How Do You Sell the Idea of Passive House?

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©. Passivhaus can have it all, including big windows that open/ Juraj Mikurcik

You have to give people what they really want.

The North American Passive House Network’s conference takes place in New York City this week, and I am moderating a panel discussion titled “Passive House – Great idea! How do I sell it?”

It is an issue we have been talking about here for years. Selling Passive House (or Passivhaus as I prefer) has always been a problem, because there is nothing to see here, folks. You could build your fancy net zero smart house and get thermostats and ground-source heat pumps and solar panels and Powerwalls, so much to see, to play with, to show your neighbours! People love all the active stuff.

By comparison, Passivhaus is boring. Imagine telling your neighbour, “Let me describe my air barrier,” because you can’t even show it, or the insulation. It is all passive stuff that just sits there. It’s like I once said about smart thermostats being useless in such a dumb building:

Then there is the Passivhaus, or Passive House. It's pretty dumb. A Nest thermostat probably wouldn't do much good there because with 18" of insulation, and careful placement of high quality windows, you barely need to heat or cool it at all. A smart thermostat is going to be bored stupid.

You could show them your energy bills, but nobody in North America cares much about that; you could describe how much lower your carbon footprint is, how good it is for the planet, but nobody in North America is willing to spend a nickel on that. I recently wrote that people don't want to talk about it, don't want to read about it, aren't going to vote to do anything about it. Paraphrasing Upton Sinclair, their lifestyle depends on them not understanding climate change.

seth godin

Seth Godin/Screen capture

So how do we sell Passivhaus? Seth Godin says, “People rarely buy what they need. They buy what they want.” The greatest salesman ever, Zig Ziglar, said, “People don’t buy for logical reasons. They buy for emotional reasons.” Ziglar also said something that particularly resonates with me in this discussion:

People are basically the same the world over. Everybody wants the same things – to be happy, to be healthy, to be reasonably prosperous, and to be secure.

So if you get over the reasonably prosperous part, how do we sell happy, healthy and secure? What are the appropriate sellable, marketable attributes of Passivhaus design? We have discussed this before; first and foremost was always:


planning your home

© American Standard

For some five years now I have been quoting architect Elrond Burrell, who has listed the benefits of Passivhaus in order: comfort, comfort, comfort, energy efficiency.

I have interpreted Elrond and written “that the standard for airtightness (0.6 air changes per hour) makes the house completely draft-free. Since the windows are so good, designed to have interior surfaces that are within 5°F of interior temperature, there are no drafts off the glass like there are in most conventional houses.”

But it is much more complicated than that. It doesn’t explain what comfort actually is, and how it is related to Mean Radiant Temperature, which is all about how your body gains or loses heat to hotter or cooler surfaces. Many architects don’t get it, mechanical designers don’t get it (they will just sell you more equipment), and the clients don’t get it. And since there is always someone who will talk up the comfort potential of a smart thermostat or a radiant floor, it is hard to convince people that it is really all about the quality of their wall or window. As Robert Bean has written,

No matter what you read in sales literature, you simply cannot buy thermal comfort — you can only buy combinations of buildings and HVAC systems, which if selected and coordinated properly can create the necessary conditions for your body to perceive thermal comfort.

So it’s really complicated, hard to explain, and comfort alone won’t do it.

Air Quality

Store closed due to air quality

© ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

This is an up-and-comer, becoming more and more important to people as we learn what’s actually in the air and how bad particulate pollution really is. Passivhaus designs have controlled ventilation through a heat or energy recovery ventilator, and they often come with very effective HEPA filters. Last summer Passivhaus owner Chie Kawahara described air quality issues in her house during the California forest fires:

We enjoy living in Midori Haus built to the Passive House (Passivhaus) standard. The tightly sealed enclosure, about 10 times tighter than conventionally built houses, keeps random air from coming in from random places. The heat recovery ventilator provides us with continuous filtered fresh air. Only during these extended bad air quality days do we need to pay special attention to our ventilation system to keep our indoor air clean.

That could be a big selling point now as we face more fires, which put out more particulates.


dining and living

© Jane Sanders/ Living and dining

As I noted earlier this week, noise is becoming a serious issue in our cities. As the Globe and Mail editors wrote:

Noise has been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure. It has been shown to affect the ability of children to learn – and adults well know the difficulty of concentration in a noisy office. “Excessive noise seriously harms human health,” says the European office of the United Nations World Health Organization.

