in Daily updates, Economics, Politics, The environment

Steel arch bridge

There has been a lot of talk lately about compact fluorescent light bulbs. Huge billboards of David Suzuki looking like a genie, with a glowing CF bulb floating above his hand, dot the landscape. While these bulbs are a lot more efficient, they aren’t likely to make a huge difference in the long run. Arguably, it would be better to focus on encouraging the building of passive houses, which require no energy for heating, rather than making marginal improvements in existing dwellings. It may be entirely desirable to do both, but when it comes to finding a symbolic signal issue to rally around as energy conservationists, the latter option is a lot more impressive.

To qualify as a passive house, a building must use less than 15 kWh per square metre per year for heating. That works out to less than $1 per square metre at current energy prices in Ontario. Total primary energy usage for such houses (heating, hot water, and electricity) is not to exceed 120 kWh per square metre per year. The technology to do this isn’t absolutely cutting edge: a passive house has been continuously inhabited in Darmstadt since 1991.

Apparently, building super-insulated houses with the ability to heat and cool themselves using just the ambient light and heat in their surroundings does not cost significantly more than building ordinary houses (though it requires different materials and more expertise). Given how virtually none of them exist in North America, it seems fair to say that consumer demand – even with high energy prices – is not sufficient to drive a large scale shift.

A number of different policies could help boost adoption: municipalities could require that a certain proportion of commercial and residential buildings constructed be passive in this way, subsidies or tax breaks could be given to firms that choose to employ such construction methods, and so forth. At the very least, government could make a concerted effort to do most of its own building in this way.

Masses of additional information is online:

As environmental statements go, building or living in such a house is probably much better than driving a Prius.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Litty September 6, 2007 at 7:28 pm

This is the best thing from Germany since Rammstein!

Tristan Laing September 7, 2007 at 9:16 am

The problem as I see it is a lack of incentive due to low energy prices. Perhaps this could be solved if the state established a baseline average kwh/per food/per year, and houses significantly below this didn’t pay for power, but were rather paid for not using power. This would not be economically inefficient, strictly, if the amount paid back did not exceed energy subsidies from taxation.

Tom September 7, 2007 at 10:49 am

They should just come up with four or five grades of houses, rated by energy efficiency. Builders constructing ‘A’ or ‘B’ houses should get a little reward. Building ‘C’ houses should be neutral. ‘D’ and ‘E’ houses should involve progressively larger taxes.

‘A’ houses should be truly passive. ‘B’ can be more energy intensive, but still highly efficient.

Sarah September 8, 2007 at 1:10 am

Obviously it’s better than driving a Prius since a) it almost certainly saves more energy, and b) no person capable of walking, cycling or taking public transit to their destination (or any combination thereof) should be driving ANYTHING, Prius or not.
The debate over marginally lower emission (though more resource intensive to produce) cars is like debating the virtues of low tar versus ordinary cigarettes – stop quibbling between two bad options and quit already, for your own benefit (obesity, shortage of exercise etc etc) and everyone else’s. This is even more critical when considering the very high, and growing, proportion of the world’s population who live in cities.

Milan September 9, 2007 at 2:04 pm


Quite possibly, though Rammstein led to more amusing 2:00am conversations with my flatmates in Oxford.


I don’t know if increasing incentives built into the price of power is enough, given the barriers to action. A better approach is probably to mandate higher construction standards, with incentives for exceeding them by a lot.

Another idea, from Monbiot’s book, is to require energy efficiency upgrades whenever a renovation is done.


Such a ‘feebate’ approach, applied to house construction companies, would probably be a lot more effective than just raising energy prices for consumers.


Agreed. That said, it is easier for consumers to replace their next car with a Prius than to replace their next house with a passive house. The Prius demonstrates that people are willing to take some sort of action to at least seem more green. Finding ways to channel that towards activities that really make a difference is an important challenge.

. September 19, 2007 at 11:56 am

Environmentalism and building

Green as houses
From The Economist print edition

Building green is getting cheaper and more popular

. November 27, 2007 at 10:35 am

Homes ‘can cut CO2 by up to 80%’

Carbon dioxide emissions from UK homes could be cut by up to 80% by 2050, according to a low carbon strategy produced by Oxford University.

