Let's Turn The White House Into A 'Passive House'

David White, an architectural energy technical consultant at Transsolar who I met while reporting environmental design stories, is a passionate advocate for the passive house movement. "German Passivhaus," which originated decades ago in Frankfurt, is the unsexy sibling of the eco-starchitecture movement. Instead of flaunting platinum-LEED certified plaques with all kinds of Jetsons-style enviro bells and whistles, "passive homes" are beloved by engineers: insulated in airtight shells that temperature-regulate themselves. Across the globe only some 15,000 passive homes exist. Most are in Germany and Scandinavia, while in the US a tiny movement is percolating in Urbana, IL. And last week The New York Times devoted a feature story to the bare bones design practice, in which homes run on roughly one-twentieth of the energy of a conventional house and only cost some 5% more to build.

Passivhaus On January 2nd, White submitted a proposal to the incoming Obama Administration for a new Passive House Certification that would stand as an alternative to LEED, which many critics view solely as a marketing standard (see his proposal below). To push White's call to action even further, we challenge president-elect Obama to convert The White House into a passive home to set the ultimate example for a country that is now reeling from the environmental and economic backlash of decades-worth of unsustainable McMansion fetish. We realize this is ambitious, and that it wouldn't be the first time a President has attempted to green The White House. In 1979, Jimmy Carter installed a $28,000 solar water heater on the roof of the West Wing (which lasted seven years). Then in 1993 Bill Clinton assembled a team of 100 green architects, engineers, and scientists—including William McDonough and Bob Berkebile—and commissioned a comprehensive "Greening the White House" report by The Rocky Mountain Institute.

Passive House

Obama's already on the right track: just last week he told Barbara Walters that he plans on auditing the environmental efficiency of his new digs. But as a model for the rest of the country, we need larger scale change. Energy consultant White told me that "deep energy retrofits are estimated at roughly $50 a square foot." This would be a hefty investment for the new administration, costing over $3 million to overhaul the 55,000 square foot white house. But, as Environmental Building News editor Alex Wilson recently said: "For what we are spending on the war in Iraq, we could be investing in a politically stable, environmentally safe, and economically strong future built upon such energy sources as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and efficiency." Let's start renovating.

To submit your own proposal to the Obama Administration, click here.

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Dear Mr. President and Obama Administration,

Thank you for asking my vision. I very much appreciate that a key point of your energy agenda is efficiency. I'd like to draw your attention to one approach to energy efficient building, which is called Passive House (or German Passivhaus). The main advantages of Passive House are:

-It is the most stringent residential energy efficiency standard in the world

-It is proven in about 15,000 units in Europe (and a few in the US), with extensive post-occupancy validation

-It achieves minimum life-cycle cost, as well as minimum cost to achieve net-zero energy A Passive House in most if not all US climates will maintain survivable or better interior conditions through an extended energy outage.

The approach was developed in Germany, although it is based on research conducted on low-energy housing built in the United States and Canada.

The core strategy of Passive House is to more or less eliminate heating energy needs, which account for the bulk of residential energy consumption. Its cost-effectiveness is achieved by reducing peak heating load to the extent that a conventional heating system can be eliminated, partly offsetting extra costs for insulation, air tightness, and special components. The consequent peak heating load is equivalent to the power of a hair dryer. In combination with the Passive House approach to lighting, appliances, and so on, it becomes practical and affordable to meet all energy needs with renewable sources.

This approach may not be appropriate, at least without some adaptation, for all areas of the United States, depending on climate and other factors. Further, it is not in principle anything new: similar excellent work based on the same concepts has been underway here for decades. However, it is plainly obvious that Passive House merits our careful study, if not wholesale adoption: it has lead to far more units of energy efficient housing, all of them at much lower energy consumption, and with a higher rate of measured success, than any other effort undertaken anywhere, ever. One reason may be that it is so well packaged as to enable any competent professional to design an ultra-low energy building. Another is ease of verification (see below).

Passive House has established a presence in the United States (www.passivehouse.us <http://www.passivehouse.us> <http://www.passivehouse.us/> ), and has engaged many of the country's best experts on energy-efficient building. The New York Times recently published an article on Passive House (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/27/world/europe/27house.html?_r=1&ei=5070&emc=eta1).

In January 2008, the European Parliament called on the Commission to "propose a binding requirement that all new buildings needing to be heated and/or cooled be constructed to passive house or equivalent non-residential standards from 2011..." (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+REPORT+A6-2008-0003+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN )

In considering how federal policy might help, I think that both subsidy and mandate can and do have negative, unintended consequences in the field of energy efficient buildings. One problem is lack of assurance that the subsidies bring about real and cost-effective savings. Passive House certification offers a way through this: it ensures energy efficiency, unlike any green building system in the US (including the LEED system). A certifier checks the design and calculations for insulation level, glazing type, etc; and the air tightness of the building is physically tested on site. Incremental cost for Passive House is currently about 5-7% in Germany, probably higher in the US. A subsidy of Passive House, or a US standard with the same level of quality assurance, would help defray added costs for early adoption and get a new industry on its feet.

Mr. President and Administration, Thank You for your work. You inspire me. Please keep reminding yourself of your deepest intentions, and stay safe and well.

Warmly,
David White

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1 Comments

  • David White

    One point about energy consumption: the figure of 1/20 is unfortunately too optimistic. Heating energy consumption is about 1/10 of conventional in Germany, and holds true for similar US climates. Total consumption for all household uses is harder to quantify, and depends quite a bit on things that are out of the designer's hands, such as appliances and electronics. But I think the most essential point about the energy performance of Passive House is that it makes 100% renewable energy practical and cost-effective. Thanks for the post!