Should Green Homes Have Gas Stoves and Wood Fireplaces?

CC BY 2.0. Michael Ingui at Passivehouse Canada conference/ Lloyd Alter

One Passive House architect gives his clients what they want.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Clearly architect Michael Ingui has a first-rate intelligence, because he keeps putting giant commercial-style gas ranges and wood burning fireplaces into his New York Passive House houses, something I would have thought were two opposed ideas, that gas and green building don't mix. But Ingui is speaking at the Passive House Canada conference in Toronto, and says his clients would not have considered doing a Passive House design without them.

But as we have noted many times on TreeHugger, there are serious problems of interior air quality when you burn gas. There are piles of peer-reviewed research that show it is a really bad idea.

Then there is the question of whether we should be burning gas at all, or whether we should be leaving it in the ground. The beauty of Passive House is that it needs so little energy that you can heat it with anything, including a bit of electricity.

These days, natural gas is cheap because of fracking. There's lots of it in the pipelines; there's lots of it that is leaking into the atmosphere. One could say that electric power in New York is not much better; half of it comes from burning natural gas, a lot less efficiently.

But New York plans to keep reducing the fossil fuel use for power generation to zero by 2040. If a house is heated by gas, they are locked into it. In Ingui's Passive House buildings gas is not used for heating, and it is true that people can change their stove and their gas dryer down the road, if cooking with gas in your house gets as disreputable as smoking in your house. But what about air quality?

gas equipment in passive house

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Michael Ingui has his exhaust hoods and makeup air for the gas range engineered so that he manages to meet Passive House standards. He puts CO and other sensors in the exhaust to ensure that everything is going up the exhaust and not into the house. It is tough and it is expensive, but the interior air quality remains good.

Then there is the wood-burning fireplace. Ingui has figured out how to do that too, with heavy, sealed glass doors and makeup air. No doubt the air quality inside the Passive House is just fine. But what about the neighbors? Wood-burning fireplaces are a huge problem in cities, pushing the PM 2.5 levels way up. Next to cars, they are the biggest urban source of particulate matter.

passive house kitchen

Lloyd Alter/ Passive House Kitchen in Brooklyn/CC BY 2.0

Michael Ingui tells us that he agrees, it would be better not to have gas, and he does his best to minimize it; in a recent project he had heat pump hot water and dryers, but the client still insisted on a gas stove. And everyone in New York City wants a fireplace; but in reality, in a Passive House, a fireplace overheats the room in minutes, and he finds his clients almost never use them. He invites clients to his own house to try cooking on his induction range and says they are definitely catching on. He suspects that in a few years it will be a non-issue, where his clients will cook on induction and have fireplaces that they never use (but insist on for resale value).

I cannot help but wonder if we shouldn't be moving faster than that, and if the Passive House standard should be tightened up a bit and go carbon-free, and simply say no to fossil fuels. The Living Building Challenge and other tough standards do this. There is no place for gas connections in a low carbon world.