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The Philadelphia Passive Project – 100k and the Passive House Standard

by Nic Darling on January 30, 2009 · 37 comments

in Construction Updates,Green Programs,Passive House,passive project

We just realized that we have been uncharacteristically quiet about our next project. We are due to break ground in just a couple of weeks, and we have barely written a word about it. This is very unlike us, and I will begin to remedy the situation right now.

Our next project is similar in scale and ambition to the first. We will be building two homes, side-by-side, just a block and a half from the original 100k Site at the corner of Amber and Arizona (map). These two homes will share the original vision of providing healthy, energy efficient and professionally designed homes at a reasonable price. The corner home, known as the M&M House, is already under agreement, and our buyers, Mario and Mel, anxiously await its completion. The true infill home will go on the market when we break ground.

In an effort to continue improving our energy efficiency we will be pursuing the Passive House standard in this project. This is a German building standard that aims to reduce the heating and cooling load of a home by 90% (you may have read about it recently in the New York Times). We are working with PHIUS (Passive House Institute US) to finalize the design and get our Passive House certification. The process has been fairly smooth so far, and we think we have a great home in the works.

While we won’t be pursuing LEED Platinum on these two homes (one standard at a time), they will be built to the same or better standards. We will definitely return to LEED after this project, but we see the Passive House standard as a great way to improve some very specific aspects of our houses, mainly the envelope and the mechanical systems. In these two areas, Passive House far exceeds even the highest standards of LEED.

The goal, as always, is to pursue this new standard in an affordable manner. The infill home, which will act as the true case study for this project, will be a two bedroom, one bath, loft style row home (much like the 100k). The house will come in at about 1300 square feet. Our goal is to adhere to the same requirement as the 100k House project and build this home for less than $100 per square foot in hard construction costs. With any luck this will allow us to provide one of the most affordable Passive Homes ever built in the US.

We will be going into a lot more detail on this project as we go forward including talking about the new mechanical system, insulation, windows and other changes the new standard requires, but for now, I will leave you with a couple early concept sketches of the new facade.

So, what are your thoughts on the Passive House standard? Are there reasons more people aren’t pursuing this standard in the US? What do you think of the new facade concepts? What materials would you like to see forming this new facade (stucco, lap siding, metal)?

Show up in the comments.

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.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Invest! - Postgreen’s Residential Project Investment Program | 100K House Blog
February 18, 2009 at 2:29 pm
Postgreen Homes - Facades and Floor Plans | 100K House Blog
April 8, 2009 at 3:52 pm
Passive Project Foundation and Slab Insulation | 100K House Blog
June 11, 2009 at 3:13 pm

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 lavardera January 30, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Love the facade variations here. Can’t wait for more.

2 Rob January 30, 2009 at 1:59 pm

I agree with Greg, the variations are wonderful. I wonder if at some point you could describe to us how you are attaining the passive haus levels? Walls, window ect.

3 Nic Darling January 30, 2009 at 2:16 pm

We will definitely be getting into details on this project, but for now I just wanted to introduce it. Future posts will go into more of the specifics on insulation, windows, mechanicals, etc.

4 tom toolbag January 30, 2009 at 7:39 pm

I like your ideas and the possibilities that your upcoming projects hold. You have the chance to change the way your local housing industry is headed. May I suggest some media notifcation, possibly an appearance on the local talk-radio, maybe even write a small article weekly for the home section in the Sunday paper. Maybe a flyer to all the realtors in the local realtor association. With the decision to build under passivehaus standards, you are making a big leap in the industry. Your ideas, risk, innovation should be rewarded…there is nothing wrong with making money, it’s how it is made that counts. You have the potential to be the next “Warren Buffet” of your area in the industry. Not only would you create interest, but you could inform and educate people in the process of marketing your product. Most potential homeowners don’t know how to compare apples to apples, especially if they don’t know what they are comparing. A lot of people only know what they are told, right or wrong, or what they see on tv, the internet, or newspaper. Most people don’t understand a lot of what they see, so they put their trust into someone else’s hands.
Heck, I came to your web-site through a link of an article about polishing a turd. I thought that was hilarious, and then I read some other posts and articles, and browsed the site. You will have some naysayers, and most likely those same people don’t want things to change, because if they did they would have to change also to maintain. Those type of people are the internal combustion engine of the induustry, they thrive on the fact that buyers are uninformed. Don’t prove “them” wrong, prove that you’re right.
I’m really happy though the you chose the passivehaus standards. It takes guts to meet or beat a standard, but it takes more to BE THE STANDARD.

