Interview with Dr. Wolfgang Feist, Founder of Passive House Institute

If you follow Passive House twitter, you’ve likely seen a recent stream of smart posts from Dr. Wolfgang Feist (founder of Passive House Institute), urging governments to act on Covid-19, urging people to practice social distancing to “flatten the curve”, and advocating for a science-based response to the pandemic. This utterly-reasonable combination of fact, persuasion, even admonishment, is entirely consistent with Dr. Feist’s approach to another pressing global problem—climate change—and the potential for us to collectively address that challenge through our buildings.

A few weeks before the pandemic really took hold, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Feist about the climate crisis and Passive House. We at Passive House Accelerator had been waiting for the perfect moment to share it with you all, and then all of our lives were turned upside down by Covid-19. All things considered, today seems like a great day to share it. (Hint: this may have something to do with today’s Global Passive House Happy Hour, which we urge you all to attend.)

Without further ado, here’s the interview!

Zack Semke: My impression is that Passive House is really taking off around the world. Where do you see the most momentum for Passive House globally? What is causing that momentum? What most excited you about the current state of the Passive House movement?

Wolfgang Feist: Actually, I see six exciting developments. First, Passive House has now been realized in all different climate zones of this planet from arctic to hot dessert climates – and is working. Second, the Passive House solution fits within all different building tasks and building styles. Third, even refurbishments of existing buildings to meet the EnerPHit-standard have been proven to work as intended. Fourth, everywhere, where the Passive House standard has been used not just for a small number of demonstration buildings, the costs for realizing the improved building fabric have dropped to a really small additional investment—readily paid off by the saved energy costs. Fifth, the experience with improved comfort is immanent; thus, Passive House provides a solution for maintaining (in most cases even improving) the comfort levels while reducing the energy needed to an almost negligible amount, which can be provided by regionally available sustainable energy sources. Sixth, all this has been realized by architects, builders and professionals who learned the necessary skills either during their first projects or in really short and motivating training sessions.

Zack: In those parts of the world where Passive House adoption is slower, what are the main obstacles? How can those obstacles be overcome?

Dr. Feist: The most important obstacle is ignorance. So, the most important way to overcome it, is to make available information about the Passive House as a solution: How it can be realized, why it improves comfort (during summer and winter), why it is far more resilient compared to less energy efficient buildings, why it is a good idea for the building industry to invest in improved components of the building fabric to make it even easier to realize Passive House buildings and EnerPHit refurbishments.

Another obstacle we cannot neglect is a growing amount of disinformation coming from special interests. It is sad that an influential part of the society does not want to see the problems which we are generating by the destruction of essential parts of the earth’s ecology. It also surprising, because this is not a problem just for the polar bears or insects but for the human civilization as a whole and we all—including those who choose to deny these facts—will suffer from the consequences. In this case, it’s also information and education that is needed most! Information on energy efficiency measures might help a lot, because these measures can be realized without compromising on a certain living standard, which almost nobody wants to do. Passive House and other efficiency solutions give us an option to reduce environmental impacts to a really low level, which is the basis for a sustainable circular economy.

Zack: Given the greater and greater diversity of building types and regions in which Passive House is being applied, are there key technical challenges that Passive House practitioners are encountering and solving?

Dr. Feist: That is exactly what the Passive House Institute has been working on from when it was first established. The good message is that the principles for solving such challenges are available everywhere, because all important results have been published. There are even tools available, like the PHPP and the design-PH, which allow every architect and builder to optimize their plans. Today, all components and planning tools to realize Passive Houses at any place of planet earth are already available, but in most countries these components only come from a relatively small part of the market. If mankind wants to solve the climate crisis, then all construction products for the building fabric will have to comply with high energy efficiency standards in a not so far future. Actually, not only building products; also cars, electronics and all other components using energy. It is important for the industry to realize that this is not only a challenge, but an opportunity to create additional value, which is not destroying the environment, but improving sustainability. Energy efficiency is the key for a reconciliation of economy and ecology.

Zack: How has PHI responded to the world of 2020, one of more and more urgent calls for climate action, a grid that is decarbonizing, and governmental goals for nZEB, etc.? How is Passive House evolving?

Dr. Feist: First, Passive House was developed with the goal of climate neutrality for buildings in mind from the very beginning. In ordinary buildings the highest CO2-emissions by far result from heating and cooling these buildings; and that is what Passive House provides a solution for. Of course, new construction always creates additional upfront emissions, though this is low in comparison to the emissions during the lifetime of the building, and I find it encouraging to see that more and more Passive House components and projects are based on sustainable materials.

Second, in a Passive House heating and cooling demands are low, by definition. It is therefore always possible to use heat pumps for heating and cooling and in this way change to electricity as the main energy supply to the buildings. Now, we should not make a mistake here. Especially during winter the electricity generated in contemporary times in most countries is still far from being sustainable and decarbonized. The consequence: At the same time the systems are changed to heat pumps, the generation of renewable energy has to be expanded. If you look into the facts of sustainable energy potentials, you will realize that, especially during winter times in heating climates, there is a lack of renewable sources and seasonal storage is extraordinarily expensive. Therefore, reducing heating energy demand is a prerequisite for such a solution.

Third, already a decade ago the European parliament realized these facts. This was the basis for establishing the strengthened European Building Performance Directive (EBPD), which demanded that European governments establish legislation for only building NZEB’s beginning from the 2020s. Now, we have to admit, that most European countries—with the exception of Denmark and Luxemburg—did not fully comply with that goal. There are a lot of distractions and there is still much work left to be done to implement what has already been acknowledged by the European Parliament. There is certainly a tendency in the light of climate change of governmental goals and policies becoming stricter and aiming for decarbonization. What I often see lacking, unfortunately, in nearly-zero and net-zero approaches is the need and benefit of high energy efficiency to economically and sustainably achieve a decarbonized energy supply. Again, all the experiences made in the many years of Passive House uptake worldwide can provide solutions.

Finally, the Passive House Institute has always been working on an ever improving quality of the available components – in all respects. These components have to be diversified to fit to all the different construction and refurbishment tasks; at the same time, the components need to be produced in higher quantities; that is the path, to reduce the additional investment even more. And, the environmental impact for the production has to be reduced even more. It’s generally not higher than for ordinary components, but that is not good enough. At the end, the materials have to be based on a circular economy.

Zack: What advice do you have for practitioners in being agents for change?

Wolfgang: It is the same advice proven successful in all cultural developments: keep in mind, that the goal is a decent opportunity for all humans on this beautiful planet. Peace is a very important prerequisite for this, as is the preservation of creation. We will have to be honest, patient and humble. There has been no period in the development of the human race during which the standard of living and the quality of live has been higher (for most people) than now. But, it’s a challenge to keep it this way; with approaching a circular economy we can contribute to such a path. Improving energy efficiency is one of the best concepts to achieve these goals – keeping and even improving the quality of life while at the same time reducing the environmental impact and ease the path for a completely sustainable economy.

Zack: Anything else you’d like to share with Passive House Accelerator readers?

Dr. Feist: This is not about talking, but about walking the path. We do not have to wait for better conditions or more support. The Passive House community has already proven that you can make your living working on different segments of this chain of improvements: as an architect who knows how to design a sustainable building; as an engineer who contributes to sustainable construction and energy efficient component development; as an investor who puts his money where his conscience is; as a tradesperson, who is informed and informs his customers about the environmental impacts and makes sustainable components available. The thriving Passive House community can be a paradigm showing how sustainable development can be a successful basis for a future economy.

Author: Zachary Semke
Categories: Leader