Passive Housing & Beyond

Less cost, better living

How much was your last heating or cooling bill? Would you like 90% off? And as a bonus, would you like less climate change with that? Passive Housing cuts costs for heating and cooling by 90%. And it also enriches our health with more natural light. Permaculture design steps beyond by actively connecting with nature and community.

Passive Housing Comfortable: Indoors and Out

If you live in a region with extreme cold, then you know the value of insulation. As expected, the cool European alps are where passive architecture was first developed. However, in the wake of the recent climate shock, there’s a fresh demand for energy-efficient buildings.

For the first time, Paris suffered 37c in the night after a day of 46c. But, the solution is not as simple as reaching for the air conditioner. Every air conditioner pumps out the heat. As a consequence, the city gets hotter. Actually, the best solution requires less effort and a lot less energy. Finally, we have a standard for making comfortable homes: Passive Architecture.

Transparent Technologies

There are thousands of passive houses around the world. And every passive house looks different. As a result, you wouldn’t recognise one if you passed by. Except that, the occupants may look nice and cozy.

The success of the Passive House movement lies in the simplicity of the technology, expert data, shared knowledge, and supportive associations.

When Passive Homes was first designed the results were surprising. In fact, a passive house requires very little additional energy for heating because our body heat, lights, and appliances are sufficient. Instead of investing in furnaces or air conditioners, passive housing invests in better construction and design techniques.

Nature knows how to make Passive Housing - says the bear
Passive houses are insulated, have no thermal bridges and good ventilation systems

Principles of Passive Housing

There are a few basic principles:

Firstly, the Passive house has a good orientation. The main windows greet the morning sun. Then when the hot midday summer sun comes, the eaves provide cover. Much later on, in winter, the low sunlight streams under these carefully positioned eaves.

Insulation, thermal bridge, leg warmers are valuable parts of passive housing
Insulation and blocking of thermal bridges are vital features of passive housing

Secondly, these homes have superior insulation. There are no air leaks.

Thirdly, the design blocks thermal-bridges. Thermal bridges are areas that accidentally transmit heat. Like the legs of a sheep that protrude from the fluffy body. Or the large thin ears of an elephant. Of course, big floppy ears transmit heat well. so, to protect an elephant from the cold, we would insulate the big thermal bridges – starting at the ears.

Where are the thermal bridges in a building? Long rafters are good examples of thermal bridges in a building. A rafter that runs from indoors to the outdoors will transmit heat. Likewise, heat is lost at the corners of the building. Especially where the insulation is thin. By redesigning the way the walls connect, passive houses minimise thermal bridges. Luckily, the plan to reduce thermal bridging doesn’t always incur an additional cost.

curtains cover thermal bridges. Thermal bridges: lintel, doorstep, window frames
Quick retrofit curtains cover thermal bridges: lintel, doorstep, window frames

Lastly, Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRV) are an important part of passive building design. Unlike opening a window to get fresh air, HRV units bring in fresh air without losing heat. Natural HRV units are being developed and the information shared openly. Ventilation systems occur in nature in termite mounds and trapdoor spider chimneys.

termites are naturals at insulation and ventilation
Termites build insulated termite mounds with good ventilation systems

Let’s use Recycled Materials

Good insulation and high durability do not need superior materials. Although specialist materials are readily available, so are simple technologies to reuse recycled materials. Passive homes do not need expensive materials. But they do require awareness. home-made earthships are built with old tyres. And in Guatemala, children build schools with recycled drinking bottles. Windows can be made from bottles filled with water. Similarly, The liter of light reuses old drink bottles. This project has revolutionized homes in the favelas of Brazil.

The Look and Feel

The historic Maximilianeum houses the German Bavarian Parliament. It is a powerful example of large-scale passive architecture. This project demonstrates creativity and adaptability. Recent improvements in insulated glass have sparked a range of creative passive designs. Whilst these buildings embrace natural light, the ultimate goal of passive housing is to use less energy overall. 
How we survived the mini-ice age without air conditioners
Living through the mini-ice age of 17th Europe required quick adaption, insulation with natural materials and heavy clothing. Detail of Thomas Wyke’s painting of a Thames Frost Fair in the winter of 1683/84.

Fossil fuels and Nuclear power are recent energy sources. For generations, people across the globe lived and worked without energy-devouring devices. Even during the mini-ice age of the 17th century, survival depended only on fuel from the forests. The houses were smaller with heavy curtains, and even heavier clothing.

Traditional igloo drawn by MILES KELLY - well insulated and minimal thermal bridges due to the curved shape
Traditional igloo drawn by MILES KELLY – The igloo is well insulated and has minimal thermal bridges due to the curved shape

Growing affluence in developing countries is stimulating higher energy use. As a result, this increased energy use is accelerating climate change. Fortunately, India and China are leading this low-impact technology.

Green passive buildings in China
Pas­si­ve Hou­se pro­jects in Bao­ding

Government Initiatives

Soon China will host the upcoming Passive House Conference. In Gaobeidian, near Bejing, the largest energy efficient settlement in the world will be opened. Likewise, throughout Canada, local, regional and nationwide governments are promoting energy-efficient architecture. Best of all, commercial Passive House buildings provide better work conditions and lower manufacturing costs.

Retrofit Hurdles

Creating a more energy-efficient home requires investment and commitment. Investing upfront to save money later is impossible for most people. Many families are struggling to pay current energy bills. The bills rise as the heat rises. But job security is falling. Therefore, it is harder to commit to a home long enough to improve comfort levels.

The second hurdle for retrofitting a home for low energy use is the issue of connection to society. Commitment helps us overcome the cost and time involved in a retrofit. Because commitment grows from a sense of community, good design builds a connection with others. Otherwise, the passive house entombs us in quiet isolation.

Insulation not Isolation

Today, passive house designs are developing better connections with the outside world. Although passive buildings shelter us from the elements, our connection with nature and others is valuable. Fortunately, Biophilic design principles can enable the residents can reconnect with nature. Beyond this, Permaculture principles actively connect the residents with the landscape, surrounding environment and community.

The passive house insulates us from the weather, the biophilic house reconnects us with nature. Ultimately, the Permaculture house is actively engaged in the landscape

This article was co-authored with Gary Ashton REALTOR® Nashville, TN, USA

our graduates are leaders
One of our graduates, Philip Dolan has a site where you can learn more about Energy Efficient homes and Biophilic design: