I think this is a neat undertaking by the organization? Yes. Do I think it needs more testing in the appropriate environment/weather conditions similar to D.C.? Yes. Should it have been implemented yet? Not sure. Wendy Koch writes:

They stand out in other ways: 12-inch-thick exterior walls and triple-pane, imported-from-Ireland windows offer more than double the insulation required of new homes. In lieu of a furnace, tiny, wall-mounted Mitsubishi units provide heating and cooling. 

After watching the video, Dan Hines (construction superintendent) left me not quite sold that these are the most appropriate approach for D.C. homes. Though he explained that the upfront cost would outweigh the further costs on heating/cooling energy bills, I’m concerned if the building design will be able to stand up to the weather of D.C. and if they will in fact live up to what they promise. What if the humidity of D.C. summers is too much for the tightly constructed homes and thus the owners need to run air conditioning? What if we continue to have extreme cold-blasts? The article then explained:

Set to house low-income families, the rowhouses are on track to do something the president’s place nearby has not—meet perhaps the world’s strictest energy rubric: Passive House, popularized in uber-efficient Germany and now gaining ground in the United States.

I set out to find more information about Passive House and after a quick google search found PassivHaus, the company that originally started the movement in Germany. After thoroughly reading their materials and services, I’m convinced that their architecture is sound for Germany and similar climates.  Maybe this is the skeptic in me but I’m still wondering how these standards and certifications will hold up in the various climates and climate changes experienced in the U.S. and other parts of the world? The U.S. has its own Passive House Institute (PHIUS), started by the German architect Katrin Klingenberg.

They’ve generated their share of controversy. In August 2011, Germany’s Passivhaus leader Wolfgang Feist severed ties to PHIUS, saying it was not requiring enough documentation to certify projects. Feist has also criticized PHIUS’s push to adjust the standard to varying climates.

Apparently in late 2014, Climate Specific Passive Building Standards were reviewed in order to be implemented this year, but I did not see updated standards yet on the PHIUS Technical Committee Overview page.  Thus this leaves me uncertain if these homes are such a great idea to already be built, without definite standards that relate to different U.S. environments. I mean, especially if you’re giving these homes to low-to-zero income families, whom do not have extra money lying around to buy a space heater or air conditioner if necessary, or need to make repairs to the home. Should Passive Home-owners be given tutorials on how to manage their home and make appropriate repairs in order to still be compliant with the strict standards? What if a window breaks, how will these home-owners pay for such expensive, imported constructions? (Yes I know that is such a big what-if, but I still think it’s a legitimate question that needs answering)

Furthermore, I wonder if PHIUS is working with any U.S. companies to design their own windows and insulation products that mimc the materials ordered from Europe? If these designs are really going to work in the U.S. and take off, then there should be building contractors and companies that can work together to support the U.S. economy, as well as make the projects as cost-efficient as possible so that the model is sustainable and continued. Not to mention the “new” technology which could add to the growing sustainable design market.  Apparently the PHIUS consultants cost more for projects to make sure the homes are built certified, but how long will this continue? Also, will architects all eventually have to be some sort of energy-efficient or sustainable-design certified at some point in the future? That last question could spark an entirely new post for another date. 

Habitat for Humanity, keep rocking out. PassivHaus, nice learning about you and keep progressing. PHIUS, some advice. 1) You should probably formalize your slides before posting them to your public site and 2) figure out standards for the U.S. sometime soon if you want to make it big and truly change sustainable architecture.

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