August 15, 2013

"The Passive House: Sealed for Freshness."

Quite aside from the environmentalism and the long-term cost savings, I love the promise of quiet:
Look out the living room windows and you can see a gardener wielding one of those ear-piercing leaf blowers in the yard, but you would never know it inside.

There is no furnace or air-conditioner clicking on or off, no whir of forced air, and yet the climate is a perfect 72 degrees, despite the chilly air outside....In one of the most humid cities in the country, you aren’t sticky or irritable....

49 comments:

Balfegor said...

I think that long term, the most environmentally approach is (1) don't build new housing at all if you don't need to, and (2) if you do build new housing, build its framework according to pre-industrial principles (cross-breezes, broad overhangs for shade, angled roofs for rain and snow) and build it to last.

If your "environmentally friendly" house is going to be torn down in 20 or 30 years, or is going to be substantially remodeled, that's not really friendly to the environment.

This newfangled stuff sounds lovely, and perhaps it is, but if you can just adapt an old building that's been around for a 100 or 200 years, rather than tearing it down, that's probably a lot better for the environment overall. Another 100 years hence, it's a lot more likely to be standing than whatever awful modern iMonstrosity of glass and steel and solar panels a contemporary architect would come up with.

madAsHell said...

Howard Shultz of Starbucks lives over in Madison Park. That pretty much describes the whole neighborhood.....money, and trustafarians.

Terry said...

If you go by what it says in the article, the headline should be: "Experts: 'Passive housing not practical in US'".

AaronS said...

These will get a lot more popular in the states. Aside from providing green bona fides to the wealthy home owner they provide a new and exciting way to hermetically seal our lives off from the outside world and all those dirty, dirty people.

Crunchy Frog said...

Sorry, but not everyone wants to live in (or next door to) something that looks like a Picasso painting. It's ugly. Architecture by IKEA.

At an additional $50K for passive certification, how many years is it going to pay off in energy bill reductions? The life span of the mortgage itself?

I guess it must be worth it for the arrogant self-congratulations they can bestow upon themselves. Being a prick Prius driver just doesn't set you apart from the pack anymore.

El Pollo Raylan said...

In a place as cold as Minnesota, a passive home’s walls would have to be 18 inches thick, but even in the more temperate Portland, Ore., 12 to 14 inches is typical.

The photos you see are a bit deceptive. I don't think you can make window frames and walls 18" thick and not look like adobe.

We get by just fine out here in a 70's tract home: no A/C and very little heat in the winter -- done mostly with a wood-burning fireplace.

El Pollo Raylan said...

Look out the living room windows and you can see a gardener wielding one of those ear-piercing leaf blowers in the yard, but you would never know it inside.

Meade should be seen and not heard.

traditionalguy said...

Cute. Another monastic separation from the world of dirty, noisey people and other animals, with air locks I suppose.

Why don't they just become Buddhists and settle for that form of imaginary non-existence?

paul a'barge said...

Sweet mother of toffee, these people built a home in Seattle (Seattle?!!?) and now they're arguing that it's the nuts of a building challenge?

Has the NYTimes lost what is left of its narrow little mind?

Build this shit in Texas. Or Madison, Wisconsin. Or the UP in Michigan. Or Minneapolis. Then, bring on the braggadocio.

What insufferable idiots these Lib-tards are.

So precious. Not.

So fetid.

paul a'barge said...

But in the United States, since the first passive house went up 10 years ago, in Urbana, Ill., only about 90 have been certified. Why aren’t they catching on here?

Oh good grief. Have these NTTimes idiots really never been to the 4 corners area of the USA where Dennis Weaver and others have been building awesomely effective passive structures (walls of wattle-embedded truck tires) for years?

You know what's got their attention after all this time? Someone built something in Seattle. Because what has been happening across the American fly-over country ... well, hasn't even happened.

Dave Shemwell said...

I lived in Madison Park for a while and hot and sticky is not the kind of weather you get very often. It is usually very moderate. Seattle is not particularly humid in the summer (certainly not like NYC)

PatHMV said...

