reading response: passive aggressive

Back in 2010, when Joe & I were brand-newlyweds, he stumbled upon this NY Times article about a crazy German home style that required no heating. In fact, the home could be heated just by warming your tea water in a kettle on the stove. Here’s a video from the article about the process, and the state of the Passivhaus here in the U.S:

I love what’s said at 1:30:

They said, “What’s the point? Why would you do something different? Because everybody else has six-inch studs. Seems to be fine for everyone else… I said, “It just doesn’t compare.”

Do the homes cost more? Yes. Up to 15-20% over the average home.

Do you make that money back? In spades. The video says that at current energy prices, the Landau family will recoup the additional expenses in 10 years.

The Passivhaus (whose principles are explained in a brief but not thrilling video here) is still an unknown concept in many parts of the States, but why? Because it’s different? Because contractors don’t have an incentive (either governmental or demand-driven) to provide the resources? Because, as Mr. Landau believes, we’re not forward thinking enough? I wanted to get a better handle on the system, one that Joe & I hope to employ if we ever find ourselves building a home. To do that, I thought I’d look at the most common complaints I could find about passive houses.

Complaint 1: There’s no air flow. It’ll get stuffy.

Not true. Here’s a quick overview of the ventilation system. (No worries, this video has subtitles, in case you can’t speak British Accent.)

Complaint 2: It’s a fad–nonessential bells & whistles that won’t last.

Super Not True. As this great video explains, the Passivhaus is rather anti bells & whistles. I love this video. It shows the system they use to test air tightness. It discusses the traditional construction means used, showing that its practices are already a part of our construction & carpentry traditions. It has a positive ending: Can’t build a passive house? Okay! You can apply some of the principles to your next project.

Complaint 3 (and the complaint I initially had): There’s only one design!

As the NY Times video & the previous video from the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS) illustrate, there is flexibility in the type of passive home you can build. My favorite so far is the one on PHUIS’s “What’s a Passive House?” page. Just a quick Google image search shows seemingly endless elegant, modern designs build to Passivhaus standards.

PHUIS’s site states that “[o]ver the last 10 years more than 15,000 buildings in Europe–from single and multifamily residences, to schools, factories and office buildings–have been designed and built or remodeled to the passive house standard.” Is America ready to be the next Passivhaus frontier? Is the recouping of additional building expenses tempting enough in the American market? Here’s an article from back in 2009 addressing what’s stopping it’s growth so far, but I think we’re gaining ground on several of these.


About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
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11 Responses to reading response: passive aggressive

  1. Anthony Marletta says:

    I really enjoyed your your post here. Really informative and gave good background for the reasoning behind investing in a Passive home. I think when building a new structure, involving heat recovery systems are a great way to save on energy costs. My only question would be towards the idea you touched on briefly about remodeling. How easy would it be to implement this type of heat recovery system into an existing structure? How expensive would it be to add it on to your home instead of making it work with the design plan for your new home? I’m not certain the ROI would be realistic for the remodeling of some residential structures, however, I wonder if that ROI would be more enticing in the commercial building sector.

    • meganbetz says:

      I know! I think amping insulation up THAT much is cost-prohibitive, but there are a lot of things you could do. Need to fix the foundation? Take the time to add more insulation there. Have an attic? Take the time to really insulate that space & store heat in the real part of the house. I think the other interesting thing is focusing on where heat comes from. Fireplaces tend to suck heat OUT of the home, leaving the “hearth” around the fire awesome & cozy, but sucking heat from farther points of the house. Be more “passive” by closing up the home and baking some bread to warm the kitchen… That’s a tiny example, but I think there are more “principles” we could incorporate into living that get us closer without going all-out crazy money spending to reach real standards. I need to look more into what the average home can do to be more “passive” in energy consumption, for sure.

  2. Addison Pollock says:

    Awesome post. I am new to the Passivhaus concept so this is a great introduction. I too like the comment from the first video about boldly stepping out from the norm to live sustainably. Similar to installing photovoltaic solar panels onto the roof of your home, investing in a Passivhaus is more costly in the short-run, therefore it makes sense that folks who live in traditional homes would question the whole notion. The additional cost of a Passivhaus is pretty expensive and ten years is a lengthy payback period, but considering the true environmental costs-benefits associated with the investment it seems worth it. Hopefully a market will develop in the U.S. that will lower costs.

