Making Passive Houses Possible

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A passive house in Texas
A passive house in Texas

Passive Houses were originally pioneered in North America in the 1970s, and in the past two decades, a new exemplary model for high building performance design emerged in Germany: Passivhaus. This German high-performance building model and rating system is a rigorous, voluntary design process. It includes highly-efficient system integration which, by incorporating a passive energy design and envelope, dramatically reduces the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling. The “passive” in passive house refers to achieving overall energy savings of 60-70% and 90% of space heating without applying expensive “active” technologies like photovoltaics or solar thermal hot water systems. Energy losses are minimized, and gains are maximized.

The first German Passivhaus project was completed in 1990; as of 2010, over 20,000 Passivhaus homes have been completed, mostly in central Europe (and a few worldwide). Here in the US, interest in passive building technologies was rekindled in 2003. The Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), a non-profit organization and the leading passive building research organization in the US, developed the PHIUS+ Passive Building Certification for the American climate and market. PHIUS works in partnership with Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) and the Department of Energy‘s Challenge Home Program. Through those partnerships PHIUS+ certified projects automatically qualify for respective tax credits and incentives.

Passive homes are becoming more popular in the US, and more than 500 Passive House builders and consultants have been trained and certified by PHIUS across the country. The US Passive design guidelines incorporate strict design criteria utilizing a super thermal building envelope. It‘s comparable to, or in some cases exceeds, most efficient net-zero building designs. These buildings continue to outperform conventional buildings, demonstrating 70%+ more efficiency.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak at the 8th Annual North American Passive House Conference. When I attend such conferences it‘s clear that building science has evolved to the point that passive building design features can be applied on a large scale to new construction, renovation, residential, and commercial properties. However, the real estate and lending markets have not yet evolved to recognize the value of such high performance homes. That‘s why many conference attendees were keenly interested in my presentation on the subject of green appraisals and financing high performance homebuilding.

Builders or homeowners/buyers who don’t have the upfront capital on hand must apply for financing to pay for the building and are required to pay for the “extra” energy efficiency out of pocket. Most lenders do not recognize the monetary value of high performance buildings so it can be harder for borrowers to obtain loans that cover the full cost of passive house construction; however, GEM has partnered with First United Mortgage Company which recognizes the value of green. First United Mortgage facilitates the loan process to include a “green appraisal” that recognizes and quantifies the value of your investment in high-performance measures.

Several GEM passive house case studies under construction are coming in at $100 per square foot for new construction. This model is fast becoming the best solution for low-income, affordable housing. (Habitat for Humanity, the fifth largest developer in the country, has begun to build passive home and net-zero homes into their programs.) Using conventional or government loan programs such as the FHA One-Time Close Construction-to-permanent loan, consumers can build a very efficient home using Passive House or other high-performance building models like modular homes. They would be eligible to obtain financing for as little as 3.5% down, at a competitive interest rate.

More info about Passive Houses…

By the way, here‘s what Katrin Kingenberg, Executive Director, Passive House Institute US, says about the Green Energy Money e-book:

Green Energy Money provides the critical missing link to transforming the building industry: properly assigning economic value to efficiency. For the passive building sector, GEM‘s work proves that efficiency more than offsets incrementally higher upfront costs. And that everything else about passive building is value added. Who would not want a passive home that is more comfortable, more durable, is resilient, has healthier indoor air than normal houses-and has almost negligible utility bills and higher market values? After reading this book, the answer is: no one.