We Have Powerful Climate Solutions Like Passive House, We Just Need to Use Them

As Climate Week approaches, we are justifiably focused on the dangers of the climate crisis and the current slow pace of progress at addressing it. But in this time or urgent need for action, it is even more important to elevate the very real and practical climate solutions we have at our fingertips.

A huge, sometimes overlooked, contributor to the global climate crisis is our building sector, responsible for 39% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, mostly due to heating, cooling, and operations. In major cities like New York, that percentage is even higher: 67% according to NYC’s 2015 inventory of GHGs.

What many do not realize, however, is that the design and construction industry has the means to dramatically slash the carbon emissions of buildings.

The Passive House approach to design and construction applies physics, building science, and energy modeling to reduce building heating and cooling demand to near-zero. It is sitting right under our noses, ready to be adopted.

Passive House makes buildings healthier and indoor air cleaner. It makes them more comfortable. It makes them more durable. It makes them cheaper to heat and cool and maintain. It makes them more resilient to weather extremes, wildfire smoke, and other pollution. It routinely slashes building carbon emissions by 90%, even before adding onsite renewable energy generation. And it does this at nominal upfront cost, sometimes zero additional cost.

In short, society has a ready solution to the monumental contribution that building operations makes to the climate crisis today.

That’s not to say that transforming how we build and retrofit buildings will be easy or happen fast enough to keep global heating to below 2 degrees C. But where policy catalysts for Passive House have been put into place, we see game-changing progress:

City of Vancouver, BC sparks an explosion in Passive House development. In 2015, Vancouver had just one Passive House unit within its city limits. Today, the city boasts 2,200 units, with another 2,000 units underway. Why? Vancouver recognized the power of Passive House buildings to slash the carbon emissions from its building sector, so it granted significant height bonuses to Passive House buildings and set regulatory requirements based on Passive House targets. The policies have been so successful that they are now informing the Province of British Columbia’s BC Energy Step Code for buildings. The City has now moved to also include targets for reducing the embodied carbon emissions of buildings. (See page 5 of NAPHN’s Policy Resource Guide.)

NYC’s Climate Mobilization Act sets 2050 Energy Use Intensity (EUI) limits for buildings at Passive House levels. Signed by Mayor de Blasio on Earth Day, April 22, 2019, the Climate Mobilization Act requires that all buildings larger than 25,000 square feet reduce operational carbon emissions to 0.0014 tons of CO2 equivalent per square foot per year by the 2035–2050 period, a threshold reliably achieved only by Passive House design and construction today. Dozens of Passive House projects are on the books in the city now. (See page 7 of NAPHN’s Policy Resource Guide.)

Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) data suggest that Passive House is no more expensive than conventional construction in Pennsylvania, perhaps cheaper. Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute first posited the potential to “tunnel through the cost barrier” with deep energy efficiency. By investing in a high performance building envelope and thereby shrinking heating and cooling energy demand, super energy efficient buildings can significantly reduce the need for expensive (and carbon intensive) mechanical equipment—furnaces, boilers, and air conditioners. The savings in these mechanical systems can then “pay for” the upgrades in the building superior envelope.

This dynamic appears to be at work with the Passive House buildings in PHFA’s building portfolio. For the past three years, PHFA has awarded extra points for Passive House projects in its competitive scoring of for the awarding of Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) for affordable housing projects. During that time, 74 Passive House projects and 194 conventional projects have applied for LIHTCs with PHFA. The average construction cost of the Passive House proposals was $173/sf, while the average for conventional proposals was $175/sf. This data suggest that Passive House buildings may be 1.3% cheaper to build than conventional projects in Pennsylvania. (See page 23 of NAPHN’s Policy Resource Guide.)

By all means, the media should cover the potential devastation that the climate crisis threatens. But it should also cover the solutions to the crisis that are right under our noses. Passive House is one.

Author: Zachary Semke
Categories: Climate Action