I don't think you can really be "green" if you are importing your windows from Lithuania and your skylights from Poland. What's the carbon cost on manufacturing and shipping those?

MadisonMan said...

How "green" is a house if the windows come from Lithuania, the skylights come from Poland, and the ideas come from a Conference in Seattle that everyone flew to?

The temperature is adjusted by pulling down shades and opening windows.

How revolutionary!

Seriously, if some guy wants to build a house like this, good on him (or her), it's their property. I don't see this working in any place with climatic extremes.

Carl said...

Sounds great, and I'd love one. But like most "environmental" products, this is a luxury consumer good. This is something for the high-end wealthy consumer who has money to burn and wants to burn some of it for his own convenience.

I actually have no problem at all with that. But the sanctimony of wrapping your convenience in this public moral righteousness -- pretending you're doing this for the planet instead of for yourrself -- rather grates.

And if I were a genuinely poor person, struggling to get by, I'd probably resent it quite a bit. You want to suck up more precious resources to build a really sweet house that rests your ears when you come home, go right ahead -- so long as you pay for it out of your own labor. But do not tell me this is all for my benefit, or people like me, and, worse, do not force me to subsidize it with higher taxes, higher prices, or limiting my choices for what meets my needs.

What "the world" needs far more than a wonderful very expensive but low electricity using house is a lot more very low cost housing and transportation options that get the job done but aren't quite so First World sexy. Oddly enough, E. F. Schumacher made quite a splash about this ("Small Is Beautiful" was the book) 30 years ago.

JRoberts said...

Actually this a sounds a little similar in concept to BioSphere (or whatever it was called) out in the Arizona desert.

Didn't they have problems with interior air quality?

pst314 said...

I've heard that there have been problems in Europe with these passive houses--condensation inside walls, insufficient air exchange with the outside, that sort of thing. Time will tell how serious these problems are and to what extent they can be solved.

JackOfClubs said...

Sounds like a fine and private place.

wildswan said...

I've heard you can't have a fireplace in those houses - no chimney allowed plus they don't want particulate i.e. smoke everywhere. I'd miss that. And I wonder about radon. And what about getting actual sunlight into the house? The whole place feels like a cave which has been disguised as a house.

YoungHegelian said...

Air quality, even within "leaky" houses now, is generally awful. There's dirt, pet dander, mold, off-gassing from various plastics & insulation, & sometimes radon. Also, it's almost always too dry as heating air de-humidifies it, to the point that an average American house in winter has a relative humidity less than that of the Sahara desert.

I can only imagine what the problems would be in a house that actively (passively?) seeks to block almost all air leakage.

El Pollo Raylan said...

What about radon gas...sealed inside for freshness?

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

With a house that tight, if somebody farts everybody else will have to swallow in order to adjust the pressure in their ears.

The best way to save energy in housing is to move south. It requires vastly less energy to cool a warm-climate house than to heat a cold-climate house.

I have built houses in climates with 5% winter-design temperatures of -25 F (R-45 walls and R-70 roof) but you have to allow for significant air exchange simply to deal with stuff like cooking odors, farts, cat litter, rotting cabbage in the fridge and so on.

These things are simply the latest version of the elitist homes in which no one actually *lives* or does anything normal. As a former builder I'd guess the all-in energy and environmental costs of such houses exceed (by a fair bit) those of your typical gentry "statement".

Rocketeer said...

Think of all those poor scintillas, trapped inside that hermetically sealed house with nowhere to go! Seems cruel. "Passive House," indeed...

Mark Trade said...

After moving to southern Arizona and noticing how it seems to be perpetually sunny, I wonder why every house doesn't have solar panels. Is solar panelling still so expensive? There is a fortune to made here for whoever can figure it out. All that wasted sun--that's money!

I spend the extra $5/month to have my personal energy costs come from a solar farm, but even that probably has some kind of subsidy associated with it (or two or three). The subsidies are probably slowing the market. Why improve the technology when the government will pay you for what you've got, regardless?

