Katrin Klingenberg, co-founder of the Passive House Institute US, discusses the basics of passive design at the Arlington workshop.

On June 15, 2017, EESI partnered with the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), the Arlington Initiative to Rethink Energy (AIRE), and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Northern Virginia chapter to present an all-day training workshop for industry builders, architects, and energy raters—“On a Path to Zero Energy Construction: Passive House & Building." Speakers included some of the country’s leading experts in passive building standards and techniques that can achieve extremely energy efficient homes and buildings. Nearly 100 local building professionals showed up for the training, and many expressed interest in learning more and taking on their own passive building projects.

“Passive building is not magic," stated Katrin Klingenberg, co-founder of PHIUS. “It’s all about using good building science to develop high-performing buildings.” This includes having proper insulation and window placement to reduce the building’s overall energy needs while maintaining superior indoor comfort and air quality year-round.

The workshop was held in Arlington County, Virginia, which sits just south of Washington, DC. Like many states and cities, Arlington is rethinking its energy use in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Arlington’s goal is a 75 percent emissions reduction by 2050. In a meeting with County officials, EESI suggested that training local building professionals to produce extremely energy efficient homes and buildings would be a good way to start. EESI introduced Klingenberg, who visited from PHIUS headquarters in Chicago, to discuss the PHIUS training and certification as a way to reach these emission goals. In the United States, the building sector is responsible for 40 percent of total energy consumption and 40 percent of carbon emissions. Passive buildings can reduce energy needs by 60-85 percent depending on the climate and building type.

Reducing home energy use is especially significant for low-income families, which often spend up to half of their incomes on energy costs. Workshop speakers discussed their partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and Housing Up to develop affordable housing units that are certified by PHIUS. If done properly, passive building design improves indoor air quality and homeowners’ health and safety. Because of these added health and social benefits, passive design architect David Peabody, who built the first passive house in the Washington, D.C. area, believes energy efficiency will be increasingly incorporated into building values in the future.


A Brief History

The principles behind passive design emerged in the United States and Canada following the 1973 oil embargo and its resulting energy crisis. Germany refined these principles and created a passive house performance standard under the Passive House Institute (PHI). When Klingenberg re-introduced passive design to the United States in 2003, she found that the strict performance metric of PHI didn’t work for North America’s variations in climate, particularly in our hot and humid southeast states. PHIUS worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to modify the PHI standard and launched the PHIUS+ 2015 Passive Building Standard for North America. While some in the United States continue to use the German PHI standard, the cost-effective and climate-specific nature of PHIUS+ has allowed passive building to spread across our country.  

Climate zones in the United States (courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration).

For more on the history of passive house, click here.


The Difference between LEED and PHIUS+, and Net Zero Energy

There are many different voluntary “green” building programs in the United States (in addition to codes and standards). Some focus on energy efficiency, while others are more comprehensive. For example, the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system considers materials used, water conservation and other issues. EnergySTAR, on the other hand, focuses on the energy efficiency of buildings and appliances. However, none are as rigorous on energy efficiency as passive house. With PHIUS+, reducing energy needs (achieving a very “low energy load”) is the primary goal. PHIUS+ also helps designers integrate on-site renewable energy generation, such as rooftop solar, to cover remaining energy needs.

This puts PHIUS+ buildings on the path to achieving net zero energy, where the building produces as much energy as it consumes. In partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, PHIUS aligned the PHIUS+ certification with the Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) program to provide owners even more assurance that their homes or buildings meet high performance standards.


Passive House Policy Incentives

Cities and states across the nation are recognizing the role of passive building in reducing carbon emissions. In 2015, Pennsylvania became the first state to offer tax credits for building low income passive houses. That same year, Seattle added a passive house incentive to its low-rise zoning codes for those who want to add floor area. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) also provides up to $4,500 for units that achieve net zero energy using solar and passive building (certified through PHIUS or PHI).

Growth in Passive House buildings (both PHI and PHIUS certified) in the United States.
(Courtesy of the Pembina Institute).

There are currently over a thousand professionals nationwide who are certified passive builders, and PHIUS has worked on over 350 projects since its founding. As the passive house movement continues to grow, more training workshops like the Arlington one will be necessary to share knowledge of the passive building process and design. Buildings are a huge part of the climate change problem but can also be a huge part of the solution.


Author: Sara Tanigawa