A Plague on Both Their Passive Houses: Confusion Reigns in Fight Over the Name and the Standard

What's Passive about that?

© What's Passive about that? Passivhaus Institute

I have always thought that Passive House was a crappy name for a building standard. It isn't passive (they have active ventilation systems) and it isn't only for houses. It confuses everyone who has known about passive solar design since the seventies. They could have kept the European name, Passivhaus, but that's too French for American tastes. They might have called it the 15kWh standard, after its key defining feature, but that is too metric.

But crappy name or not, it is now the focus of a new battle in the war over the future of the Passive House standard in North America. TreeHugger has previously covered the split between the European PassivHaus Institute and the American branch; now Katrin Klingenberg, Executive Director of the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), is proposing " a modification process to the rigid annual heating and cooling requirement of less or equal to 15 kWh/m2yr or 4.75 kBTU/ft2yr for the North American continent’s more extreme climates." To some, this cuts to the heart of the Passivhaus standard.

The result is an extraordinary public pissing match that is destroying the credibility of what I thought was perhaps the most promising standard for building really tight, efficient houses and buildings. Since the key element of Passivhaus is the fifteen kilowatt hours per square metre per year energy consumption criterion, Passivhaus consultant Hayden Robinson started a petition that says:

“The Passive House building energy standard is widely recognized in North America and internationally. In the United States, the standard is used by hundreds of businesses and professionals, and its criteria are maintained by a number of certifying agencies offering services across the country. In its blog post, ’15kWh is dead. Long live 15kWh,’ PHIUS publicized a plan to create its own certification criteria and promote them using the Passive House name. PHIUS’s desire to innovate is commendable, and the larger conversation around potential improvements to the Passive House standard is healthy; however, having multiple standards competing under the name Passive House would create confusion and controversy. We therefore ask PHIUS to distinguish its program by giving it a distinctive name.”

Seems like a reasonable proposition. As Richard Deffendorf at Green Building Advisor, who has been following this issue closely, explains:

In their accompanying comments, most of the signatories seem to have no problem with PHIUS’s plan to modify criteria for the colder parts of North America, though they agree with Robinson’s contention that, should PHIUS modify its criteria, marketing the revised standard as “Passive House” would create confusion. “ ‘Passive House’ is not a trademark or brand, but it does have a recognized meaning internationally and in the U.S.,” wrote Greg Duncan, an architect and certified Passivhaus designer based in Brooklyn, New York. “I believe that if PHIUS starts certifying buildings that do not meet this standard, they should use a different term.”

Katrin Klingenberg of PHIUS has no time for this or her critics, who she considers unqualified:

Hayden Robinson, Mike Eliason and Bronwyn Barry, who expressed their opinions here, are to my knowledge in that group of consultants who have not had the opportunity yet to complete a Passive House project. I remember well, I would have felt the same before I completed my first one in 2003.

This, of course, upset everyone; the head of PHIUS attacking the credentials and competence of serious players in the Passivhaus movement. It just isn't done.

Meanwhile, confusion reigns. As the builders of Edgewaterhaus, a project in Maine, wrote,

Should we even bother with certification, particularly after the fracturing of the Passive House movement last August?... I think certification also adds focus during construction, and future resale value to the building. So we will seek certification, but with whom: the internationally recognized PHI that developed the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) energy performance software and passive house standards, or PHIUS’ fledgling “PHIUS+” certification?

I suspect that most of the public will have the same questions, and just wish a plague on both their Passive Houses until this is resolved. Building green is tough enough.