5 Jim January 31, 2009 at 9:55 am

Have you given any thought to incorporating a green roof in your design? I myself have thought that a roof garden would be both an excellent green feature and wonderful way to bring a “backyard” into the city…

6 Bruce January 31, 2009 at 3:25 pm

I love the idea of the passive house. It’s really exciting to see this kind of development happening right down the street from me. One thought on design: I’m glad to see new design ideas in the neighborhood, but it might be nice to include a small nod to the existing style; perhaps some brick or stucco. I’m also curious about the possibility of a green roof as part of the insulation. And way down the road (though germane to the current project) – I’d like to see some innovation in sidewalk lighting in front of your houses.

7 Alex February 2, 2009 at 11:06 am

I look forward to seeing your progress toward passivehaus; discussion on the actual envelope upgrade costs necessary to achieve this standard would be most welcome.

Lessons from the Riverdale net-zero home might prove relevant. While the PV and solar combisystem in Riverdale go well beyond passivehaus, the envelope (R56 walls, R100 ceiling, triple and quadruple-paned windows) and passive-solar measures alone achieved an ~80% reduction in heating loads compared to current practice for an incremental cost (for only these measures) of only 14K.

I look forward to seeing how your experiences compare!

8 Jerry Hajek February 2, 2009 at 9:00 pm

I also like what you’re doing with the facade treatments, the variations on the theme. I’m a fan of metal or concrete on the exteriors, with metal applied in a ‘vented wall’ application. How applicable it would be in your locale is your call (Spouse and I used to live in Houston, where it would be a ‘no-brainer’, had there been more of y’all around there with the resident intelligence to apply it…).
By the by, you’d think solar hot water would be everywhere on the ‘third coast’….Nope….
They had issues with just adding joist clips on the rafters to keep the roof from flying away in atypical wind loads. Perhaps the last hurricane got ‘em some religion…..*shrug*

9 Nic Darling February 3, 2009 at 11:55 am

Green roofs will likely be an option on future homes, but they are a bit expensive to fit into our base models. As with many green features, we love the idea and the benefits but get hung up on the cost.

Bruce: Do you have specific thoughts on the sidewalk lighting? Are there certain things you would like to see?

10 Bud February 3, 2009 at 3:56 pm

From what I have found it seems the Passive systems are “northern climate” focused. Is there any information about the feasibility of passive house construction in the southern U.S. (South central Texas).

Recently found your site and am enjoying following along and learning.

Thanks. Bud

11 chad February 3, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Bud – Absolutely, Passive Houses can work in Southern US climates. Check out the PHIUS website for more info.

I just ordered their new book on Passive Homes built in the US and there are a couple of Southern examples in there as well.

12 Steve February 3, 2009 at 4:21 pm

What have you decided on windows? You might consider thermaProof 1125 fiberglass windows. I haven’t used them but they are rated at R-11!

13 Grant February 6, 2009 at 10:35 am

There are modified “green roofs” that don’t weigh as much and therefore don’t require the same kind of structural expense.

You could still consider a “patio roof” with a water proof membrane with paver stones and something like thyme growing in the cracks.

The “gardens” can be planters structurally supported by the exterior walls.

This will give owners the opportunity to grow some fresh vegetables and herbs.

A green roof doesn’t necessarily have to have 2 feet of soil and extra structural support.

A simple drip irrigation system can be tied into a rain barrel on the ground level.

14 Kevin D February 6, 2009 at 3:16 pm

Think twice, or three times before committing to a living roof.

Dr. Joe Lstiburek will tell you they are f***ing stupid. (He loves to cuss)

15 goran February 6, 2009 at 10:54 pm

I have this dream of having a traditional Japanese room on the rooftop to provide a quiet, gently lit area for meditation? Say 16×20. The only permanent structure would be post and beam supports for roof and walls. Shoji sliding screen walls and tatami floor mats, both of which can be stowed. Removable lightweight roof panels, or better, a tent roof which would not be designed to carry snow loads, and could be stowed flat on the roof during the winter. An outside staircase from the ground floor to provide 35 calming steps twice a day, on the way to greeting the sunrise and sunset.

16 Grant February 7, 2009 at 5:23 pm


I lived in Japan back in the 80′s and occasionally visit Japan during business trips to Asia. I used to speak Japanese fluently enough to translate for people. I LOVE Japanese architecture and landscaping. I always visit ancient gardens and temples when I travel to Japan. I also like to visit Japanese Gardens here in North America when I visit various cities.

Tatami mats are not easy to move and place. They also damage easily. Even a rubber tred shoe sole can do major damage to a tatami mat. I am unaware of people using them in situations where they have to be moved regularly. “Real” rice paper shoji screen walls are also easily damaged. While your “dream” is really “beautiful,” you would have to be VERY committed and extremely careful to achieve it. You couldn’t just leave it in place outdoors and the set-up prior to use would likely conflict with the desire for meditation.

