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Passive House (Passivhaus) Standard for Energy Efficient Design

by Chad Ludeman on April 10, 2008 · 78 comments

in Green Programs,Passive House

For the past two weeks my addition to green building knowledge has been focused on the Passive House or Passivhaus Standard of energy efficient building developed by the Germans in 1988. It seems that every week or two I latch onto a new obsession in the world of modern and green building, suck as much information as possible out of it, and then move on to the next concept to obsess over.

Passive House Definition

Passive House Savings Diagram

The basic idea of a Passive House is to reduce the energy usage of a home by 90% over traditional code built homes. I grabbed this definition off of a site which will hopefully become clearer later in the post: “A Passive House is a building for which thermal comfort can be achieved solely by post-heating or post-cooling of the fresh air mass, which is required to fulfill sufficient indoor air quality conditions without a need for recirculated air.”

Key Elements of a Passive House

From what I can find, there seem to be four main aspects to the average Passive House although each one will vary slightly. I have included two things we all like below before going into further detail – a numbered list and a lovely diagram:

  1. Super Insulation that is airtight and minimizes thermal bridging
  2. Highly Efficient Windows
  3. Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery
  4. Innovative & Efficient Heating Technology

Passive House Diagram

Super Insulation

There are a few key elements of super insulating a passive house:

  • High R-Value or Low Thermal Heat Loss Coefficient – For the climate in central Europe which is a tad colder than the northeast US here, they will achieve R-Values of 38 – 52 on all external walls, slab foundation and roofs. This level of insulation reduces the heat lost during the winter and the heat gained during the summer to extremely low levels. It then becomes very easy to keep the home at a comfortable temperature with very little energy. Surfaces in the home will also remain at a constant temperature and enable the home to be kept within safe humidity levels for occupants, furnishings and electronics.
  • Construction Reducing Thermal Bridging – Heat will flow through the path of least resistance such as wood, metal or certain foundation materials. Therefore it is important to not only have high insulation values, but to eliminate thermal bridges from the inside of the home to the exterior that are common in typical construction. Thermal bridging will waste the time and money spent on extra insulation if left unchecked.
  • Airtight Construction – Building an airtight thermal envelope is important for energy savings, humidity control and ensuring the longevity of the building structure. Gaps in the building envelope will allow moisture to seep in, raising humidity to unsafe levels in the home and damaging the structure of the home over time.

High Efficiency Windows

Windows in a Passive House must be extremely efficient as well to complement the super insulation. In Europe they seek an R-Value of just over 7 which is no easy feat. They use triple pane windows with low-e coatings and Argon gas to reach this goal. They also seek a low U-value of less than 0.20 where a very good Energy Star window in the US will be closer to the 0.30 mark. Below are the three main requirements of windows for a Passive House according to the Germans:

  • Triple glazing with two low-e coatings
  • “Warm Edge” spacers between the panes of glass
  • Super-insulated frames

Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery

Proper ventilation of a Passive House is critical especially due to the air tightness in the home that does not exchange the stale air with fresh outdoor air very much at all. Opening the windows is not a convenient strategy, nor one that can be performed year round. For these reasons a mechanical ventilation system in the form of an HRV or ERV is used to exchange stale air from the most polluted rooms (kitchen, bath, utility) and fresh air is vented into the living quarters (living room & bedrooms).

A Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) or Energy Recover Ventilator (ERV) is used in order to recover 75% to 95% of the heat by passing the warm exhaust air past the incoming cold air in a method that does not mix the two streams in order to make sure only fresh air is being vented into the home and no air is being recirculated.

Innovative & Efficient Heating Technology

The heating requirement is so low in a Passive Home due to all of the other factors that usually the home can be heated by simply heating the fresh air that is being brought into the home via the mechanical ventilation system. Various methods can be used to heat the incoming air inline which eliminates the need for additional ducting in the home. Some of the common methods to heat the air in a Passive House include the following:

  • Small heat pump
  • Small condensing gas burner
  • Small combustion unit for biomass fuel
  • Compact unit for all in one heating, ventilation and domestic hot water

Finally we’ll end with one of the charts I found from a case study (linked below) on a passive house built in Europe. It shows the effect on the heat requirements of a typical new home in Germany that each measure implemented has on the home.

Passive House Energy Measures Chart

Key Links:

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 21 trackbacks }

Philadelphia and Boston Groups Seek to Build the Most Energy Efficient Green Home Possible for $100,000 | Alternative Energy Foundation Press Releases
May 9, 2008 at 1:10 pm
Will $100,000 Build A Good Green Home? | RiverWired
May 13, 2008 at 4:33 am
Passive Design Implementation « Crspecht’s Weblog
August 27, 2008 at 8:21 pm
Technology in Flooring and Building Systems « The new American Dream: 100K(+ 20) | Starter Home
September 3, 2008 at 7:17 pm
The Philadelphia Passive Project - 100k and the Passive House Standard | 100K House Blog
March 2, 2009 at 12:15 pm
Passive houses will rock you green « Save Eco Destinations
March 26, 2009 at 8:24 am
Call for More Aggressive Education on the Passive House « BuildIntel
April 20, 2009 at 2:56 pm
Keeping Up and Catching Up | 100K House Blog
May 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm
More on Energy Efficient Houses « Jack’s Web Site
June 3, 2009 at 8:14 pm
Passive Project Foundation and Slab Insulation | 100K House Blog
June 11, 2009 at 3:14 pm
the latest architectural news » Passive Project Foundation and Slab Insulation
June 21, 2009 at 3:47 pm
Passive Project Foundation and Slab Insulation « the latest architectural news
July 21, 2009 at 12:13 am
Checking out passive house (garage) design « Attempting to Live a Sustainable Lifestyle in St. Louis
August 12, 2009 at 10:28 pm
The Net-Zero Postgreen Home Is On The Way | 100K House Blog
August 19, 2009 at 12:17 pm
3 Postgreen Homes Available in the Skinny Project | 100K House Blog
August 25, 2009 at 9:24 am
Facade Update and Retrospective: The Passive Project | 100K House Blog
October 27, 2009 at 3:35 pm
Building Gaskets and Air Sealing Tape | 100K House Blog
October 29, 2009 at 11:09 am
Passive House- The New Standard of Energy Efficient Building « Casa Diseno Blog
November 5, 2009 at 10:09 am
Passive House Ventilation Design | 100K House Blog
January 20, 2010 at 4:20 pm
behindcurrentevents.com » Passive House Design Reduces Heating 90 Percent
October 7, 2010 at 12:57 am
What To Know When Building A Strawbale Home
March 3, 2011 at 1:02 pm

