Passive House and the Problem of Inconspicuous Consumption

A new motto for Passivhaus designers: "If you've got it, flaunt it."

Simple forms, basic materials, nice proportions in Munich
Conspicuously Passivhaus in Munich.

Lloyd Alter

In a recent post titled "The Icebox Challenge Comes to Glasgow," I noted: "The great thing about the Icebox Challenge is it's usually really hard to explain the benefits of Passivhaus design. It's not like solar panels that people can point to: it's all in the windows, walls, and the build quality."

We have discussed the question of how to sell the idea of Passivhaus before; I wrote a few years ago:

"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 neighbors! People love all the active stuff. By comparison, Passivhaus is boring. Imagine telling your neighbor, “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."

Due to the necessary brevity of a tweet, I summarized this as "inconspicuous consumption," which got a bit of a reaction. I meant it to be the opposite of "conspicuous conservation," a wonderful term used by Steven E Sexton and Alison L. Sexton in their 2011 study "Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides."

Adam Smith
Seen in Edinburgh: Adam Smith.

Lloyd Alter

The study starts with a quote from Adam Smith:

“The wish to become proper objects of this respect, to deserve and obtain this credit and rank among our equals, may be the strongest of all our desires.”

It then follows with Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term "conspicuous consumption."

“In order to gain and hold the esteem of man it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.”

The researchers might also have included Mel Brooks, who first wrote "If you've got it, flaunt it." These are powerful, primal forces that drive our actions and our purchases.

The researchers found that the distinctive (ugly?) look of the Prius was an important part of its success because it was conspicuous. But there are other expensive ways to get noticed, other "costly actions in order to signal their type as environmentally friendly or 'green.'"

"The status conferred upon demonstration of environmental friendliness is sufficiently prized that homeowners are known to install solar panels on the shaded sides of houses so that their costly investments are visible from the street. We call this behavior 'conspicuous conservation.'"

Later in the study, the authors note:

"Behavioral economists have informally postulated that homeowners over-invest in solar panels and under-invest in other green home improvements, like additional insulation and window caulking, because the former are conspicuous and the latter are not."

The study is mainly about the Prius, but the truths are universal:

"The success of green signaling hinges on two conditions. First is the observability of costly conservation effort, which may be reflected by willingness to pay premia for green product characteristics or by willingness to accept lower quality for products that generate less environmental damage in production or end-use than conventional products. Second is partial or full revelation through signaling that permits green types to distinguish themselves from others."

Let's Make Passivhaus Conspicuous

the first passivhaus
The First Passivhaus. Passivhaus Institut via Wikipedia

Perhaps the Passivhaus world should accept the principle of conspicuous conservation—that people who live in them might actually want them to look different from normal buildings. When Wolfgang Feist and his team designed the first Passivhaus building, it was basically an undecorated shed, a simple form, what architect Mike Eliason might have called a "dumb box." It probably still stands out in the neighborhood 30 years later.

Perhaps Passivhaus architects should consciously go for what engineer Nick Grant calls radical simplicity in their designs and embrace the box. Make it conspicuous. Make it, as Bronwyn Barry calls it, "boxy but beautiful." Make it a style. This is not easy, But as noted earlier in "Buildings Can Be Boxy but Beautiful if You Have a Good Eye," I wrote that "we might even have to reassess our standards of beauty."

It will be cheaper, too. A recent study by Evangelia Mitsiakou and David Cheshire of AECOM found Passivhaus buildings might cost less than 1% more than conventional, but they had to be properly designed: "To achieve Passivhaus standards within budget, cost savings must be sought elsewhere, such as creating compact built forms and simplifying the architectural detailing."

Saltbox Passive House Exterior

Raphaël Thibodeau

This will take courage. When I first saw the Saltbox Passive House by L'Abri I thought it was a gutsy move to have that one teensy window in that big important gabled wall. But it has an elegant simplicity that grows on you, and it screams Passivhaus.

Radical Simplicty

Juraj Mikurck

I have previously described Grant's radical simplicity, where he tells us to "embrace the box." GO Logic in Maine does this; Architype in the United Kingdom does this—more designers and architects should.

Dieter Rams design for Braun
Dieter Rams design for Braun.

CC Braden Kowitz on Flickr

Think of Dieter Rams and his designs for Braun: It is recognizable and it is conspicuous in its radical simplicity. You just look at it and you know it is a Rams. The Passivhaus world should adopt his tenth principle for good design, and forget everything else, and adopt the principle of conspicuous conservation:

Good design is as little design as possible: “Less, but better—because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.”