At this decadal-shifting, stock-taking moment, where is Passive House headed? On the one hand, Passive House building—like other parts of the clean energy transition—is growing at an exponential rate. In the United States, for example, it is doubling every year (based on PHUIS+ project data). That is heartening!
On the other hand, the market share of Passive House construction is tiny compared to conventional construction, too small to make a material difference yet. That is sobering.
Yet, public policy is set to drive mass adoption of Passive House or Passive House-like building in various hotspots around the world.
The City of Vancouver has centered its building decarbonization policy work on Passive House design and construction and has gone from one Passive House residence in 2015 to 4,200 residences built or in the pipeline by 2019.
New York City’s Carbon Emissions Bill, Local Law 97, will require Passive House-like retrofits of all buildings in the city of 25,000 square feet or larger: roughly 57,000 buildings.
Washington State’s energy code will require Passive House-level energy use intensities for all new buildings by 2031 and already recognizes Passive House as an alternate pathway to meeting its residential energy code. Massachusetts, New York State, the District of Columbia, and others are folding Passive House into energy code development.
New buildings in the European Union will need to reach “nZEB” or “Nearly Zero Energy Building” by the end of 2020, basically “Passive House-lite”. By 2025, “nZEB” will become “Net Zero Energy Building”.
Meanwhile, China is producing entire Passive House districts, as the International Passive House Conference in Gaobeidian showed first-hand.
This list just scratches the surface of the sorts of policy levers that are being brought to bear by decision makers and advocates in a bid to accelerate a shift to zero carbon building. This is encouraging.
To get a sense of the momentum and direction of the “Passive House Movement”, we reached out to several leaders and practitioners for their read on Passive House past and Passive House future.
Dr. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Vice Chair, Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy at the Central European University (CEU):
“I really hope that, finally, the Passive House concept will go over the tipping point and will achieve more mass penetration into the key markets because that’s really essential for meeting climate goals. It’s especially important in the global North and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be happening for new construction. For retrofits, we are a bit more behind. We just need a couple more key demonstration buildings and I believe we need more simplified solutions to reduce the hassle factor. The costs are coming down, but whenever you are at the beginning of a technology you can make significant improvements.
“In the global South, it’s really in a much more immature phase, and I hope that this technology will make inroads faster into these markets, as well. It’s my understanding that Passive House is the method that can deliver the biggest savings in operational energy, also for cooling-dominated climates, which is really the key. Cooling energy use is already being affected by climate change and this is all exacerbated by the fact that these regions are where affluence and floor space and comfort are all going up. Even without climate change, the demand for cooling increases. How we build this enormous amount of new infrastructure will lock us into a future and determine these emissions for decades or centuries to come.”
[Read findings from “Recalibrating climate prospects”, a piece Dr. Ürge-Vorsatz co-authored with Amory Lovins and others.]
Sean Pander, one of the architects of the City of Vancouver’s Passive House policies, Green Building Manager of the City of Vancouver:
“In 2010, we thought district energy was THE path to deep building decarbonization – but we had failed to perceive the impacts of fracked gas and how it fundamentally shifted the economics of building heating. We learned from passive house that there was a methodical and viable approach to substantially reduce heating demand in buildings and that we could set Greenhouse Gas (GHG)/energy use limits that were absolute (instead of relative to a unicorn reference building) that would enable flexible solutions to real and durable GHG reductions at the building scale.
“Looking forward, mainstream designers and builders learning the fundamentals of sound building practice will transform industry’s approach regardless of PH certification and developer requirements. ‘Once you see it, you can never un-see it.’ ”
Dimitris Pallantzas, head of training and education at the Hellenic Passive House Institute in Athens:
“The Passive House concept has achieved a lot of things in the past decade. First of all, it established itself at the global scale, with implementation and measurement all over the world. A highlight was the Gaobeidian project. China is a country that in the next years could emerge as an example for the world. I am really confident about the future and believe that Passive House is the only way to achieve carbon neutral cities. I believe that Passive House will open new job opportunities for everyone and, in the next decade, will be the main building concept globally.”
