das Haus – Passive House in Chicago

This week is the Das Haus mini-conference in Chicago, put on by the Passive House Alliance, Chicago chapter.  Being new to the city and in the job market, the event piqued my interest as a matter of sustainability and a good introduction to Chicago design and architecture.

You may be asking, what is a Passive House?  Asking myself that, while on their website, the simple answer is “The Passive House concept represents today’s highest energy standard with the promise of slashing the heating energy consumption of buildings by an amazing 90%.” (PHIUS)

Sustainbility is a core issue on many architects’ and designers’ agenda and value’s list, but to design by Passive House’s standards means it is integrated as a core value requiring commitment, with anticipated results of a well-sealed home that requires little energy to maintain, therefore smaller monthly bills.

A persuading argument points out the cost savings over a 30-year mortgage.  Someone in the audience at the introduction presentation this past Friday at Hafele (cool showroom!) pointed out that in the reality of American lifestyles and economics, most people won’t stay in the same dwelling for 30 years, and therefore is this a viable incentive for the higher upfront cost?

The speaker pointed out that technology indeed exists to make homes up to the Passive House standard, which must be shipped in from Germany.  An audience member argued that, calculating all embodied energy with the overseas manufacturing, it may be less energy to use the “second best” coming from Canada I think it was.  Etc., etc., the argument can really go on endlessly in either direction.

I respect that individual designers, firms, and organizations are taking the initiative to inquire of the technical side of sustainable buildings.  A personal criticism is the reliance on foam insulation.  I really don’t like that stuff, which is why earth building is so cool and wonderful and warm.

This may be this will be addressed further into the conference, but I find total sustainable solutions to exist on an urban scale, whether a block, neighborhood, or region, necessary to optimize energy, resource, and water usage.  The Passive House certainly doesn’t go against this idea, so I will be on the lookout as to how this may fit into a larger scheme.  Right now many of the houses/buildings designed to this standard are free-standing, single-family units it seems, at least in the Chicago area.

In New York, an appropriate proposed use of the Passive House standard is retrofitting homes.  This is exciting to hear about, and hopefully incentives will allow for more and more renovations to go in this direction.  Afterall, so many people love the character and charm of older buildings, so combining this with a comfortable, environmentally-friendly house, who could say no?

When I question sustainability-minded actions, organizations, and standards, there are several interests I refer to.  One is to ask who benefits?  Often it is those who can afford it.  The Prius may be the “right thing” in terms of eco-friendly driving, but most people can’t afford this.  A Passive House may be the right thing, but it is a very specialized market right now, clearly exemplified in the amount of manufacturers producing windows to its standards (windows, ventilation systems, and insulation are the key components to these buildings).  This is a reason why earth-building is so interesting  to me, because it is completely accessible to people and, while it requires proper technology and building techniques, its basis begins with the land itself, the special windows would be more of ‘icing on the cake.’

As mentioned earlier, I wonder about wider applicability of such programs, in terms of scale, but also in terms of globalization.  But this is where the Passive House strategies are interesting; they are used to mostly eliminate heating costs, therefore to be used in colder climates.  Much of the developing world lives in really really hot climates.  Therefore, in my opinion, the Passive House seems more of a humble solution to mainly more developed areas looking to improve their eco-footprint and provide decent housing at an affordable, just price.  I like that, it knows its place.  It won’t save the world, but it can help.

If you are in Chicago and would like to learn more, you should come to the presentations!  Signup is available on the Das Haus website.

A good testament to its insulative properties, on the rainy fall day, the room was quite toasty and dry, like a nice glass of wine 🙂

Thickness, also an earth-building value!

There are four wall types displayed in the sample house, showing the materials in the cross-section