Our Passive House


Frequently Asked Questions

Posted in passive house by Elizabeth on April 21, 2010

These are questions we have that we hope someone will answer. As we find the answers, we’ll post here.

  • Is there is a list of all the houses in the U.S. that are certified by the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), which is authorized by the Passivhaus Institut in Germany as the official certifier of Passive House standard in the US?
  • I plan to email the organization to find out. They link to a database, but it seems to only list one house. I’m trying to find links to all the passive houses in the U.S. After talking with the people building one in Ohio, it seems that there are about 25, although a recent U.S.A. Today article said around 10. My guess is that 10 have gone through the whole certification process, several others in the works. I found a little map which I will like to when I remember where it was, and it marks some passive houses, along with other passive buildings in the U.S.

  • Are all houses that say they are passive actually certified by PHIUS? authorized by the Passivhaus Institut as the official certifier of Passive House standard in the US?
  • This is a definite no. Lots of people refer to “passive” houses when what they mean is a house that is somehow heated by solar panels. If you find plans for a “passive” house, you need to double check what is meant by that. I have emailed several people advertising “passive” house plans that were not even aware that there are standards or a certification process, and then incorrectly tell me that all they need to do is up the insulation a little bit. Thus far, I have not found readily available plans for passive houses that are certified/certifiable by PHIUS. This is a good link at the The Artisans Group Blog which provides a good explanation of the difference between a Passive House and a passive solar house.

  • If I buy a set of passive house plans from someone can I just give it to my builder/general contractor and then they can build me a passive house?
  • We have found to this is that it doesn’t work this way. First you need to find passive house plans where the “passive” refers to the standards of PHIUS, and not just a passive solar house. Given that there are only about 25 passive houses in the U.S., it isn’t like there are tons of plans floating around, although it seems to me likely that there might be more options available from Europe that could be modified to fit your climate/site. Then, if/when you find plans, I think you need a builder and/or general contractor who is committed to going the many extra steps to making sure the passive house meets the requirements in order to be certified as a passive house. My sense is that it involves buying different things than a “normal” house and building in a different way than a “normal” house and it isn’t just a matter of somehow slightly altering the “regular” way of doing things. I think you need a builder who has been trained and is really “into” passive house building since it takes so much more knowledge and different approaches than the usual house building.

  • I want a passive house. How do I get started?
  • We were surprised that there was no clear answer to this online. I emailed PHIUS and they said that their book Homes for a Changing Climate: Passive Houses in the U.S. is a good start for this. So I have ordered it and I will report back. I don’t have a good solid answer yet, but my sense is that there are two ways of getting started. If you are a big do-it-yourself-er, the first thing you need to do is a lot of research. Then the second thing you need to do is either find an consultant/contractor/company to oversee the whole thing for you, or if you are going to be your own general contractor, you need to figure out the various companies you will work with. It is my sense that, even if you already know sort of how to build houses, passive houses are a whole different ballgame so you are looking at quite a bit of research. Other things to think about: location (you need land), financing (you need money). I am not a do-it-yourself-er when it comes to this sort of thing. Thus, our first step is going to be finding a company/organization/consultant to work with who will head up the project for us. I think the first steps are then, really dependent on what you want. We want the easiest, simplest, cheapest way to get to a 1500 sq foot passive house. Pre-made plans. Nothing customized. Nothing fancy. Nice but not fancy or high end. A slightly smallish, simple, bright passive house. And, we think we have found an organization in the area that we want to build that is wrapping up building their first passive house, so they have a sense of what they are doing. I think it would be a different situation if you 1) can’t find an organization to work with that is knowledgeable and committed to the idea, 2) want something fancy or customized, or 3) want to be very involved in the details/technical aspects of the house.

  • What is the difference between a zero-energy house and a passive house?
  • I think I get the answer to this, but will add it later after more research.

  • What is the difference between a LEED certified house and a passive house?
  • You can find out in this very helpful article.

  • Where can I buy a set of passive house plans that will result in a house that meets the requirements of certification by the Passive House Institute U.S.?
  • Working on this one. I think the key is that you need to talk to a builder or consultant familiar with passive house building or else do a lot of research yourself to see if 1) plans meet the standards set forth by PHIUS; 2) see if the plans would work on the lot where you want to build; 3) see if the plans are otherwise feasible for your climate/location; and 4) assess if there are enough/the right people/resources where you live to make building the passive house a reality, taking into account how much you are willing to manage yourself and how much it would/will cost for certain things that might be needed to make it work in your area/location. I will collect plans as I find them and post them here.