The report’s blueprint for future low carbon homes includes:

* Legally binding emission targets – housing sector obliged to cut emissions by 3.8% each year from 2008

* New homes – built in urban areas to increase the density of dwellings, cut car use and encourage take-up of micro generation systems

* Financial support – “robust programme” of tax incentives, including Stamp Duty rebates for insulated homes, and reduced VAT on energy efficient goods

* Fuel poverty – develop a database of energy efficiency for every home, and target funding at those in greatest need of support

. November 27, 2007 at 10:36 am

In September, the government announced that intended to make every new home built in England “zero carbon” from 2016.

In its policy statement, the Department for Communities and Local Government defined zero carbon as “over a year, net carbon emissions from all energy use in the home would be zero”.

. January 23, 2008 at 4:55 pm

A Passiv Haus in Urbana, Illinois

In Design & Architecture|passiv haus

> Jonasrisen of Greenline turns us on to Katrin Klingenberg’s house in Urbana, Ill, that was built to the German Passiv standard. The program specifications were written for Germany, she notes. But the climate here in Illinois is way more severe. The great thing about looking at this house is that it becomes apparent that it is not an impossible standard to reach, it just takes good design, careful execution and a s**tload of insulation. You start with a boxy house- The … >

. June 30, 2008 at 5:11 pm

To cut energy use, the commission anticipates that by 2020 at least 75% of all new housing would use low-energy building techniques similar to the German Passive house standard, and that it will also be necessary to modernize the existing housing stock, including replacing direct electric heating systems (with systems heated by district heating, biofuels or heat pumps).

. December 26, 2008 at 7:26 pm

In German ‘Passive Houses,’ No Furnaces but Plenty of Heat

Published: December 26, 2008

DARMSTADT, Germany — From the outside, there is nothing unusual about the stylish new gray and orange row houses in the Kranichstein District, with wreaths on the doors and Christmas lights twinkling through a freezing drizzle. But these houses are part of a design revolution: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace.

. January 8, 2009 at 11:16 am

Passive Solar Design Overview – Part 1

By Nate Hagens on passive solar

Passive solar refers to the design and placement of a building to enable solar heating without the need for sensors, actuators, and pumps, in contrast to active solar, which utilizes pumps/blowers, sensors, and logic control units to manage collection, storage, and distribution of heat. The two techniques are not exclusive, however, and can work together effectively.

As solar radiation (insolation) is a diffuse energy source, and not at the beck and call of a thermostat, passive solar design techniques are at their best when combined with other related methods, such as energy efficiency (insulation, weatherization, building envelope minimization), daylighting, passive cooling, microclimate landscaping, and a conservation lifestyle (i.e., temperature settings, raising and lowering of insulated shades, etc). Most of these topics will be covered in other articles, though passive cooling will be addressed in this series, which is intended as an overview, as a complete engineering treatment on passive solar design would require several dozens of articles.

. July 29, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Heating the JP Green House with a hairdryer
The amazing promise and many challenges of passivhaus construction

Posted 9:49 AM on 29 Jul 2009
by Ken Ward

Heating a home with a hair dryer—that is the astounding promise of passivhaus, the state-of-the-art energy efficient construction standard that’s so far ahead of the envelope in U.S. building codes that structures built to passivhaus code score low in Energy Star and LEED rankings; that’s because neither standard accounts for buildings so tight and well insulated that they don’t require traditional heating plants (and lose points in the ratings game for having none!).

. September 27, 2010 at 1:48 pm

“A so-called passive home like the one the Landaus are now building is so purposefully designed and built — from its orientation toward the sun and superthick insulation to its algorithmic design and virtually unbroken air envelope — that it requires minimal heating, even in chilly New England. Contrary to some naysayers’ concerns, the Landaus’ timber-frame home will be neither stuffy nor, at 2,000 square feet, oppressively small.

It has been a good deal more expensive to build, however, than the average home. That might partly explain why the passive-building standard is only now getting off the ground in the United States — despite years of data suggesting that America’s drafty building methods account for as much as 40 percent of its primary energy use, 70 percent of its electricity consumption and nearly 40 percent of its carbon-dioxide emissions.

Proponents of the standard, who note that passive homes often use up to 90 percent less heating and cooling energy than similar homes built to local code, say the Landaus embody the willingness of more homeowners to embrace passive building in the United States. Even Habitat for Humanity, the affordable-housing philanthropy, is now experimenting with the standard.

Yet the market remains minuscule, and the materials and expertise needed to build passive homes are often hard to find. While some 25,000 certified passive structures — from schools and commercial buildings to homes and apartment houses — have already been built in Europe, there are just 13 in the United States, with a few dozen more in the pipeline. “

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