    The ventilation system is fascinating; it appears to be very sensitive considering that it will increase airflows and remove odors from rooms but will not shift room temperatures. It seems that many aspects and practices of sustainability are dismissed as fads, but in fact they incorporate methods and tools that worked before things were modernized and “efficient.” Lastly, according to my Google Image search, it seems that most Passivhauses have the same features—boxy frames, tall windows, high ceilings, etc.—but perhaps those features are necessary for their functionality. I agree though, if these do become the new standard housing designs in the U.S. it would be nice to see some variation, rather than more cookie-cutter homes. Maybe retrofitting older homes into Passivhauses would take care of that problem? Thanks for sharing!

    • meganbetz says:

      Yeah, the “boxy” feature is essential–to air flow, to containing heat, to soaking in as much light as possible. But I think it’s interesting that the passive house is dismissed for its limits when SO MANY PEOPLE CHOOSE TO LIVE IN A SUBDIVISION OF ALL THE SAME HOUSE. Haha. I think it’s a plus that I just love geometric, modern design & find myself drawn to the style of passive houses. I think they do fun things with mixed materials (like the colors on the house above, or the many that are a mix of wood, concrete & stone) to change things up.

      Really liked your thoughts!

  3. Jeff Prygoski says:

    I thought it was interesting that the article you provided on barriers to growth mentioned Lack of Controls as one of the top five barriers to overcome. Although this isn’t a barrier that immediately jumps out at you, I can see why it might throw people off. When I come back to my apartment, often times I will adjust the thermostat a degree or two, more as a way to make me feel at home rather than to address any comfort needs. I think it is similar to the phenomenon we saw in our in class movie, where people move chairs ever so slightly when choosing to sit in one. It is good that architects have addressed this problem by adding choice through a limited control system. I think doing this will increase passive house marketability.

    • meganbetz says:

      I definitely agree. I think we need to feel that we’re in control of our comfort in that way. I know for me, even if I didn’t WANT to change anything about the passivhaus, it bothered me to know that I wouldn’t be able to. I think that carries over to a lot of our sustainable living opportunities, even to things as small as a lightbulb. You’re FORCING me? I don’t want it!

  4. Julie Harrigan says:

    I’m noticing throughout this class that I tend to be drawn to radically different ideas, which can be both a good and a bad thing. What I like about your post, though, is that this is a more sustainable housing solution that really doesn’t break the mold when it comes to the traditional American housing dream. Though exponentially more efficient, at a glance these houses don’t look dramatically different than the traditional housing designs we’re used to.

    This is in complete opposition to Earthships, which is another form of sustainable housing I’ve read a bit about. Check them out here: Granted, they’re taking sustainability to a whole new level, incorporating it into every facet of the structure, but they also look as foreign as the name suggests and would not appeal to the vast majority of Americans. And as interesting as I find them, I’m not sure I’d live in one myself. So thanks for sharing a much more feasible solution that’s headed in the right direction!

  5. naomiariel says:

    Megan – this is awesome! Thanks so much for teaching us about this. I had similar reactions to both Anthony and Jeff in that 1) how realistic is retrofitting (especially as we are trying to prevent erecting new buildings in new places all the time #savthetrees), and 2) we like to control things. I am glad you’ve addressed those. The other 2 things I’ve mulled over: the name and the target audience (thanks, marketing brain). Passive house makes sense, but do Americans even care to look if it’s passive? It might seem trivial but I am curious if this is a barrier. I like that it’s not “Net” (that’s becoming over-used to the point of confusion) but does is it counter to our culture to elevation “passive-ness.” Second, we talk a lot about what consumers want, and educating them. However, last quarter we studied a case where a home appliance launch failed because the carpenters, builder (channels) were not on board. I am curious to what extent this AMAZING option is being touted to architects, builders, etc. Is the PHIUS integrated into mainstream building at all? Love that Habitat is exploring this – can we get them to work with their partners to push this upstream to Whirlpool’s contractors? New construction is usually more money for contractors. Can we make them a more vital part of the conversation (it’s in their economic interest) to debunk the myths/concerns for the home-owner?

    • meganbetz says:

      Completely agree. The name is a challenge, especially since we still largely use the German, which as a Europhile I am drawn to… but lots of Americans are NOT. Love your thoughts–and love your marketing brain. Make the PR/comm kid in me feel less crazy when I’m super bothered by these things!

      As for contracting, it doesn’t seem that they’re doing much yet. But as they work the “you can do this too” angle, I hope they’re thinking of these things. (If not, we have a job opportunity :).)

  6. Pingback: This is goodnight, not good-bye! Final thoughts on SPEAV515 « Dance like no one is watching.

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