  • How can we determine the overall cost of the house plus land? Can we go to a builder and say “Hi. We have $X amount of money and want to build a passive house.”
  • Hmm. Good question! Because this is what we want to do. We just want to get a loan for a certain amount and talk to a builder/company about what that can buy. Our goal is $180,000 from start to turn the key. And because land/location is important, we want to consult with our builder before we buy land. And we understand we should probably leave a cushion for cost overruns, but it is important for us that the process is relatively inexpensive (because passive houses need to be accessible to lots of people including, um, us) and relatively simple (because just because you want a passive house doesn’t mean you want to learn all about walls and therms and insulation and all sorts of other technical stuff).

  • Can you really retrofit your house as “passive” so that it is just as efficient as one originally built as passive?
  • I think the answer is yes, but it is very hard and expensive and much easier to build a new one so unless you LOVE your current house and have a lot of money to put into it, doing a new one is better. You can read about two retrofits (Sonoma, CA and Portland, OR in the links section to the right).

  • Does a passive house cost more to build than a regular house, assuming that the two houses are the same size, location, level of customization, etc., the only difference being the passiveness?
  • I’ve read conflicting reports, but my sense is that yes it does cost more. I’ve give more details as I read more.

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Connections

Posted in passive house by Elizabeth on April 21, 2010

We emailed with the passive house consultant working on the house in Yellow Springs and he was nice and friendly and supportive. So that is exciting. Once jobs are confirmed (we hope, of course – still early in game!) we plan to be in touch. Key point is to figure out how financing would work for first-time home buyers getting financing for new construction. I’m sure it is do-able. But I hope it isn’t too complicated. Why isn’t there an easy guide to this sort of thing? Ugg.

Brainstorming – Ways to Keep Cost Down

Posted in affordability,passive house,zero energy house by Elizabeth on April 20, 2010
  • less than 1500 square feet
  • two bedrooms, living room, kitchen/dining combined, one smallish office/extra room, one bathroom instead of two
  • no garage
  • Note the focus from ecolab of “designing delightful and energy-efficient buildings to especially serve low- to middle-income families, providing them with safe, affordable, and environmentally healthy homes.” See Smith House (1200 sq ft) and Fairview House (1300 sq ft) in Illinois.

Day Two of Passive House Planning

Posted in affordability,passive house by Elizabeth on April 20, 2010

Well. So much to learn! I’ve spent the day looking around on the web at passive houses and organizations and people trying to get a sense of things. I think our most ideal goal would be to build a 1500 sq. foot house (enough for two grown ups, two children, six cats and a dog) for $200,000 total, turn key. I know – I know. Crazy, right?! So idealistic!??! It will cost so much more!

Well, for me, that is part of the challenge. First, we can’t afford more (if we can even afford that), so it isn’t like we could pay more if we wanted to. Second, most people can’t afford more and I think the idea is that people should be able to build these. And not have them be super-small industrial looking things. So it will be part of the challenge.

Which leads me to some thinking about the look. It doesn’t have to look like a log cabin of course, but I also feel like it is important for it not to look like an industrial sort of building. Clean lines. Simple. Yet warm.

So that is the thinking after day two of planning. Our dream is to settle near Yellow Springs, Ohio (we need to be offered jobs there first, which we think we might be – and hope to know by June). And, lo and behold there is a company in Yellow Springs just now completing their first passive house. I’ve added links in the blog roles to the right. So they know how to do it! Which was one of our concerns all along – finding the right people to manage it so we don’t have to be the general contractor which I would so not enjoy. Onward!

The Journey Begins

Posted in zero energy house by Elizabeth on April 20, 2010

So yesterday my partner and I were talking about peak oil, climate change/breakdown and our future. And we were looking at this amazing house that we would like to buy – that is 100 years old and very inefficient. As much as we are in love with the house (cute cute cute, great yard…..) it came down to: if even the more minor predictions are true about the future rising cost of fuel and the coming climate breakdown (did I mention that my partner is a political scientists who studies this?), why are we even considering buying a traditional house? In the end, mostly it was because we want everything to be fine and to be able to keep living life just like we are living.

But, this doesn’t seem likely, so even though we are not much of do-it-yourself-ers, we certainly don’t have very much money, and we aren’t really gung-ho about taking on a house building project ourselves, we’re going to do it.

My partner is German so he is familiar with passive houses which are more common in Germany. After a lot of googling, we found out that in the U.S. they are often called zero energy houses.

We were surprised to find that there really isn’t a “how to build yourself an affordable zero energy house” guide on the web, so we thought we’d document our (probably slow) journey here.

So here we go. We really really welcome feedback from others who have built zero energy houses. Seriously – we have no idea where to start. We’re just going to start emailing around and read articles/books.