{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lloyd September 12, 2009 at 5:53 am

Bruce,
You missed my point completely. Moving the material so much to save on labor is not sustainable. I noticed that when oil reached over $150/barrel the shipping costs made the Chinese labor savings go away. I have nothing against China, I just have a real problem with shipping glass and wood all around the world. It is just plain stupid if you are trying to build a sustainable world. The other problem I had was that the windows are not rated, which means there is no assurance that they will perform as promised. One must remember that in China everything made ships, there is no reject pile, no tolerances to be maintained, and no quality control.
Never put an unrated window in, no matter where it comers from, there is a reason it is not rated. Companies are selling junk as top end all the time and it is hard to tell the junk from the good stuff without ratings.The leakage rate of unrated windows could make your project fail. BTW, Canadian windows tend to have much less leakage rates than US windows at the same price point, and fiberglass window frames tend to have and maintain the lowest leakage rates due to the stability of the frame.

2 Avon Xzavia December 1, 2009 at 9:45 am

Hello Chad / Everyone,

I am planing to build a hybrid house: ZEH/+EH With pasiv & Massive aspects: thermal storage heavy concrete inner floors walls. & full energy creation and reclamation. With well water and rain water collection grey water re-cyc. as many positive aspects as possible. next year, (2010)

have any info thoughts on the following:

1/ Sipcrete construction method.

2/ Lots of focus on window efficiancy, but what about longevity durability ? No producer I have seen state figure for life of their product ? Fiber glass seems the most durable as far as I can make out ?? Timber lasts very well (if maintained) chemicals paint etc??

My aim is to construct a house that requires no maintenance and will last not many decades but perhaps many hundreds of years.

Avon (Germany).

3 Paul December 20, 2009 at 5:12 am

I really enjoy this blog and your projects.

I had two questions about your use of SIPs in your passive project. (1) What did you do to address the thermal bridges that remain with SIPs? (at the seams and where the walls and ceilings meet)
(2) How did you handle your electrical? Did you use a second interior 2×4 wall? Or did you come up with another way to avoid penetrations in the outer envelope?

Where I live we have over 7700 annual heat degree days and I’ve been told that to meet the passive standard I would need R-74 walls for a single family house, with roughly 1500 sq. ft. of livable space. If I used blown cellulose that works out to 23″ walls! I’m considering using Murus polyurethane SIPs. They have a 6.5″ panel (R-40) and a 5.5″ panel (R-33) that would get me close, but I’m not sure what I’d do with my electrical.

Have you guys ever considered using autoclaved aerated concrete instead of SIPs?

4 Miri December 21, 2009 at 2:46 am

Hi everyone,

I am in China right now and try to find out how the handling and the standards of producing passive house elements are. Concerning passive windows I was wondering if you could give me the names of some Chinese suppliers, so I can contact the manufacturer directly.
Thanks a lot in advance,

miriam (shanghai).

5 Martin March 16, 2011 at 4:52 am

Hi Avon
I haven’t heard of a hybrid house but my experience in building Passive houses and traditional houses make me favour masonry houses instead of timber frame.
The fundamental thing is to construct the house with excellent U values and with exceptional air tightness.
The positioning of the house to maximize solar gain is essential.
It is always advisable to have massive elements such as concrete walls in the house to absorb the solar gains for use in the evening.
The windows are a key factor in passive houses and the whole frame U value that is the glass and frame should be about 0.8w/(m2K).

If you build to passive standards then the house construction will last for many years maintenance free

6 Tatiana Moller April 27, 2011 at 12:03 am

I live in one of the few Passivehaus’s in the NW. Portland to be exact, I own The Corehaus. Many people are confused by the term Passive House, which evokes the passive solar of the 70′s. In having to explain criterion over and over, I have developed an acronym / mantra if you will….(whheat)

W Ultra-high-performance Windows
H Heat Recovery Ventalator
H Using passive Heat sources (solar of course, but also equipment, lighting, and occupants).
E Super-insulated Envelope
A Airtight construction (0.6 air changes /hr at 50 Pascals)
T Thermal bridging(Eliminating or reducing)

7 Fion April 14, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Heads up to the Passive house community! The whole Passvhaus concept is a European one. New to the US, many Passive house window and door suppliers across the States are not actually certified because their windows do not actually meet the strict pasive house standards established by the passive house institute in Germany. Most US suppliers provide windows which have lowere R-Value than what is required and I have even seen cases where these companies charge more money for their fakes than what the genuine article is worth. However, after 6 hours of research I have found but two US suppliers who do in fact supply fully certified windows so here they are and I hope this information saves you from being suckered into buying uncertified windows.

1. Klearwall
2. Optiwin

I have just got quotes from both and Klearwall are cheaper.

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