The Passiv Report

Want commercial Passivhaus building to spread? The free market is about to make it happen.

I count myself lucky to be part of a community of fellow Passivhaus practitioners throughout North America.  It’s a passionate group.  We’ve all shared that “aha” moment, the realization that today’s building science – our collective understanding of how buildings function as systems – has opened new possibilities for building energy performance, comfort and durability.

What I’ve found in the commercial realm, and the reason I started Passiv Science, is that the Passivhaus approach enables us to slash building energy consumption by up to 75% but still build at cost parity with conventional construction.  In fact, often our commercial Passivhaus designs are less expensive to build than conventional ones due to savings on mechanical systems.  The Hickory Hall Passivhaus dorm is one recent example.

Passivhaus dormitory design and construction

So…. Huge energy use reductions.  Great indoor air quality.  Awesome thermal comfort.  Superior durability.  And no more expensive to build?  Cheaper, even??

You can’t blame the Passivhaus converted for proselytizing a little.  This is an idea whose time has come.

So the debate in Passivhaus circles, and one I’ve been engaged in with my colleagues recently, is how to encourage wider adoption of Passivhaus, today.  It is such a great tool for achieving revolutionary energy efficiency, shouldn’t we be cajoling states into incorporating Passivhaus into building code?  The incremental increases in building energy performance that typical code updates bring (5% here, 5% there) are so agonizingly slow for us Passivhaus folks.  Heck, slot Passivhaus into your code now and we can get you 60-70% improvements in energy performance.  Come on regulatory bodies, listen up!

But I’m sure that, given the current political environment, there is a more efficient way.

I’m all for legislative change, but I also know it can be a bruising, sometimes glacial, process.  And while I’m firm in my belief that we are 8-10 years away from widespread code adoption of Passivhaus level performance, I also know that today, right now, we can building commercial Passivhaus buildings at market rate.  I don’t need code to prod me.  I can offer my clients a superior product at no cost premium, and as Tim McDonald of Onion Flats says, “zero premium, zero debate.”

Of course, the proof’s in the pudding.  Sure, the Europeans have built thousands of these things and say they perform as modeled, but that’s over there.  We’re here in North America and don’t necessarily believe all that EU data.  After all, don’t European and North American electrons spin in different directions?

But now we are getting Passivhaus projects on the ground here and are able to report on those North American electrons.  We now have not only the cost information, but also the performance data to back what we’ve known for years. I expect it is a small matter of communication to get the word out and then, “Katie bar the door!”  Once we demonstrate 60-70% better building performance at market rate, all we need to do is watch the market do its thing.

I know where this is going, and I’m hitching my Passivhaus wagon to the free market.  It’s the quickest route to widespread adoption.  The next several years are going to be crucial for our industry.

But because I’m depending on the market I also know we need independent, third-party verification of Passivhaus implementation, including rigorous pre-certification review and third party envelope and HVAC commissioning.  It won’t be long before people see the success of Passivhaus and glom on to it, claiming Passivhaus for projects that aren’t or that haven’t been rigorously implemented.

Without rigorous implementation the best-planned building’s success hangs on the lowest-paid person’s ability to execute the design, not a very secure feeling for me.  All we need is one or two Passivhaus-claimed-but-not-verified failures to get the “brand” into trouble.  Good news travels fast, bad news travels way faster!

So that’s why I encourage my colleagues to repeat this mantra: “if it is not certified it is not Passivhaus”.  We need to say it over and over and over.

Meanwhile, we need to prepare for the tipping point in the market, because the moment for Passivhaus in North America is about to arrive.

– Adam

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