Imagine how much energy you could save if your home were heated almost entirely by the sun’s rays and heat emitted by the people and electrical equipment inside. The “Passive House” method of construction makes this possible -- with greatly enhanced insulation, high performance windows, energy recovery ventilation (ERV), and other energy efficiency strategies, heating and cooling energy use is reduced up to 90 percent compared to standard construction.

The first Passive House was built in Germany in 1991 and today more than 20,000 homes and buildings have been constructed to the specifications. (The concept can be applied to all buildings, not just residential.) Passive House Institute U.S. is now promoting the standard in the United States, where building energy codes have improved incrementally but still lag far behind other countries, namely Germany and Switzerland.

Voluntary initiatives may help the United States to catch up. For example, the partnership of O'Neill Development + Peabody Architects recently completed a Passive House in Bethesda, Maryland. The team estimates they spent eight percent more on materials and other hard costs to achieve the Passive House standard, which is projected to save $850 per year on energy costs. They invested their own time to learn about the standard and get their crews up to speed and are now ready to tackle other projects. The team created a a blog and video clip to share information about the project.

The Swiss also have a rigorous energy efficiency standard, Minergie, which has grown into a portfolio including Minergie-P (similar to Passive House), Minergie-P-Eco and Minergie-A for achieving net-zero energy buildings. Ironically, these European standards originated in large part from the pioneering work of U.S. "eco-architects" such as Ed Mazria , whose passive solar designs and publications have inspired thousands of architects and engineers, including students and young professionals visiting from Germany and Switzerland during the oil crisis of the 1970s. As the United States went back to energy-use-as-usual after oil prices stabilized again, they went back to their countries to apply what they had learned and developed user-friendly standards that have been widely adopted as a solution to rising energy costs and concern about climate change .

Those interested in learning more about energy efficient building standards can visit the National Building Museum in Washington, DC on the evening of April 18, when it will present a program about Passive House . Information on the Swiss Minergie standard is available on the Environmental and Energy Study Institute’s website here .