The passive house movement, which is arguably strongest in Europe, is gaining in popularity around the world. People who are committed to protecting the environment and reducing their energy consumption turn to the passive house movement to create a home that has minimal impact on the environment. If you’re a homeowner who would like to reduce your dependence on carbon-based fuels while at the same time maintaining a high quality of life, here’s what you need to know about the passive house movement.

What Is a Passive House?

A passive house
A passive house is a home that uses less energy than most modern homes but maintains the level of comfort expected by modern homeowners. Image: Hans Splinter on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

A passive house is a home that uses less energy than most modern homes but maintains the level of comfort expected by modern homeowners. In fact, passive homes use creative design choices to use about 90% less energy while maintaining a comfortable and consistent indoor temperature throughout the year. Methods used to achieve this level of energy efficiency depends on the climate where the home is located, the environment and topography around the home, size of the home and other factors. In other words, no two passive homes are alike. Each home must be designed differently to achieve these energy savings goals.

Great Upside With an Upfront Cost

The greatest benefit of a passive house is the energy savings and reduced impact on the environment. Passive homes are cool in summer and warm in winter but use only a fraction of the energy that traditional homes use. As the environment changes and global temperatures fluctuate, passive homes may even become the standard in communities around the country and the world.

Passive homes do cost more money to build, however. The design process to create a passive house is more time-consuming. Passive homes must be designed by an architect or builder with knowledge of the passive house movement and how passive homes work. In some communities in the United States, there no such designers available. A homeowner who would like to build a passive house or even convert their existing home into a passive house may not always have the expertise and resources to do so.

Types of Passive Houses

In general, there are three types of passive houses. “Classic” design passive homes are highly efficient, but do not necessarily produce their own renewable energy. These homes must maintain their energy efficiency through creative design without solar panels or wind turbines. “Plus” homes make their own energy and use the energy they make. The goal of these homes is to create enough energy to cover all the home’s energy needs throughout the year. “Premium” homes make more energy than they use. Passive homes can use solar panels, wind turbines and other methods to create their own energy on their property.

How to Build a Passive House

If you’re a home buyer or a homeowner who would like to build your own passive house, know where to get started. There is no one way to build a passive home because each home is built in response to the local climate and environment. Every passive home has different insulation, HVAC and energy system requirements. To get started with the development of a passive home, homeowners must align themselves with a contractor and architect who understands how passive homes work. It’s also important to get funding to defray the higher costs of building a passive home.

Find an Architect and/or Builder

Before a passive home can be built, it must first be designed by someone who is aware of the passive house movement, has experience designing homes that are highly efficient, and who has knowledge of the climate and weather in the area where the home will be built. The design process for building a passive house can be time-consuming. Homeowners must be willing to invest the time (and money) into the process to have the results they want. The process to find the right architect and builder includes:

  • Meet to discuss the project, ask probing questions to get a sense for that professional’s experience and communication skills
  • Check licensure, certifications, and experience
  • Contact references
  • Check the portfolio for samples of previous work

Explore Grants and Tax Credits

Grants and tax credits can help defray the cost of building a passive home. In the United States, homeowners often have access to tax credits for installation of solar systems and highly energy-efficient HVAC systems. Homeowners who want to build a passive home but have concerns regarding affordability can explore these options.

The Next Best Thing: Retrofit Your Current Home

Although it is sometimes easier to build a passive home than it is to convert a traditional home into a passive home, retrofitting an existing structure is sometimes an option. Homeowners who want to retrofit their current home to be more energy-efficient must usually work with an experienced contractor.

  • Seal ducts. Air leaks force the home’s HVAC system to work extra hard, which wastes energy.
  • Install solar panels and wind turbines. Installation of solar panels and wind turbines can bump a home from a classic passive house to a plus or premium passive house.
  • Replace windows with energy-efficient models. Traditional windows have drafts and leak energy, leading to uncomfortable indoor temperatures at times of the year when temperatures outside are extreme.
  • Tighten the building’s envelope. This is done by increasing insulation, replacing siding and even installing new building envelope material beneath the siding.

Working with an experienced contractor does more than increasing the chances of success: it may also be important for the safety of the people in the house. Ventilation becomes very important any time a building’s envelope is made more efficient. Without good ventilation, indoor air quality may be reduced. Sometimes, a lack of good ventilation is also connected to problems like mold growth and humidity in the home.

It’s also very important to work with a contractor to ensure that energy systems like solar panels are properly installed. Improper installation can cause damage to the existing structure and may lead to more expensive repairs down the road.

The Passive House is the Way of the Future

Passive homes are more than just energy-efficient; they save money and can increase the value of the home overall. If you’re a homeowner who would like to either build a passive home or convert your existing home into a passive home, now is the time. Passive homes are the way of the future, with more people than ever (especially younger buyers) looking for a property with a high degree of energy efficiency. Contact an experienced builder and architect to get started today.

Pete Deininger
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