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Only One Person Can Fix the Passive House Rift


In the beginning, there was passivhaus. That was way back in the 1990s. Then the Passive House Institute US, having been thrown out of the party for blasphemy, said, no, passive house started in North America in the 1970s and ’80s. But wait, others said, a polar exploration ship from the 19th century was truly the beginning of passive house. And Dr. Joe Lstiburek, as you may recall, said it was the Eskimoes who started it.

In the beginning, there was passivhaus. That was way back in the 1990s. Then the Passive House Institute US, having been thrown out of the party for blasphemy, said, no, passive house started in North America in the 1970s and ’80s. But wait, others said, a polar exploration ship from the 19th century was truly the beginning of passive house. And Dr. Joe Lstiburek, as you may recall, said it was the Eskimoes who started it.

The Europeans, however, weren’t having any of that. Someone from England claimed King Henry V as the one and only founder of the House of Passive. (That’s an actual photograph of him actively fighting to uphold passive house principles.) Of course, the French jumped in declaring William the Conqueror had brought it to England in 1066.

Last I heard, someone insisted Moses had brought the passive house principles down from the mountain, written on the back of the 10 Commandments. In fact, it’s even been said that those principles are written as the 11th Commandment:

11. Thou shalt not heat or cool thy house mechanically, unless thy mechanical systems also provide fresh air or if thou canst do so whilst still consuming less than 15 kilowatt-hours per square meter per year of treated floor area and less than 120 kilowatt-hours per square meter per year excepting. These rules shalt not be violated — as well as the other rules for constructing an airtight house that leaks no more than 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals and minimizing thermal bridges — excepting in cases where new worlds with different conditions shall become occupied or the builder wear a wimple during the building of said house or…

So, you can see things are a bit of a mess. This is Building Science Fight Club on steroids. The two sides, PHIUS and PHI, have been duking it out in cyberspace, at conferences, and in coffee shops worldwide. (They don’t actually get out to construction sites much.) One suggests using a new metric for airtightness and the other says, “But look what happens in this scenario where we keep the same volume but change the surface area!” One says you’re denigrating us and being divisive. The other says that’s propaganda and sophistry.

Well, if you’re tired of it, you’re not alone. And the one person who can fix it has taken notice. Last year at Building Science Summer Camp, the campaign button below made its appearance. Apparently, Dr. Joe Lstiburek was an early contender to be The Donald’s running mate.

It’s well known that Lstiburek, one of the most eminent building scientists in North America, pals around with Trump. In fact, he will likely be the next Ambassador to the Czech Republic. (If he gets in trouble there, Trump may have to cancel the Czech.) Here’s a photo of the two together.


Well, Joe put the passive house bug in Trump’s ear, and here’s what he had to say:

Rest assured now. Help is on the way!


Related Articles

Why a New Standard for Passive House?

The Evolution of Passive House in North America

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This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. As usual, I misinterpreted
    As usual, I misinterpreted his speech. Thanks for clearing this up for me. I think that it would be best for Mr. Trump to devote himself full time to bringing the Passive House folks together. Although Trump Tower might induce hives in some PH advocates.

  2. The first thing I do upon
    The first thing I do upon reading a Vanguard blog as zany as this one? Check the calendar…Oops it’s NOT April Fools Day…

    Uh-oh. These people are actually serious! (Well, maybe not the Trump stuff, heaven help us!)

    Two words describe all the various PH variants – Allison said it best a few days ago “…boutique program”

    Meanwhile, we in the real world will continue to advocate for and construct “pretty good houses” while watching the PH transatlantic tussle play out.

    Keep us advised!


  3. Well, I can see I’ve got you
    Well, I can see I’ve got you trained well, Curt. I guess I’ll never catch you with my April Fools’ Day articles. ;~)

  4. Yes, indeed.
    Yes, indeed.

    I must have fat fingered something…I don’t know where “adams” came from.

  5. Ah, I thought you were trying
    Ah, I thought you were trying to be incognito.

  6. This German vs. USA Passive
    This German vs. USA Passive House tussle brings to my mind the phrase “Let not perfect be the enemy of good.”

    And I second the “boutique” motion stated above. With significant strides in renewable site generated energy already underway, at what point does a Passive House envelope become less cost effective than a “Decent House” envelope with site sourced or grid assist but still site based power generation? And the latter still meet the comfort and indoor air quality requirements for the occupants? If the overarching idea here, whether it be Passive House or otherwise, is to reduce dependency on carbon based energy sources, it would then come down to equivalency weighed against cost effectiveness. If Decent House with site sourced power at some point undercuts first cost of Passive House and yet yields an equivalent reduction in carbon based fuel dependency, the Decent House will win via economics.

    Just wondering aloud, here. Since I can’t make it to Summer Camp this year I gotta go virtual to get some semblance of being in Joe’s backyard. 🙂

  7. I’m with Cameron. I’ve heard
    I’m with Cameron. I’ve heard some of these passive houses are hard to control and uncomfortable. They’re going beyond all kinds of tipping points in the search for some crazy energy grail nobody has seen or knows what looks like.

    Let’s make houses really good – pursue the “decent house” standard rather than the “passive house” standard. Healthy, comfortable, controllable, and spend the difference on generation.

    Nate Adams is finishing up a Habitat for Humanity “decent house” – which shows making houses really good is possible for the rest of us who can’t afford science projects that pursue perfection.

    Let’s do lots and lots of THAT!