Anyway, I like the promise of quiet, too. I'd get one, if I lived in Seattle or Japan (DWTV link).

David said...

The article points out that these houses are "unnecessarily expensive" and that the additional expense will not be recovered over the full lifetime of the young owners.

Then this correction:

"Correction: August 14, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the couple who built an environmentally passive home in Seattle’s Madison Park neighborhood. They are Sloan and Jennifer Ritchie, not Richie."

Just call them Rich for short. Perfect subjects for a NYT article.

Titus said...

I want one but not in the city. I would like it on the ocean in the south coast of Maine. Truro would be another possibility but the small town would never let it in.

Peter said...

Part of the problem with articles like this is that they're written by journalists, who are almost by definition scientific illiterates.

To start, you can't just seal up a house and hope for the best- you've just got to get some fresh air in it. In a cold climate, you can use an air-to-air heat exchanger to do that without losing too much energy.

But in a warm, humid climate you've got to do something to remove that humidity. And there are no truly "green" ways to do this, as it is energy-intensive (i.e., dehumidifiers or air conditioners).

Even so, there's plenty that can be done to reduce the energy used in a house- the problem is, the methods tend to be site- and climate-specific, and the housing industry isn't set up to produce reasonably priced houses that are customized for a particular site, or even (much) for a particular climate.

To me, it seems obvious that if you're going to build a house in Wisconsin you'd want big windows on the side that faces southeast and small ones on the side that faces north, for example. That, and enough roof overhang so there's plenty of sun in winter (when the sun is low) but not so much in summer. And yet plenty of tract houses don't do this even though the cost is minimal.

More imaginative design might involve the use of a heat reservoir, in climates with a large difference between daytime and nightime temperatures, plus the use of automatic controls to pull in outside air when it makes sense to do so.

In short, there's quite a bit that can be done cost-effectively (without building a costly boutique-house!), yet many of these methods require some degree of customization and intelligent design (no I don't mean that kind!).

BUT I don't expect much intelligent discussion of reduced-energy technologies (even very basic ones) from journalists- because, so few of them have any real education in the "hard" sciences (and more than a few seem to have only contempt for those who do).

(And, umm, yes- it sometimes would be very nice not to hear the neighbor's marital dispute, or the booming stereos, or "loud pipes" vehicles, or that dog that won't stop yapping.)

Titus said...

Ritchie is a sculptor and poet. Likely old money. Totally jel.

Petunia said...

If they really wanted to be green and eco-friendly, they wouldn't have had children.

Peter said...

Unfortunately, if you really want to use less energy in less benign climates then you need to herd people into huge apartment blocks.

After all, a building gains or loses heat to/from the environment from its periphery, and the size of that periphery increases as the square of its dimensions, but its volume increases as the cube.

Which is to say, you're going to gain/lose more heat through an exterior wall than you will through a wall that's common with another interior climate-controlled space.

So to be maximally green, you really should live within a tiny cubicle deep within an enormous building.

GrandpaMark said...


pst314 said...

I've heard that there have been problems in Europe with these passive houses--condensation inside walls, insufficient air exchange with the outside, that sort of thing. Time will tell how serious these problems are and to what extent they can be solved.

In Pacifica, California an apartment/condo complex was built using the latest and greatest building codes. The units were so tight that they developed serious mold problems. The entire complex has been condemned.

The answer to the problem of extreme requirements was to add another code requirement, automatic ventilation systems.

Too much of a good thing, I guess, but I am sure it looked good on paper.

harkin said...

Dave Shemwell said:

"I lived in Madison Park for a while and hot and sticky is not the kind of weather you get very often. It is usually very moderate. Seattle is not particularly humid in the summer (certainly not like NYC)."

That struck me too when I read it. As someone who has spent a lot of time in the Seattle Bellevue area and also the east and Midwest, Seattle is hands down a much more pleasant climate. Summer humidity is completely different when the high is 72 and it's 55 at night.

