Passive Buildings in the U.S. and Europe

October 1st, 2010 | Posted by tjones in Environment | Fuel Efficiency | Green Building | Green Homes | Green Products | Living Green

In our series on passive houses this week, we’ve discussed the merits of saving energy by using condensing driers, of tightly insulating homes to achieve super-efficient energy standards, and we’ve talked about the general merits of building a passive house.  One of the things we’re also interested in are examples of passive buildings – of homes built in the U.S., as well as passive homes, schools, and office buildings built around the world.

As the New York Times reports, there are currently 25,000 passive house-certified buildings in Europe.  In the U.S., however, there are only 13.  While passive design in Europe is well-established – tested by time, certainly (the first homes were built in 1990) – the standard has taken longer to catch on the in United States.  Materials rated efficient enough for the standard are more difficult to find here, and designers who are certified in, and understand well, the criteria are few and far between.

This is not to say, however, that people in the United States haven’t risen to meet the challenge of passive house construction.  Our mention of the Habitat for Humanity home proves as much.  The Times article on the Landau home does, as well.

image courtest of root design build

One of the first homes in the U.S. built to the standard was Shift House, in Portland, Oregon.  As the Williamette Week wrote last year, the Shift House was designed not only to meet the stringent standards of Passive House certification, but was also deliberately designed to be highly aesthetically-appealing.   Another unique aspect of the Shift House was its use of an 8-inch-thick structural insulated panel, or SIP, that acts as the primary pressure envelope for the house.  Even other passive houses in the U.S. don’t utilize this technology or this emphasis on design – proving that even for architects and contractors, there are a variety of materials and techniques available to build passive homes.  Green Depot offers some of those materials in the green building materials department.

While in the U.S. we might only have 13 existing structures, in 1997 there were only ten passive houses in existence in Germany, where the standard was first invented.  The current record of 25,000 European passive buildings then represents an enormous and astonishing leap forward.  But in Europe, it is not only residential houses that have been built to the passive standard.

neue burse residential hall. image courtesy passiv haus institut.

Case in point: the Neue Burse residence hall, or dormitory, located at the University of Wuppertal in Wuppertal, Germany.  The building, which was originally constructed in 1977, was deemed to be a massive energy sink that required significant amounts of energy to keep in operation.  It was decided to refurbish and retrofit the building to passive standards.  Construction was completed in 2003, and represents the largest residential building in Germany to comply with the passive house standard.

social housing in kassel marbachshoehe. image courtesy of passiv haus institut.

In Kassel-Marbachshohe, city officials undertook the ambitious project of ensuring that their next public housing development meet the passive standard.  While building specific-user residential homes on empty lots provides the architect with a significant degree of free in designing a home for energy efficiency, designing in tight urban spaces offers new challenges.  Despite this, however, 40 residential units in a multi-story complex were constructed using public funds, and the building was able to meet an 82% increase in energy efficiency over conventional construction (page in German).

office building sportplatzweg. image courtesy hermann-kaufmann architects.

In 1999, the German architecture firm Hermann-Kaufmann designed an architectural office space to passive standards (page in German).  As described on their project page, the building experiments with new materials: the staircase is covered with fabric, and the base of the building is covered with painted oriented strand board (OSB).  The Office Building Sportplatzweg, situated on an open expanse, is a brilliant example of how architectural design can be both ecologically-sound and blend beautifully with the surrounding landscape.

While these buildings do provide valuable examples of the tried-and-true design philosophy of passive house criteria, it is still somewhat disheartening that only thirteen examples exist in the United States.  Consider, though, that presently 160 architects have been trained as passive-house designers, and that that number is expected to rise to 300 by the end of the year, and the picture looks less bleak.

The more awareness that is made of this certification system, and the more the government begins providing tax rebate incentives for passive house construction (in the same way the government already does for LEED or Energy Star construction), the brighter the future of truly energy-efficient passive buildings in the U.S. looks.

Visit Green Depot to get more ideas on building materials and green products to make your home more environmentally-friendly.

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