Passive House and the Potential to Innovate

It is often said that the technical solutions to the climate emergency already exist; we just have to implement them. Passive House—as an integrated methodology for creating buildings that maintain a comfortable, healthy, and durable indoor environment with very minimal energy use; and as an international standard which demonstrates an understanding of physics and what is readily achievable given the passive energy gains and losses of typical building uses—is one such technical solution. But can we really call something an innovation if it lacks widespread implementation? In 1939, the famed economist Joseph Schumpeter—you might recognize the name from the Economist’scolumn on creative destruction—thoughtfully analyzed society’s use of the term innovation. Innovation, he argued, is the necessary combination of inventioncommercialization. Has the Passive House concept remained just a smart invention, the result of an intellectual curiosity relegated to the long list of good ideas that have the potential to help solve the climate emergency; or can it truly become an innovation, ingrained in the sustainable and robust business models of 21st century firms providing services to homeowners and building owners across a wide swath of society?

After almost three decades that have seen impressive but still somewhat limited growth in the implementation of the Passive House standard in scores of countries across the world, it is perhaps ironic that in the United States, the land of innovative businesses and entrepreneurs, the Passive House concept is still struggling to find its footing. When we talk about commerce—broadly defined as the exchange of goods and services—we rely on the idea that consumers have enough information to make informed choices, and thus businesses who present a compelling value proposition to those consumers will therefore be able to help a smart invention see the light of day. But as with the QWERTY keyboard and the VHS tape, it’s clear that the best technical solution doesn’t always win in the market. So what does make winners and losers?

Has the Passive House concept remained just a smart invention, the result of an intellectual curiosity relegated to the long list of good ideas that have the potential to help solve the climate emergency; or can it truly become an innovation, ingrained in the sustainable and robust business models of 21st century firms providing services to homeowners and building owners across a wide swath of society?

When considering what is working for the Passive House standard in North America and across the world and what isn’t, and looking for clear answers, three considerations may be useful.

The first is from UK resilience planner Alexander Hay, who posed at a recent Passive House conference that the relative lack of innovation in the Passive House realm over the last 20 years (bear with him, here) might stem from the fact that instead of using Passive House as a tool to solve a problem, far too often practitioners are heralding it as a goal and a product in and of itself. Instead of thinking about a Passive House as a thing, might we be wise to focus on combining the Passive House methodology with other solutions—whether they address carbon or other health, quality, and aesthetic priorities—more so than turning the Passive House methodology into a product thusly named a Passive House? It’s likely that we should really assume that any acceptable building product must by definition strive to mitigate its carbon impact to address the problem of climate change and, therefore, have any value to a 21st century world. Then, we can focus on developing a product that espouses carbon reduction in combination with other progressive values of a 21st century citizen, such as connection to nature and community, and simply embed Passive House in the architecture. After all, is more innovation happening in the microchips and software that run the iPhone, or in the iPhone itself? Does Apple sell you microchips, or do they sell you quality, user experience and connectivity? If the best innovations are those that are largely invisible to the process of using the technology, then could we see more innovation by letting the Passive House concept disappear into the fabric of every building, instead of being so eager to highlight it, and simply let the benefits of comfort, health, and relevance in a climate-stressed world speak for themselves?

The second is from Canadian historian Benoit Godin, who, in a Guardian article from 2013 on the topic of innovation, noted that innovation was, in the mid-to-late 20th century, understood as a packaged, predictable research product, and that government funding for the firms that developed appropriate commercialized products was essential to the success of these ventures and the developing notion of a successful innovation. This description perfectly fits the anecdotes of success we have seen with Passive House across the world—a well-researched and predictable model, with government intervention significantly responsible for any regional widespread adoption of the concept (albeit under a variety of names in the various cities and countries in which something close to the Passive House standard is now legislated). Clearly the reason commerce thrives in all aspects of society is not because of an unregulated market where every need is met with an appropriate solution, but because a regulated market allows for the predictability required to develop and deliver solutions that provide economic and social value. Regulation is a key to commercialization.

The third comes from Nick Hanauer, a billionaire most recently well known for his phrase “Plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming!” who describes in his recent TED talk, “The dirty secret of capitalism – and a new way forward,” a need to evolve how we think about innovation and prosperity by recognizing that the drivers of America’s prosperity are cooperation and reciprocity, not selfishness and greed. About our current reality, he notes, “Innovation is the process by which we solve human problems, and as we solve more problems, we become more prosperous. But as we become more prosperous, our problems become more complex. Increasing technical complexity requires ever increasing levels of social and economic cooperation in order to produce the more highly specialized products that define a modern economy.” Staving off the worst effects of climate change is arguably the most complex problem humanity has ever faced. In 2019, Passive House remains on the verge of widespread adoption, but often the room is filled with a limited group of passionate practitioners. By expanding our cooperation, not just with design professionals, contractors, engineers, and product manufacturers, but also with real estate professionals, bankers, unions, educational institutions, cultural institutions, artists, policymakers, marketers, municipalities, and the general public, we can increase the chances of unleashing the potential of Passive House to become a true innovation.

At this critical time, the need for Passive House to innovate is more urgent than ever before. With government support, expanded collaboration, and the wide availability of desirable structures that inherently incorporate Passive House design principles, society can elevate its standard for the predictability and dependability of a building to deliver comfort, health, resilience, and minimal climate impact. We’ll see a market that trusts Passive House technology to deliver a quality space in which to live and work, just as we trust 4G technologies to deliver reliable internet speeds for our mobile devices. Then, in a hundred years, our grandkids can look back and say,

“When humanity recognized its common predicament at the end of the end of the 20th century, the Passive House methodology was one of the first of many 21st century innovations that created the conditions for our modern society to prosper.”

Author: Craig Toohey