An outdoor zen garden on your roof would seem to offer a more practical way of achieving your desired Asian meditation area… I’m sorry, but I just can’t imagine a successful outdoor tatami mat meditation room. The closest you could probably achieve is a rolled out rug/mat with a tatami design / look to it… I have also seen durable outdoor faux shoji screens. The folding style shoji screen dividers would be quick and easy to set up.

I dream of building a faux (can’t even come close to affording the real thing; they can easily cost $100K if built to traditional standards) tea house with 6 tatami mats in my planned Japanese Garden. I am considering using strawbale, post and beam construction with natural clay plaster over the walls which will simulate the traditional Japanese wall “look” but at a much cheaper price. I also won’t be doing the traditional ancient Japanese woodworking and joinery practices which is what drives the cost of a true tea house so high.

I’m also planning on using strawbale construction for the Japanese garden walls, as well. I believe I can get it to look fairly comparable and yet be very affordable and able to be constructed by myself.

Good luck with your project!

17 goran February 7, 2009 at 6:56 pm

Ha! Thanks, Grant. That’s why my wife (she’s Japanese) was chuckling to herself when she saw me writing that post. She has no problem letting me learn things on my own. Ok, maybe I’ll replace the tatami mats with interlocking foam tiles from a children’s playroom, and build my own screens using something other than paper.

Our property is on a lake, in the front, and there are hills behind, but for there are also two other homes within 20 ft on either side, and driveways and wires in the back. We currently have two 5′x10′ windows on the lake, but I’m not sure how practical such large windows would be in a low energy house. And there’s no view at all of the surrounding hills. The only direction without a view is south, which is good because that’s where the solar panels would go.

A living space roof would give picture views in 3 directions. I like the ability of sliding Shoji screens to to frame any view desired. And also to create a wonder, peaceful diffuse light in the other directions.

The near emptiness of the room is also peaceful, forcing you to focus inward, or wih an open screen, outwards.

These are the things I really want to reproduce on the roof:
– overhead shade and rain protection (with perhaps an unprotected, and unscreened small open air patio as a threshold, too.)
– an empty, quiet, clean space, with ability to allow breezes through. Minimal furniture. Comfortable barefoot floor.
– diffuse lighting from as many sides as possible.
– ability to open up picture views in any direction.

18 Kevin D February 8, 2009 at 10:52 am

OK, I just refreshed myself with the current PassivHaus principles. I was very relieved to discover they have recently abandoned earth-tube systems in favor of HRV’s.

However, that means you have to select an HRV from the available products that seem to be WAY too large for the 100k house.

What HRV will you use?

19 Grant February 8, 2009 at 11:24 am


Your most energy efficient “passive solar” design will actually involve windows on the south facing side of the house… The south is where you want the most windows together with a properly designed overhang. I actually plan on using my SHW panels to help shade the south windows from the summer sun.

For a low-energy house, you need to be careful with windows to the east and the west, where the rising and setting sun is low in the sky and can’t be shaded by a roof overhang. East and west windows (“glazing”) can easily cause significant temperature swings inside the house.

I don’t want to hi-jack this blog thread any further with a private discussion, but if you’d like, you can email me at GwhittleAL(at)aol(dot)com. I’m designing my own home as well (with the final design to be completed by my architect), and hope to Owner-Build hiring in sub-contractors. Like you, I’ve been coming to websites like this one with the intention of stealing some of their ideas –grin–. I’d be happy to compare notes and ideas.

Yoroshuku onegai itashimasu!

20 darin February 9, 2009 at 1:01 pm

very cool! we’ve been wondering what you guys have been up to. do you have any progress photos of the 100k?

we’ve started designing a house for ourselves. we were considering the passive house standard, but opted for LEED instead. mostly because we’re familiar with the process and it seems to be more widely recognizable here in the state – though we will be overlapping many of the standards. we have a blog started:

we’ll be looking forward to seeing more about this new venture!


21 Glenn February 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm

I look forward to following and learning from your Passive House project. I will echo Alex’s comment on cost for envelop upgrades. I realize the thought is cost shifting, increase envelop efficiency to greatly reduce the cost of “traditional” HVAC cost. What was your experience working with the PHPP software as a guiding force in the design process? What is your wall assembly? Will it be built on site, panelized off-site?

22 Nic Darling February 11, 2009 at 5:22 pm

We will definitely be talking a lot more about the specific systems and specs for the houses as we move forward. For now, I just wanted to introduce the project, but your wish list topics will be addressed.

It looks like only the interior home will be Passive House certified though both will adhere to most of the same design specs (cost concerns as usual). So, for the case study we’ll be concentrated on the infill lot.

