Simon Alexander
Simon Alexander

The green movement is sweeping the nation, and for good reason. The United States leaves the largest ecological footprint out of all the developed nations, and the greenhouse effect and the overall tide of climate change has the potential to become a serious and threatening situation. In the past few years, large numbers have embraced focused initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint and live an energy-efficient lifestyle. In the future, it may be required by law. It will almost certainly be a necessity in the North American lifestyle. Early adopters are really trying to change the world now by living in what are called “passive houses” and living energy passive lifestyles.

The Basics of a Passive House

So what is a passive house? In short, it is an energy efficient home that demands little energy to function. The most energy demanding aspect of a home is the heating and cooling, so passive houses are typically focused on reducing energy use in these areas. The obvious benefit is cost, but detailed below are some more advantageous features of passive house design.

Passive houses are typically built from the ground up, though renovating a property to accommodate the passive house status is possible. The passive concept is not just confined to the heating and cooling system. The actual architecture of the home reflects energy efficiency, and it is designed to reduce the heating and cooling burdens tremendously. For example, a home will implement superinsulation, which is basically insulation that covers every minutiae of the wall space and is padded to reach the highest R-values (heat insulation).

Ideas in Passive House Design

Passive house design can be applied in a variety of ways. This is only a broad review of some of the more common attributes of a passive house, but people are breaking the boundaries and exploiting new systems and technologies every year.

• Solar Soaking: Most people understand that solar panels are energy efficient, and further most people understand how they work on a basic level. Passive houses can deploy solar panels, but they tend to take it one step further through solar soaking, or exposure. It means building the property so the potential areas vulnerable to more cooling are sun-facing throughout the day. The building structure plans will be adapted depending on the course of the sun during the day and night.

• Ventilation: Perhaps the most important aspect of passive house design, innovative ventilation that maximizes heat recovery and pre-heating shape the passive home. The duct system is designed for incredible heat recovery, allowing heat to course through the home easily after colder evenings. Heat will go through a heat exchanger which essentially preserves the existing natural heat. These systems will actually pre-heat and prep incoming cold air and makes sure that no contents get frosted over. Frosting is notorious in raising energy demands, because warming something from a frost status is generally energy-intensive.

• Tight Framework: The design of the home is made incredibly tight in every component. This keeps air retention extremely high and minimizes the escape of hot air. This air tightness is present in the foundation, walls, and the overall structure of the property.

These are just a handful of the features typically found in a passive house. In short, the home is designed for optimal energy efficiency in every aspect, from its physical construction to how it is positioned relative to the sun’s trajectory.

Why Passive House Design Is So Beneficial

Clearly, energy efficiency saves in energy costs and benefits the environment. But it goes a little deeper. For one, the actual mechanical systems of the property often require less frequent maintenance unlike the HVAC units in ordinary homes which can break down more often and require costly repairs. There is also an interesting side-effect of this design. It boasts an incredible sound tightness and insulation that one can almost hear in the air. Exterior sounds are dampened, and the home can provide perfect sound resonance. The indoor air quality is also appealing and comfortable because the home should have an optimum airflow that helps keep humidity at desirable levels and ensure living spaces are properly ventilated. These are hard to describe without being present in a passive house property, but these features can add to the home’s overall comfort and livability. It is the old case of not knowing what one is missing until you experience it.

The majority of passive houses are in Scandinavia and Germany, but one hopes that these building concepts and practices will become more commonplace in North America. As new homes are built, passive house design can be applied to the technical aspects of the home and its architecture. A true passive house can achieve an energy use reduction of upwards of 80 percent to 90 percent compared to a traditional design. We can only hope that more builders and homebuyers will opt for these creative design principles to not only save an incredible amount of money over the years, but to possibly help curb the serious environmental consequences of our high carbon emissions and energy use.