Musings About Martin Holladay's Musings of an Energy Nerd (Book Review)

©. Taunton/ Martin Holladay making pickets for the barricades

Over the years I have learned so much from Martin Holladay’s writing on Green Building Advisor; he has been a profound influence on my thinking about green building. Martin has done it all, having been "plumbing wholesale counterperson, roofer, remodeler, builder, writer, and editor. He built his first passive-solar house in northern Vermont in 1974 and has lived off the grid since 1975." He recently put his thoughts into book form, in Musings of an Energy Nerd, published by Taunton. There’s much to love right from the Preface, where Martin points out the truth of the matter:

Spending $250,000 on a newly built green home is not going to help the planet. What the planet really needs is for all of us to buy less stuff, including so-called green building materials, and to strive, every year, to burn less fossil fuel than the year before.

Martin stresses this again and again in the book: keep it simple. His tips for improving a small home (keep it small and seal it well) are all good. His “banish these details from your plans” would put half the production and custom builders in America out of business, with its suggestion to get rid of dormers, bay windows, fibreglass batts and (gasp) ground source heat pumps. He is logical, sensible, thorough, speaking from experience, easy to read. As an architect and developer I have built many houses in my career, yet I do not think there was a page where I did not say “thank you for saying that, Martin” or "I didn’t know that.” I really think that anyone who designs, builds or is thinking of buying a home should own this book and it should be required reading for every student of design and architecture.

But there is an underlying thread running through the book that I find troubling. Martin is not fond of the Passivhaus standard, and has expressed this in posts on Green Building Advisor. We get it. Only a tiny proportion of North American houses are built to it. However in this book, Martin seems to be obsessed with it. Because Martin is so sensible and logical and reasonable throughout the book, it is jarring to see this obsession with the Passivhaus standard permeate it, almost from the opening pages. (throughout this discussion, I will use the term Passivhaus as the name of the standard. Martin and I both agree that Passive House is silly.)

It starts on page 5 where Martin acknowledges what took me a long time to come around to, which is that nobody wants to live like we did in the 1930s. I always used to write that people should dress appropriately and use natural ventilation in hot summers, and put on a sweater in winter. But Martin says “there is no turning back the comfort clock. It’s perfectly understandable that people prefer their homes to be air conditioned during the summer.” Then in the next paragraph he starts his complaining about Passivhaus, whose “designers fail to ask an important question: how much money should we spend on comfort? If you get a chill when you sit next to a double-glazed window, maybe all you really need to do is put on a sweater.”

He concludes the comfort section by noting that too much comfort might make us feel somewhat empty and that unchanging blandness seems to depress the human soul. “when you are hot, it might be time to drink a glass of lemonade. When you are cold, it might be time to put on a pair of fuzzy slippers and brew a pot of tea.” And this is the guy who writes that “nobody wants to live like we did in the 1930s”.

passive vs grandma

Passive house or Grandma's house?/Public Domain

I had this epiphany a few years ago, and wondered, Should we be building like Grandma's house or like Passive House? In it, I wrote that we needed to go super-insulated, Passivhaus or even the Pretty Good House, a standard that Martin has promoted in Green Building Advisor that I consider to be a pretty good sensible standard for those who don't care to go full Passivhaus. Frankly, they complement each other.

And I learned from Robert Bean of healthy heating, when you are cold it means your body is losing heat, and when you are hot it means it is gaining it, because you are in a building that is losing or gaining it. Which is exactly what this entire book is teaching us how to avoid. Comfort is something people want and are willing to pay for, and now it is being downplayed by Martin as a frill, a luxury. Really, an even temperature does not depress the human soul.

Martin can’t help himself; when making the important point that occupant behaviour is a major factor he talks of “fetishists.”

The most exotic variety of this species is the PHPP [passivhaus planning spreadsheet] Fetishist- usually a young architect who did a year of postgraduate study in Germany. This Passivhaus fetishist spends days at his or her computer, trying to reduce the U-factor of a troublesome thermal bridge in hopes of achieving the magical goal of 15 kWh per square meter per year. ..Fetishists are easily defeated by the Common American Homeowner, a casual oaf who buys several big TVs at the nearest big box store, installs an extra refrigerator, leaves the bedroom window open, and never turns out the light.

Well then Martin, what the hell is the point of doing anything? Why bother writing the book? Why sneak in a dig at Passivhaus when this applies to the entire world?