  8. Great points, Cameron. You
    Great points, Cameron. You asked, “at what point does a Passive House envelope become less cost effective than a “Decent House” envelope with site sourced or grid assist but still site based power generation?” That’s exactly what PHIUS is doing with its new standard. The goal shouldn’t just be lots of insulation and airtightness no matter the cost. It should be saving energy in the smartest way. Read the report and you’ll see how they did it, with Joe’s help at BSC. Here’s the link:

    It sounds like you don’t know about the “Pretty Good House” folks. I’ve written about it a few times. Here’s one:

    What?! You’re not going to Summer Camp? I can’t believe it. Well, I hope to see you back there next year.

  9. Ted, you wrote: “I’ve heard
    Ted, you wrote: “I’ve heard some of these passive houses are hard to control and uncomfortable.” Those would be failures. The learning curve for passive house is steep and sometimes people new to the program don’t get it right. I think the number of failures is probably pretty low, though.

    But let me ask you this? How many non-passive houses have you heard of that are “hard to control and uncomfortable”? I’m pretty sure you’ve not only heard of them but have been in quite a few.

  10. Allison, is that a strawman?
    Allison, is that a strawman?

    If you spend $400 a sf building an “efficient home” and it’s uncomfortable, how is that analogous to the 1995 spec built raised ranch that is also uncomfortable when the sun is just so?

    Seriously, my point is that passive house may be great at pushing the edges of what’s possible, but if we make it the example we encourage, good luck with scale.


  11. Yeah, I will miss being at
    Yeah, I will miss being at Summer Camp this year. Last two years were a blast and it was a hard decision to make. We had some challenges this year that precluded my ability to attend. I will be watching #bscamp on Twitter to further augment my virtual attendance. That said I will miss seeing the many fine people I’ve met there.

    I have heard about the “Pretty Good House” concept but need to read up further. I think I’m approaching “pretty good house” status with my own house serving as self-directed building science guinea pig, having logged performance data on my house HVAC and finding it only needed one ton of cooling over one hour of the hottest part of one day for 1860 square feet earlier this week. Installed system is two stage three tons; second stage hardly engages now, and in first stage runs around two tons, so it’s grossly oversized.

    I still remember Robert Bean’s talk from Summer Camp last year about “exergy” and your article on the matter “Must the Three Little Pigs Die?” I’ve condensed that to “combustion must die” since we are still largely a combustion culture. It’s a multi-prong approach to reach this goal, which would include Passive House construction along with Decent House/site generation and other efforts contributing to demand destruction, coupled with a shift in transport to non petroleum based fuels (electric vehicles and etc.) Since our focus here is on housing, I really would like to see Decent House scale up for the huge existing housing stock inventory yet to be touched by this approach, along with Passive House lessons applied to new construction, where the basic concept is to shift the burden of maintaining a comfortable, healthy living space toward the envelope, while reducing the intensity of HVAC required. Both “Pretty Good House” or “Decent House” along with Passive House have this basic premise as a foundation.

  12. Hey Curt, I’m the real Adams
    Hey Curt, I’m the real Adams here. =P

    Allison, there are 78 million existing homes in the US, I’d estimate that 99% of them suck at comfort. Comfort is by far the exception, not the rule.

    I LOVE Cameron’s idea for a decent house. Especially since I’m working on a JLC article about the Habitat for Humanity house today. Their motto is safe, decent homes.

    Pretty Good House is too tough for existing homes. Passive House is absolutely insane. Decent is better. Maybe EUIs under 45? I’d love to see Energy Use Intensity rule. Get there with envelope or PV, your choice… may the best man/woman win.

  13. Cameron,

    The questions that you are outlining here were the guiding questions that we set out to answer with the new climate specific passive building standards. The annual demand criteria were developed to identify the economic sweet spot in a particular climate between generation and conservation, identifying the point of diminishing returns of envelope upgrades. After you reach that sweet spot it is more cost effective to invest in PV. That sweet spot is climate dependent. The new standards guide you there. They also require to meet a certain peak load. That assures comfort and resilience. Also climate specific. It’s pretty cool – check it out here:!

  14. Well, I went to the map and
    Well, I went to the map and found my local BTU/ ft2/yr Loads. I’m using 2-1/3 times more than the total per year goal…SO what is allotted for actual living (TVs, porch fans, wife’s gigawatt hair dryer, hot water, dehumidifier, lights, power tools, workshop, etc.)?

  15. John, PHIUS currently allows
    John, PHIUS currently allows 6,200kWh/person total source energy for all energy uses…1,962kWh/yr site energy if the house is all electric. For certification purposes, # of people is based on # of bedrooms +1.

  16. This is why I love this space
    This is why I love this space! The head of PHIUS hops in and responds! Great job getting climate specific goals in place.

    Katrin, I’m sure we’ll meet sometime soon, I LOVE what Passive House is doing to raise the bar for new builds. I used 0.6 ACH50 for a recent retrofit project goal and failed miserably, I did get it from 109 ACH50 (?!) to 2.4 though.

    I hope as an industry we start to try and crack the existing home nut, it’s tough but big. Focusing on measured results is a big part of that path, and since Passive House focuses on it, I’m a big fan.

    Cameron and I started to hammer out a Decent House “standard”. I ended up really disliking putting requirements on. The requirements should be related to solving client problems, in my mind. We can’t prescribe requirements. But we can measure blower door and energy results – both are predictable and both are good proxies for solved problems.

    We’ll be noodling this for a while… I look forward to getting my case studies out this fall, it will be the beginning of figuring it out.

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