The Passivhaus Standard

By Adam Cohen

The Passivhaus (aka “Passive House”) concept of “superinsulation” dates back to the energy crisis of the 1970s. In response to the increasing energy costs from homes with leaky, poorly insulated envelopes and inefficient, oversized mechanical systems, Wayne Schick and a University of Illinois design team developed the “Lo-Cal” house in 1976, spawning a localized building revolution in the Champaign-Urbana area.

Building on this success, a group of Canadian government agencies built the “Saskatchewan House” in 1977. In the same year, Eugene Leger built the super-efficient “Leger House” in East Pepperell, Massachusetts. The public attention that followed resulted in a (short-lived) wave of construction of superinsulated homes.

With the end of the ‘70s energy crisis and a political shift away from alternative energy and efficiency in Washington, excitement in low-energy building waned here in North America.  But in 1988 Professors Bo Adamson of Sweden and Wolfgang Feist of Germany revived the conversation, this time in Europe. After developing the concept through state-funded research projects, they built the first Passivhaus project in 1990, a four-unit townhome in Kranichstein, Germany. Shortly thereafter they codified the metrics for the Passivhaus standard, adapted for the Central European climate zone. Dr. Feist went on to found the Passivhaus Institut (PHI) in 1996 in Darmstadt, Germany.

In 2003, Katrin Klingenberg, an architect who studied with Dr. Feist in Germany, brought the concept back across the Atlantic when she built her own Passivhaus – the first in the United States – in Urbana, Illinois. Having demonstrated proof of concept, she went on to build several affordable housing Passivhaus projects in partnership with the City of Urbana. Klingenberg and Mike Kernagis, who served as construction manager on the projects, founded the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) in 2007.

Today, hundreds of completed Passivhaus projects dot the United States and Canada, including new construction and retrofits, residences and commercial buildings. Globally, 20,000 projects have been completed. With ever-increasing energy prices, stricter building codes, environmental awareness, and demand for greater health and comfort, Passivhaus design and construction are exploding in the United States.