It is odd that from the pages discussing windows to the HVAC, Martin is going on about Passivhaus which is a niche product at best in the USA, currently riven in two between the European Passivhaus which is clearly the obsession here, and the American PHIUS. And it all ends a final chapter looking at the European Passivhaus standard in detail.

martin holladay too much insulation image

From Martin Holladay Rattles Cages with Critique of Passivhaus

Now for those reading this review and the book who are not familiar with Passivhaus, (and I suspect most homebuyers are not) I think it is fair to say that Passivhaus people can be obsessed with numbers. Michael Anschel once called Passivhaus “a single metric ego driven enterprise that satisfies the architect's need for checking boxes, and the energy nerd's obsession with BTUs” But Martin seems just as obsessed, spending much ink on the thickness of insulation under the slab. He speaks to John Straube, (who is, as he describes, a very smart guy) and uses an analogy of dials on a control panel: when you have dialled the windows up to the top, there is not much left but to keep adding insulation until you hit the numbers, “even when the insulation thickness is illogical or uneconomic.”

Michael Caine

© A young Michael Caine designing an early Passivhaus

But there are lots of dials. There are the number and size of windows, the size and form of the building, the optimization of the design. And underfloor insulation is the least effective dial to turn because the temperature differential is so small. And most importantly, who cares? It is a few inches of foam. It is arguing about small stuff when the world is falling apart. Lest we forget, we are having a climate crisis.

The Passivhaus target heating demand may not be perfect. There may be too much foam under the foundations. I personally don’t like how Passivhaus ignores embodied energy, healthy materials and location. But it’s a tough standard that comes with the tools that data nerds can use to build really efficient and comfortable houses. And if it helps or encourages a few people build better houses, more power to it. (It's greatest strength and impact will be in multifamily housing anyway.)

pretty good house manifesto

© A pretty good house manifesto

I rather wish that Martin had let go of his negativity about Passivhaus and concentrated on the positivity of the PGH, or Pretty Good House. Most of the book actually describes how to built it, and it really should be promoted more, it is a great standard.

It’s rules are: Be Humble. “sometimes a small, inexpensive house makes sense.”
Airtightness matters. “perform a blower test.”
There is nothing wrong with rules of thumb. If everyone followed the 5-10-20-40-60 rule it could make a huge difference, no spreadsheets required.
We need to size and orient our windows with an eye to comfort and delight, not solar gains. Yes yes yes.
All electric homes make sense. We have to get off fossil fuels and should not be burning them inside our homes.
Pay attention to domestic hot water and miscellaneous electrical loads. Because if your house is really well insulated and not too big, these will dominate.
Think twice about purchasing expensive building components. Let me tell you about my Rinnai combo water heater and furnace; Never again.
We need to monitor our energy use. Better than “I got a plaque to put on my house and now I am done.”
Occupant Behavior affects energy bills. Absolutely, this is critical. I still cannot get my daughter out of the shower, but that is another post.

But even this chapter that should have been the highlight of the book, that Martin actually calls a Manifesto, is shorter than the Passivhaus section and contains far too many Passivhaus comparisons. And if you look at the definition, a manifesto...

is a published verbal declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer, be it an individual, group, political party or government. A manifesto usually accepts a previously published opinion or public consensus or promotes a new idea with prescriptive notions for carrying out changes the author believes should be made.

The point of the manifesto, as I understand it, is to promote the idea of better housing, to address our climate crisis, to describe how live a less energy intensive life. It's positive, a call to action or as they illustrated on Green Building advisor, a call to the barricades. The point of the manifesto is to change the world, not attack another standard. And it never ends, even the very last paragraph in the book is both right and ranty:

If you want to tread lightly on the planet, plan to live in a small house or apartment. Don’t waste energy. If you follow these simple rules, your lifestyle is probably already greener than that of your wealthy neighbour who just built a brand new Passivhaus- especially if you bicycle to work.

As I have noted, this is a terrific book that everyone who builds houses should read. But according to the US Census, there were 1,172,000 houses started just in the month of April 2017. We have a huge job to do and should be pulling together instead of foaming about a few inches of foam. There are perhaps a couple of dozen Passivhaus designed homes in all of the USA, I love them but they do not change the bigger picture. The entire book is diminished by this obsession.