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Are “passive homes” the future?

Dec 7, 2017

The Next Idea

"Outside of the insulation that we’re looking at, which drives to something called R-value - R stands for resistance to energy flow - so we want to increase the R value of our envelope so we decrease the energy flow, but what we also want to look at is this insidious hidden energy loser, which is the leakiness of our homes," Klement said about the Passive House project.
Credit Caribb / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

From the Sears kit houses of the early 1900s to the McMansions of the '90s, the way we heat and cool our homes has mostly followed this formula: Build a space the size you want, then install heating and cooling that will keep that square footage comfortable. 

Michael Klement, founder of the firm, Architectural Resource, is building a house in Washtenaw County that turns that whole equation on its head. He joined Stateside to share his project, which he calls Passive House.

How it works

“Passive House takes the approach that what if we looked at energy performance as one of the key metrics of our design protocol? The concept behind Passive House is if we can design, build, and site a house in such a fashion, we can reduce the energy consumption of that house by 80 to 90 percent over a conventional code-built home with technology we have right now, right here, today. And then the idea is by reducing the amount of energy consumption the house requires -- because the cleanest, greenest, and cheapest energy is that energy we don’t have to add to the system -- we can then add the ever-so-smallest amount of energy using fossil fuels, or, in many cases, we can use renewable energy such as solar panels and make the house net-zero or, in some cases, net-positive energy.”

“A passive house doesn’t have to look any different from any other home. You absolutely can retrofit it. What we look at in Passive House is we want to pay a lot of attention to the building envelope. I call it our third skin. So, we have our first skin, which is our skin; our second skin, which is our clothing; and our third skin which is the building envelope. We want to reduce the amount of energy loss through that envelope so much that we can literally heat our house with light bulbs, your cat, your body heat, with your neighbors coming over.”

The idea’s origins

“As you remember, we had this little thing called the oil embargo back in the mid-‘70s, and that catalyzed a lot of different thinking in terms of how we considered our homes and energy.

"Believe it or not, in Urbana, Illinois, the passive house concept was first hatched. That’s where it took hold. And then, of course, the oil embargo over, we invent the SUV, we forget everything. We’re not the sharpest crayons in the box it appears. We don’t have long memories. So the concept of passive house then jumped across the pond and a gentleman named Wolfgang Feist took this concept and then did the German thing to it and added a lot of math and science behind it and developed a program which allowed a very highly technical evaluation of the various different aspects and parameters of a home to be paired up with the energy possibility of the sun and internal gains, such as your own body heat, plug loads, lighting, and designed a metric which is called the Passive House Institute of Europe. That, then, came back across the pond with a woman named Katrin Klingenberg. And Katrin set up office in Illinois and established the Passive House Institute of the United States.”

“What Katrin did with the Passive House Institute of the United States is, by pairing up with the Department of Energy and a program called BEopt (Building Energy Optimization), they’ve actually tuned this so we’re looking at the ideal amount of insulation for the specific climate, specifically where you are in the country. It’s brilliant.”

Is it worth it?

“The fundamental question of cost is return on investment. What we find is a passive house typically costs anywhere from 10% to 15% more than a conventionally built home. But what I always caution people to look at is understanding the difference between price and cost. Price you pay once, cost you pay forever. And the concept with a passive house is we are going to make a higher investment on the front end and a more durable, more healthy, and a more energy-efficient home. But you will get that payback over time.”

“Frankly, the time has never been more critical. We are literally at a very significant point in the course of human history where we have the opportunity to make some decisions that are going to be determining how things are going to be playing out for our future generations.”

To find out more about the project and to learn how to take a tour of a passive house, click here.

The Next Idea is Michigan Radio’s project devoted to new innovations and ideas that will change our state.

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