Lloyd Alter

Passivhaus: The Greenest Building Standard?

by , 04/07/10
filed under: Sustainable Building

sustainable design, green design, passivhaus, green building, sustainable architecture, passive house, passive solar building, passivhaus institute

The Passivhaus has its roots in the USA in the seventies, when Amory Lovins proposed super-insulated houses that could be warmed by a hair dryer. They caught on in Germany, where Passivhaus became a standard that is being followed all over Europe. Now that building standard is coming to America.

sustainable design, green design, passivhaus, green building, sustainable architecture, passive house, passive solar building, passivhaus institute

It is really very simple: you pack in a s**tload of insulation, install very high-performance windows, seal it up tight as a drum and install a very good mechanical ventilation system so that you don’t suffocate.

sustainable design, green design, passivhaus, green building, sustainable architecture, passive house, passive solar building, passivhaus institute

They can be built in really cold climates, like this Passivhaus mountain hut in Austria

sustainable design, green design, passivhaus, green building, sustainable architecture, passive house, passive solar building, passivhaus institute

Or They can be built in temperate climates, like the O’niell House in Sonoma, California. It uses 70% less energy than a conventional northern California home. Treehugger has noted that we should forget energy star and LEED — the new green building standard is Passivhaus.

The Passivhaus standard isn’t just for new construction, either; It can also be used for renovations, but it isn’t easy. It is also being used for multifamily structures, like a proposed co-housing project in Brooklyn. The New York Times gave it a great graphic explanation of how it works. But not everyone is convinced that it is perfect; Alex Wilson of Greenbuilding.com thinks that it might be a bit inflexible for America.

Katrin Klingenberg, who brought the Passivhaus to America and runs the Passive House Institute, uses the Anglicized term Passive House. I think, like the British, that we should keep the term Passivhaus as the descriptive word for the standard; passive design is becoming common, but is not the same thing.

Lead photo: Ettel House

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7 Comments

  1. CTP January 9, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    For those of you looking for super insulated building components, I thought it might be of interest to point out Eco-Panels: http://www.eco-panels.com They offer an R-60 wall, roof, or floor panel that is only 8.5″ thick with multiple skin options depending on the design/code specifications. Have a happy 2012!

  2. vulariter January 5, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    I love the idea. One thing worries me, and that’s radon. -joshua

  3. vibhikant November 10, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    I think Passivhaus standard works great for two kind of homes:
    1. Homes which are located where the climate is moderate; neither too hot nor too cold
    2. New homes. Passivhaus doesn’t address how we can make the existing buildings more energy efficient without undertaking a huge renovation effort. And, if we want to address the climate issue, making existing buildings green will be a big an important part of it.
    These issues can be addressed by relaxing some of the requirements for heating and cooling for extreme climates as well as more appropriate standard for energy efficiency in existing buildings existing buildings.

  4. New York State Gets it'... August 10, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    [...] an ultra-efficient cave-like home that’s on track to be New York State’s first passive house. The Architects Newspaper tells us that the home is currently under construction in Claverack, New [...]

  5. WolfgangFeist May 18, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    You are righht – it is in principle quite simple. But most important is: It is tried and tested, it really works. In Europe not only for dwellings, but also for offices, kindergartens, schools, supermarkets, … And, what might be even more important: It is healthy (fresh air) and very comfortable (ask anybody living in a passive house). When we built the first experimental house in Germany 1990, we have been in contact with Amory Lovins – and we have of course learned from the early US experience (William Shurcliff and others).

  6. rainingmirrors April 21, 2010 at 3:54 am

    Nice picture of the Schiestlhaus on the Hochschwab in Austria. More information on this projekt is available at http://www.schiestlhaus.at.
    Since it is built in a remote region, all systems are developed to function autonomously with no links to any grids at all. Just read through the offical homepage, it includes all details on the project.

  7. timeian April 7, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks for creating this post, Lloyd. I am a board member of the Passive House Alliance, a trade organization for Passive House in the U.S. We are a growing community of designers and builders with about 100 people certified as Passive House Consultants. May I suggest posting a link to the Passive House Institute?

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