23 Steve Sveom February 21, 2009 at 1:09 am

I was excited to read your story. Although I live in Minnesota, I think Philadelphia has a climate somewhat
similar( except for the -29 degree windchills in January). Passive home systems are a great way to
build a home. I have been trying to get a similar project
going in the Twin Cities, but have not had much success
yet. I believe that what you have started is what the future of homebuilding is going to be. No more double
digit appreciation, speculative barracudas playing the
market for everything they can. Homes of the future are going to be smaller, much more energy efficient, and most importantly, affordable. Have you experienced any NIMBYism? That seems to be an issue
with certain locations in this market. Probably more relative to scattered housing developments that are trying to establish a new “norm” in a suburban setting.
Some people turn their noses up at “affordable homes”.
What does affordable mean? It is a stereotypic response to say “subsidized housing”! It is not. If you
can make your monthly mortgage payment, and still
be able to manage the rest of your life, then you live in an affordable house, right?
Now, what’s affordable for me, as opposed to the guy
down the street, may be two different things, but that
doesn’t change the meaning. Wow. Thanks for letting me vent, and continued success with your projects!

24 goran February 23, 2009 at 5:54 pm

To get back on topic myself, I’d guess I’d like to see some of the high efficiency, triple glazed window options introduced in the Passive House standards, available as a 100+KHouse option.

25 Kevin D February 23, 2009 at 7:12 pm

In the Twitter column, I see that a makeup air supply pipe is being buried for the Philadelphia Passive Project. Just FYI, From what I can gather from the PassivHaus standards, this type of system is no longer required or recommended.

26 Kevin D February 26, 2009 at 8:07 pm

Here’s the cheap way to turn the roof into a party deck:

The stairs to the roof don’t steal real estate because they stack over the existing stairs.

27 bob Swinburne March 10, 2009 at 4:17 pm

yeah passive house. I have been doing low budget affordable modern houses lately – it’s what I love the most – and the passive house concepts are an easier sell than LEED here in Vermont. I still have to deal with builders who think a house should “breath”. I hand them the Passivehaus book

28 chad March 12, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Sorry we haven’t been addressing everyone’s questions here. We plan to start posting on all the details of our Passive project very soon and will try to do so in each post.

The main goal is to nail the Passive House standards in our standard budget. This way, there will be no options in the envelope. It starts and ends with Passiv Haus standards. Again, this is a goal, not a promise…

29 Miko Krisvoy March 12, 2009 at 5:56 pm

If you really like to use paper shoji screen you can add outer slider door or window like pocket door except its built out side. In the poket you can store wood (light weight), alminum (light weight w/ frame) outer door stacked in the poket 2-4 panels can be stacked. You can pull to close and protect shoji. Traditional Japanese house use them and still using the method. For the tatami you can buy top layer of materials call Goza you can layer over your form and roll up to store,some comes with cloth trim and few diffrent sizes.

30 Brian April 21, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Hi Chad, Really enjoying your site and your blog. We are in preliminary stages to try an affordable Passivehaus development here in Boston. 12 -16 three family row houses in Dorchester (a section of Boston) I hope you don’t mind, we’re just soaking up all this good stuff on your site!! Love to hear more about how you beat the cost demons, too!

31 Gary Watrous, AIA June 5, 2009 at 6:11 pm


I agree with Grant above. This facade design does not seem to take into account established priniciples of passive solar design — which we have been doing for 25 years.
– the design needs to let the sun in in winter and keep direct sun out in summer.
I would be happy to provide more specific advice if you wish to contact me at
Gary Watrous, AIA
Watrous Associates Architects
Louisville, Ky

32 Saul Galavis April 9, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I want to know more about the plans. The interior distribution, and way you need to go deep in the land…. and whats going to happen if there are some floods.Thanks for showing images..

33 Vlad April 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Passive House is a great way to go. I think the most emphasis one can give when building the home is to make its energy performance as high as possible. Passivehaus principles are very clear and logical for me and I would pursue them for my won home project. Keep going down that path and I’d be interested to see the progress.

34 Nicolas MC December 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I have to say the initiative is good, we as builders, engineers and architects we should always look to improve the quality and safety while lowering the cost. Now starting with the quality the cement board that you guys use for the outside is a horrible matterial, and would not recommend anyone to build or buy a house that has cement board on it. To put it simple these boards are just like an Ikea product, and I’m sure you don’t want your most important investment in an ikea quality-like product; companies like American Fiber Cement or Cement Board Fabricators offers 5 years warranty for these boards, for a house that has a life expectancy of at least 100 years. On the other side it is ridiculous to call this project energy efficient and green, because while you will save maybe $50/mo in natural gas, which by the way is a very green and safe fuel, you have to spend $10/sqft every ten years for the outside walls, or you may even end up with cancer, or your kids with asthma because of the mold that will build inside the walls.
I live in Chicago, and I assume the building code is almost similar with the ones in Philadelphia, so there is no reason why the construction cost for a wood frame with aluminum siding or face brick to be more than $98/sqft. Importing bad technology from Europe is not the answer.

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