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To take on climate change, go passive

If you haven’t looked seriously at “passive house” design and construction, you should.

June 27, 2018 |
The Orchards at ORENCO

The Orchards at ORENCO (Phase I), by REACH Community Development, Ankrom Moisan Architects, William Wilson, Stonewood Structural Engineers, Humber Design Group, RDH, Green Hammer, PAE Consulting Engineers, American Heating, Merit Electric, PMC, Walker Macy, and Walsh Construction. Photo: Casey Braunger / Ankrom Moisan Architects


Climate change is not a fashionable topic in certain quarters these days, but it cannot be ignored and will only get worse unless those who can do something about it take action.

Since two-fifths of energy use in the U.S. can be attributed to buildings (including multifamily structures), the responsible parties in this case are building owners, facilities managers, property developers, architects, engineers, builders, and contractors. In other words, you and your professional colleagues.


SEE ALSO: Take BD+C’s free Passive House continuing education course, "Building Passively"


Maybe your firm has signed up for the AIA 2030 Commitment to eliminate carbon emissions in the buildings you design by 2030. Or you’re shooting higher and higher on your LEED for Homes projects. Or you’re certifying your apartment property with GreenPoint, or with the NAHB National Green Building Program. All commendable, but not enough. In general, those efforts will only yield an average energy savings of 20-25% over “conventional” construction, i.e., meeting minimum building energy code requirements. To make a real dent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need to be in the 50-75% range of energy savings for new construction.

If you haven’t looked seriously at “passive house” design and construction, you should. OK, I know. You’ve already got an image in your mind of a bearded guy in lederhosen holding a stein of beer, standing in front of a cute little cottage in the Bavarian Alps. 

Passive house design and construction is anything but that; in fact, it started right here in the good ol’ USA. Passive house uses systems and building products you use every day. It employs techniques that are familiar to the construction trades. Most important, it relies on solid building science: Orient the building correctly to the sun. Seal it tight to halt air leaks that sap energy. Insulate the walls and roof to a “super” level. Use high-performance windows and doors.

Eliminate thermal bridges. Do these things right and you can save 80-90% on heat energy, 50% on cooling energy, for an average 50-70% total energy savings. That’s what you can get when you build “passively.”

In addition to the energy savings (which are hardly trivial), apartment and condominium buildings built to passive house standards use quiet, low-volume air circulation systems that filter indoor air and enhance occupant comfort. That’s a nice payoff for doing the right thing.

To learn more about passive house (and gain 1.0 AIA HSW Learning Units or Professional Development Hours), go to

I hope “passive house” will be the start of a whole new professional adventure for you.

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