As to thick-walled homes with excellent energy efficiency ratings....go straw bale!!

Sam L. said...

I get the impression there is little in-flow and out-flow of air, which indicates to me that solvents used inside, plastics that out-gas, cooking odors and the like are going to stay around for a long time. Maybe even, dare I say it, build up?

Carl said...

you've got to do something to remove that humidity. And there are no truly "green" ways to do this, as it is energy-intensive

As a weird aside, there is actually no thermodynamic reason why this has to be so. The free energy reduction required for the removal of water from air is very modest (in part because you should be able to get back the heat of vaporization, which a conventional A/C just throws away).

If you had a membrane permeable to O2, N2 and CO2, but not H2O, you could do it with a tiny little pump and very little electricity. Nor is there any fundamental reason why such a membrane couldn't be made: the molecules have significant differences that could be exploited to separate them.

So there's a fascinating little materials science/nanotech problem, the solution of which will make the lucky inventor staggeringly rich.

Carl said...

So to be maximally green, you really should live within a tiny cubicle deep within an enormous building.

I'm thinking maximally brown...

McArdle wrote about the elevator problem in arcologies. She was probably too ladylike to mention the same issue attends the efficient disposal of sewage.

I guess as long as the soundproofing is good, so the rumble of chunky kilotons hurtling by in yard-wide tubes remains subaudible.

gadfly said...

I would judge that the "Ritchie Rich" have far more money than common cents, um and no sense either.

Wealthy people generally squeeze every ounce out of every penny, so in a resale situation, how many qualified buyers will pay for the enormously costly extra of absolute quiet - even if that is possible?

David said...

Sloan Ritchie is known for his take-charge attitude, sharp persona and always-at-work analytical mind. As the founder of Cascade Built, a Seattle-based green real estate company, he has successfully aligned his career with his personal values and interest in sustainability. Sloan spent eight years in the wireless industry and received an MBA from the University of Washington in 2003. One of Sloan's goals is to use his business experience to make a significant, positive contribution to the community. A Seattle native, Sloan can be found on summer weekends with his wife, Jennifer, windsurfing in the Columbia Gorge or helping to retrieve the most recent Eco Encore donations in his Biodiesel-sipping VW.

Sloane Ritchie's bio in is rile as director of Econo-Cor (apparently a green oriented charity). Clearly he vetted this himself, so here is how he sees himself.

El Pollo Raylan said...

If you had a membrane permeable to O2, N2 and CO2, but not H2O, you could do it with a tiny little pump and very little electricity. Nor is there any fundamental reason why such a membrane couldn't be made: the molecules have significant differences that could be exploited to separate them.

Size wise, they're all very similar. Water is the only nonlinear one. Water vapor is surprisingly non polar (cf. steam distillation of organics). Water is the only one of them easily condensed.

I'd be surprised if NASA engineers hadn't thought through many of these issues already.

SteveR said...

Its simply too good to be true. People who think the $30k (or whatever) is a good investment in improving your environmental impact, could easily spend it in a better way and have a quicker and more profound effect, such as it may be. But you'll get no style points with the green one percenters down at Whole Foods.

Freeman Hunt said...

The idea of being inside a sealed house makes me feel claustrophobic.

Like YoungHegelian, I don't see how you keep from ending up with terrible air quality in one of those houses.

KitaIkki said...

The air inside a "PassivHaus" is better than that of conventional houses. It's constantly ventilated through an Energy Recovery Ventilator with air-to-air heat exchanger. The incoming fresh air is heated or cooled (as needed) by the outgoing exhaust air. I would say the primary benefit is improved quality of life, reduced energy cost is just a bonus. The indoor air is always fresh and clean, same as outdoor air, just temperature controlled. Temperature is even throughout the house. No hot or cold spots. Dust is greatly reduced (no dirty air ducts moving stale air all around the house) And no danger of CO poisoning from a leaky furnance. You can even optimize the design by having fresh air coming into the living or family room and having the stale air exhausted from the bathroom and/or kitchen.

