off-grid passive home

The total energy consumption of existing buildings was 40% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2020 — 22% residential and 18% commercial buildings. If you are planning to build a new house, building it with Passive House standards may be the single largest opportunity you have to reduce your carbon footprint and to do your part in moving towards a sustainable and equitable use of energy for the planet.

Passive House design is the world’s leading energy efficiency building standard, reducing energy use by more than 70% and reducing the carbon footprint of homes by over 60%. Think of the impact we could make if all new homes were built using Passive House design. This is an opportunity to change the way we build: saving energy,  money, and the planet.

Principles of Passive House Design

The principles of Passive House design are straightforward: Build a super-efficient building envelope (the skin of the house) so that you need a fraction of the heating and cooling energy. An efficiently designed building envelope reduces the energy needed to heat or cool the home by as much as 80% to 90%.

Once the heating and cooling energy loads are drastically reduced, new technologies — such as heat pumps and mechanical ventilation — are installed to reduce the energy needed for hot water and to provide constant fresh air for better air quality.

diagram illustrating the Passive House principles
This diagram illustrates the Passive House principles. Copyright Passive Design Solutions

Although Passive House principles optimize free heat from the sun, solar heat is not essential to its energy efficiency. The key cornerstones of a Passive House include super insulation, airtightness and elimination of thermal bridges (cold spots), high-quality windows and doors, and super-efficient mechanical systems.

Mechanical ventilation in a Passive House removes air pollutants and provides constant fresh air resulting in healthy indoor air quality. The thick levels of insulation also make the home incredibly quiet inside, blocking outdoor noise, which is especially appreciated during storms. As storm activity increases in both intensity and frequency, a Passive House is much more resilient and will maintain comfortable temperatures without power for many days.

Passive House design takes care of the building science, which means there is no risk of moisture build-up that leads to mold and rot. Lastly, with the addition of a small number of solar panels, a Passive House can become a net-zero home, generating as much energy as it uses annually. This reduces the carbon footprint further and provides financial security with continuously increasing energy costs.

Why Wouldn’t Everyone Build a Passive House?

People who are considering building a new home have some common questions about passive homes. Now, with over 17 years of experience in construction, the Passive House design movement in North America has the answers.

  • Will it cost too much?
    Passive homes may cost 5% to 15% more than a conventional home to build. But with thoughtful execution, the construction investment can be comparable to building a standard house.
  • Will it look strange?
    While diverse local climates and building codes will influence the cost to upgrade to a Passive House, it can certainly be designed in any style to fit into any neighborhood.
  • Who will know how to build it?
    Locally available materials that are well-known to tradespeople can be assembled in different ways to achieve the Passive House high performance. Therefore, any experienced contractor can build a Passive House.

Comfort Benefits of Passive House

The main objectives of the Passive House design movement are to radically reduce energy use and to minimize the carbon footprint. But some other surprising design benefits may be even more significant for homeowners.

Passive House design changes the way we think about residential architecture. It works with nature, using the sun to heat the home and provide natural daylighting.

deep windowsills in Passive Home
Deep windowsills are an extra benefit of the thick insulation in Passive House design. Photo by David Stewart Media.

It captures prevailing winds to cool the home in the summer. This solid design approach shelters living spaces from cold winter winds. Working in alignment with the natural environment, Passive House design results in a healthier, warmer, brighter, more comfortable home.

While comfort is hard to articulate, most Passive House owners say that comfort is what they love the most about living in their homes. After all, our homes are a large part of the fabric of our well-being. Home should be an oasis of peace, safety, and stability.

passive home in Nova Scotia, Canada
Interior of a passive home in Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo by Elemental Photography

With all these benefits, it is easy to understand why the Passive House design movement is growing exponentially in North America and why many cities and regions are now offering incentives and rebates for homeowners to build this way.

About the Author

Natalie Leonard is a Certified Passive House Consultant and Certified Passive House Builder. As an engineer and the president of Passive Design Solutions, she has completed over 100 Passive House projects that are net-zero ready. Committed to reducing the housing industry’s notable carbon footprint, the team has recently launched a line of ready-to-build Passive House design plans, available online to the general population.

Feature image: An off-grid passive home in Ontario, Canada. Photo by David Stewart Media. Originally published on October 31, 2019, this article was updated in January 2022.

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