Jeff Colley, Editor of Passive House Plus magazine in Dublin:
“I take great heart from projects like the Goldsmith Street project winning the Sterling Prize, the top architecture prize in the U.K. Not from the fact that it’s a Passive House project, but for the fact that it’s a social housing project. They’ve never had a Passive House project shortlisted before, or a social housing project shortlisted before, and yet we’ve had a project like that win. There’s a sense that—in the U.K. and in Ireland too, and I hope internationally—the architectural community is beginning to grapple with these issues a little bit more, and to understand that the kind of showy approaches and quite glib approaches to sustainability are not working. We’ve kind of moved passed that, and we need to start producing really robust, quality, sustainable buildings now in a way that’s socially equitable. So that I would take a lot of heart from.”
Günter Lang, Director of Passivhaus Austria:
“Until recently, when I looked at the universe of housing, Austria was like being on the moon, while most of the rest of the world was on the Earth, standing. So, we were thinking, ‘Okay, maybe we can start to sleep a little bit.’ But now many countries in the world are starting to overtake Austria, and some of them are on a trip to Mars or Venus. China is now really making a strong move forward, as we have seen from the Passive House conference a few months ago.”
Sayo Okada, project manager at Studio G Architects in Boston and co-creator and board member of Passive House Institute Japan:
“Japan started to see some Passive House single family projects in the early 2000s, and has started to see institutional projects in recent years. Two big milestones stand out for me. One is PHIUS and Passive House Institute Japan (PHIJP) joining forces to establish a PHIUS Passive House standard in Japan. The second is PHIJP starting its CPHC phase 1 training in Japan and preparing a builder’s training.
“Moving forward, I see more collaboration with building professionals that work in ASHRAE Climate Zone 3 and below: hot and humid climates. The regions that have started to work together are Japan, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Columbia, and the southern part of United States like Texas, and Florida. This collaboration will give us more guidance for designing Passive House buildings in hot and humid climates, including mechanical system development.”
Kate Nason, architect at ARKit Advanced Prefabricated Architecture and Board Director at the Australian Passive House Association
“Despite the Australian Passive House Association being a very young organization (founded in 2011 by Clare Parry), there has been incredible progress made over the last 9 years in terms of the uptake of the Passive House Standard. I think the biggest indicator of this can be taken from the past year alone. 2019 saw the number of certified designers and tradespeople almost double. This is a great sign that people in (and beyond) the construction industry are investing in improving the quality and efficiency of buildings. In terms of project milestones, there were 2 major large scale projects completed and certified in the past year (the Fern Apartments in Sydney and Gillies Hall Student Accommodation in Melbourne), with numerous more projects scheduled to be completed in the coming year for Monash University.
“There has also been a lot of leadership shown from local government, with Mooreland City Council, for example, planning to build a huge community hub to the PH standard which will be the largest public building in Australia to date. This will spark both confidence and a healthy level of competition in the public sector to instigate the uptake of the standard. There are also huge opportunities to deploy PH in the residential sector, which some volume builders and development companies are starting to pick up on too. Several universities have also started to integrate the Passive House principles into architectural education which is very promising in terms of preparing our next generation of architects. Although there is still so much to be done, it is definitely exciting times in Australia…watch this space!”
Tomas O’Leary, Managing Director of Passive House Academy in Ireland:
“At times it feels like you’re plowing a lonely furrow. It feels like you’re shouting into kind of a deep, dark forest, and you’re wondering, ‘Is anybody listening?’ But I feel, finally, even in the last twelve months, like we’ve been pulling back the catapult for forever, and now we’re basically about to release the catapult and go into propulsion forward. You can’t turn on the radio or turn on the television or open a newspaper nowadays without reading articles about climate change and carbon emissions, so I think there’s a general level of public concern now for climate change. You also have the politicians in the likes of Ireland, Vancouver, and New York, who are really ratcheting up the pressure in terms of the energy performance of buildings. So, I genuinely feel that the 2020s will be regarded as the era when we finally copped on to the necessity of building better buildings.”
Laura Nettleton, architect and founder of Thoughtful Balance:
“When we truly understand the issues behind the climate crisis, we realize that everything has to change, and it’s difficult to imagine how that can possibly happen. I don’t know about you, but my life has unfolded in a way that I could not possibly have imagined. Life never fails to surprise. I don’t believe that we can always imagine the future. We have challenges like no other generation before us, but we have the opportunities that come with them. Opportunities always lie in the challenges and hardships that we face. We have the chance to remake a world that is more just, that cooperates and supports the natural world, and that redefines our view of success.”