Similar improvements have happened before, in cars. Until the early 70's, A/C was a luxury feature and people drive around with windows open all the time. In the 80's A/C becomes more common. Now many cars have "cabin air filter," and vent registers for each occupant. Most people keep their car's windows rolled up.

Lots of information on the web if anyone cares to look. This idea has been around for years. It's not even the first time NYT has reported it.

MayBee said...

I love fresh air in my house much more than I appreciate quiet.

Bob_R said...

The article does point out the air quality problems that air quality problems that plagued earlier experiments of this kind.

The heat exchange technology sounds like it would be useful in a more typical house. (Assuming that the report is accurate - which, as Peter say is a big assumption.)

If you want a much quieter house, read up on home recording studio construction. But, like the passive home, that kind of thing is probably overkill in a residential house. Just building something with heavy, thick walls with lots of insulation (as Balfegor says, built to last rather than to get the cheapest cost per square foot of living space) is going to give you something quiet and easy to heat and cool.

John said...

First, I love how wrong the headline is. "Sealed for freshness"? Really? As a number of people have commented, sealing the house makes it about as un-fresh as it could possibly be.

The other thing that caught my eye was:

“But those are such non-sexy ideas,” said Mr. Freas, 61, who is a sculptor and poet.

Well, he is (cued the hushed tones) a poet. So his opinion is important because he is... a poet.

See my comments of bewilderment on how simply calling someone a poet elevates them to the level of Shaman in many people's eyes. Not mine, but many people.

He doesn't make his living from poetry, if Amazon is any indication. Perhaps he also grows a few tomato bushes. Mightn't we say "Mr Freas, 61, sculptor and tomato grower" if that were the case. That would actually carry more weight with me.

John Henry

Anthony said...

Just an FYI it can be very humid in Seattle in the winter although summers are indeed relatively dry, ca. 20-30%

rcommal said...

Is it possible that there might be something to the notion that the closed-up houses over the past couple-so decades combined with ubiquitous anti-bacterial + etc. cleaning stuff might have contributed to the allergic-health of kids about which we hear and read so much these days?

If indeed that is possible, is it worth considering that when and while evaluating "The Passive House"?

I mean, it's not as if there's not more one than definition of silence, after all.

rcommal said...

Hermetically sealed carries (and transmits) its own risks, after all.

Hell, hermetically sealed isn't even a panacea.

Aaron said...

"Cascade Built was founded by Sloan Ritchie to build quality, sustainable homes and buildings in Seattle. The company builds new custom homes, multi-family buildings and backyard cottages that emphasize its vision for contemporary urban design using sustainable building practices and a smaller environmental footprint. Cascade Built also offers general contracting services for commercial projects and substantial remodels and additions.

We are experts in Green Building methods, strategies and techniques, and implement them on every project we build. We overlay low-cost and no-cost green building strategies automatically, and then incrementally incorporate additional sustainable features per the project goals and client values. We built Seattle’s first LEED certified townhomes, LEED Platinum homes as well as Certified Passive House, Built Green and Energy Star homes."

So basically, this article was an advertisement.

rcommal said...

Yeah, there used to be a label for that (and there was a reason): advertorial.

Another thing of nuance cast into the dustbin too soon. In the case of the once-new, business jargon represented by, for example, "advertorial," it really is a shame that the term wasn't sticky enough generally. It really did (and still could, would) express a specific-enough thing, otherwise not expressed in a pithy fashion.

Instead, we've got streams of *unfortunately compatible* bad things joining together into a mush, a slurry.

It's awful. No one should be proud.

Richard Dillon Dillon said...

I agree that adapting an old building is better than tearing it down. Look at newly-built apartment blocks and condominiums: a lot of them are made with the cheapest materials the contractors can get away with and the finished quality is questionable (not to mention the fa├žade!). Buildings built 100 years ago have stood the test of time and the workmanship is excellent. Renovating them is quicker and produces less waste.