Passive Housing & Beyond

hot, cold or passive house - which house is yours?

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:

Big Bill Chilling – Making Your Rental Home Cozy

Get Yourself Cozy For A Lot Less

Most of the western world spends a third or more of their income on heating and cooling their homes. But in poorer nations, around 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires. Even if we live in a leafy part of the world, where we can grow our own fuel, getting a clean wood-fuel stove is not always an option.
The growing number of people who rent a home can’t use a fuel stove because there is simply no chimney. So, how do we get cozy and cut the continuous big bills? Is natural energy possible in a rental home?

Here’s Mr Bean’s take on the cold – to get the ideas started.

The best energy principle for Cozy Living:
When air moves, it cools down.

How Energy Works For Us:

  1. Air transfers its energy to whatever to hits. When air hits the window, it transfers its warmth to the glass and the glass then transfers energy to outside when the outside is cooler. Energy (via Entropy) likes to go from hot to cold, from order to disorder, from a heat source to the wider universe. If want to stop sending energy to the universe, slow the airflow down by having smaller living spaces (you can use curtains to section off smaller areas in a large open-plan home).
  2. earth_sun_day_fireyThe sun provides a lot of natural light and warmth.  With double glazing, this warmth can be trapped. It is the still air between the two sets of glass panes that provides the insulating layer in double glazing. The insulation is not from the panes. So, if you want to let natural light through but don’t want the heat to escape than any two layers of material ie. recycled bubble-wrap, perspex, fabric will work. If you choose to use a plastic wrap, be aware that it can melt to the glass so put a layer of white curtain up first, then the wrap. A simple white curtain will trap the air between the windowpane and the room and continue to provide light. If you are serious about stopping heat loss at night, you can use a heavy blind or comforter and make sure the edges around the window are well covered. Have a cover over the top to stop warm air rising. A pelmet can be made out of wood, covered cardboard or an extra length of material draped over the curtain tops. Avoid Styrofoam as it kills many animals and never decays. Styrofoam rises from the dead to kill again.
  3. Check the sun’s path for your location. The sun-less windows and walls of your home can be a cold sink where all the heat is zapped. Not much morning sun comes in on the west so there is little or no point in keeping these windows open for natural light unless they are your only morning light source. These are the windows that warrant the most insulation at night.Totnes-(304)Wes_April
  4. People generate a surprising amount of heat. Imagine if we were able to contain this heat and not let it continue to slip out into the universe. Can you modify some of your routine so you get to bed early where it is snug and warm? How can you optimise your access to natural light and warmth?
  5. Gravity can also work for you. The beauty of heavy curtains is that they are self-closing using gravity. You don’t have to constantly ask for people to close the door. And curtains can be easily opened to release excess heat into other rooms of the house. Curtains made out of recycled woolen blankets can be fire-retardant and can be cleaned.
  6. Little John Owner at
    bookcases as insulation

    Insulation stops heat transfer. There are several ways to insulate the home and wood is one of the best insulators and also offers thermal stability. Wood has high R rating and great thermal stability. If the walls are not to be tampered with [possibly because they have toxic paint or asbestos in them] then you can use internal wood paneling. The thicker the wooden panels, the better the thermal mass. If you don’t own the home, you can build or salvage a lot of tall timber bookcases and fill them with books. (Be careful to attach the bookcases so they won’t fall forward).

  7. beauty-of-thermal-massGet the right amount of thermal mass. Thermal mass is not a substitute for insulation, it is the home’s air-energy battery.  Too much mass can mean the room can take forever to heat up or cool down. Do the calculations to find the right amount of thermal mass for you climate and room sizes. Experiment with your thermal mass by adding thermal mass objects one piece at a time.
  8. Air moves from high density to less density. Any passing breezes will suck out air in the house. It is not uncommon to see people stand and chat with their front door open. An open door can act like vacuum, sucking out any heat within. If you are lucky to have a door that is in a sunny spot – you can boost your natural energy source by installing a little greenhouse on the door – the greenhouse door will cut drafts (by creating an air-lock) AND the greenhouse will help heat your house. Your greenhouse airlock can be as light as a tent and made out of recycled plastic (like packaging for furniture) or glass, can be relocated to your next home. Alternatively, you could make the airlock out of white curtain material and a waterproof roof. The main aim of an attached greenhouse is stop airflow and let natural light through.

Simple Steps to Cut Your Heat and Money Losses

  1. Nature Knows How - Soft TechnologyRug up in the living room. Wear warm clothes but make sure the visitors are cozy too. You can offer your visitors some wraps and slippers. Permaculture is about building a sustainable culture.  Building a culture that is cozy and fun for everyone is more likely to be sustainable. If you are having lots of visitors, it is great to share a cozy fire and if we use big theatrical style curtains to slow the air flow, the visitors can also enjoy the warm atmosphere.
  2. Try using a trombe wall.  You can make a trombe wall out of thermal mass like a heavy timber bench seat positioned in a sunny window  “A Trombe Wall made from the local mud and brick offers better relief from the smoke and the cold.”
  3. nz-greenhouseLook up and look down. Many people forget that heat is also lost through the ceiling and floor. Low ceilings are easier to heat than high ceilings. If you have a high ceiling, make sure it is insulated and install a fan that can be reversed in winter to push warm air back down. Check all sky lights are well sealed and consider getting double glazing on them.
  4. An extra floor pad with high thermal mass is useful where the sun can shine upon it.   If you can’t insulate the floor, you can use lots of rugs underfoot to stop drafts.
  5. Install a solar heating system that can go in through a window. Support manufacturers who use recycled components e.g. CanSolAir solar furnaces. A ‘floating floor’ can be used as a low-cost low-thermal-mass large-area heater. It canraditor bench seat could have solar hot water pipes contain pipes that are heated. The heating can be done outdoors by the sun. You can even use recycled pipe, a compost pile, or tank that is heated by a slow outdoor burner. A floating floor would be tricky to take with you, but something like a bench seat above it could be handy and fun. The pipes could be a simple coil of black pipe that sits outside the window and comes in through the window via a modified wooden panel with holes for the pipe inlet and outlet.

Turn your Savings into Investments

solar-raysWe don’t need to suffer the cold and we don’t have to suffer big bills.  There are lots of options for getting cozy. The first focus would be to reducing the losses.

Once your energy losses are cut, you can evaluate how much heating you need.  Invest your savings in energy from nature like capturing the warmth from the sunny windows onto thermal mass or getting solar heating piped in through a modified window pane. These tools and skills are transportable and can travel with you to your next home.

Cutting your big bills gets you the resources to build a sustainable future.

We enjoy our solar hot water radiators

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