Passivhaus buildings are really quiet, thanks to the thickness of the insulation and the quality of the windows. I wrote about Jane Sanders’ Passivhaus renovation in Brooklyn:

For someone living in New York City, perhaps the biggest benefit of building to Passive House standards is that it is incredibly quiet inside. Bergen is a busy street, with buses and trucks going by at all hours. However the high quality triple glazed windows plus the thick blanket of insulation really cut the noise; you could see buses go by and really could not hear a thing.

Security (formerly known as Resilience)

Briggs and Stratton ad

© Briggs and Stratton ad

We have talked about the resilience of Passivhaus many times, how they laugh at the Polar vortex and stay warm or cool for days when the power goes out. Engineer Ted Kesik calls it Passive habitability, writing:

Since the beginning of human history, passive habitability has driven the design of buildings. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that widespread access to plentiful and affordable energy caused architecture to put passive habitability on the back burner. Climate change is influencing building designers to rethink building reliance on active systems that became dominant during the 20th century.

But resilience or passive habitability are not good marketing terms; they are a bit scary. But when you look at what the ad companies are writing for the home generator companies, it’s all about “peace of mind” and convincing people to spend thousands for a couple of hours of power.

Passivhaus is all about security and peace of mind, knowing that if the power goes out the temperature doesn’t instantly rise or fall because your home is a giant thermal battery. It is a big thick security blanket wrapping you and your family.


Living area

Living area in Cestaria/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

As they say in the Rules of Wealth, once you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it. “Wealth is lovely. Having money is great. Getting rich is a worthwhile and enjoyable activity. Buying the pink Bentley is just plain gross.”

Passivhaus is subtle, and it is all about quality, about having the best. I often talk about New York architect Mike Ingui, who does really high-end house renovations:

He explains that his clients love the quiet and the air quality, but also, since they are sharing walls with neighbours, the lack of dust and bugs coming through the party walls. Once you are building at this stratospheric level, the cost premium for going Enerphit or Passivhaus is pretty minimal. Sometimes Mike doesn't even tell his clients he is doing Passivhaus; it is just his standard.

When I stayed in a Passivhaus apartment in Portugal, I noted that it actually felt different.

The air feels even cleaner.
Sound is almost eerily absent.
There is a feeling of quality to everything.

I concluded: I suspect that Passivhaus might just become the new label of quality, even luxury. It just feels different, and worth paying for.

A Healthy Home

credit: James Vaughan on Flickr/ Indoor barbecues are good for air quality!

One only has to look at the success of the Well Standard to see that people really do care about their health. People just don't drink and smoke and barbecue indoors like they used to. I have wondered:

Why is Well growing like mad, when other building standards, like the Passivhaus, grow so much more slowly? Why, in a time when we have 12 years to cut our carbon footprints in half, do people care so much more about circadian lighting and healthy food?

Well, because that’s just the way people are. But Passivhaus can be among the healthiest homes; those warm walls are not going to become meals for mould, and there are no drafts or chills. The controlled and filtered ventilation provides better air quality. Pollution isn’t sneaking in through holes in the wall. Deepak Chopra, who is part of a group peddling Wellness Real Estate, writes:

So why do we separate the human organism from where we live? Pure air, pure water, acoustics, and Circadian lighting are the first steps. For years green building has focused on environmental impact. Not on the human biological impact. That is what we are doing here.

They get so much of it wrong, putting circadian lighting ahead of decent walls. But they know how to market, and they know what people want.

In her recent book, X-Ray Architecture, Beatriz Colomina traces the influences on modern architecture in the 20th century from the sanitarium to the X-ray machine, suggesting that the house was a machine for health.

Not by chance the turn of the twenty-first century is also the age of the sick building syndrome, in which modern buildings turn on their occupants, literally rendering them unhealthy. It is the age of allergies, the age of the “environmentally hypersensitive. Never at any time have there been so many people allergic to chemicals, buildings, electromagnetic fields, fragrances... since the environment is now almost completely man-made, we have become allergic to ourselves, to our own hyperextended body in a kind of autoimmune disorder.

No wonder so many people are lining up for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and are buying into the Well Standard. It’s why I think Passivhaus should become the new Healthy House.

Really, with health, quiet, security, air quality, luxury and comfort, there is so much to sell about Passivhaus. They should by flying off the shelves if we get the message out.