Proponents of Passive House, a globally recognized standard for energy-efficient building design, say multi-family Passive House projects in the United States have hit cost parity with conventionally designed buildings, but systemic inertia is holding back widespread adoption.
Passive House accounts for less than 1% of all multi-family construction in the U.S. in the past decade, writes the Passive House Network (PHN) in its recently-published report, Safe At Home: How all-electric, multi-family Passive House buildings deliver comfortable, cost-effective climate resilience. Overcoming old habits in the building sector would bring these benefits home at a time when extreme heat, wildfire smoke, and intense storms are battering households across North America and beyond.
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“Climate change is making the simple act of staying home more dangerous,” writes PHN. “It’s a primary cause of the growing number and increasing severity of heatwaves in summer months. It’s also a factor in weakening the Earth’s polar vortex, which has caused a series of bitterly cold winter storms to hit states in recent winters.”
Deliberately titled “Safe At Home,” the report states that hundreds of Americans have died in homes that failed to keep them warm in winter, or cool in summer.
“As the 21st century advances, each passing year reinforces the fact that America has two kinds of housing—in buildings that are prepared for climate change, and in buildings that are not,” PHN writes. “One of the most pressing community resilience issues facing the nation is that we’re building too much of the wrong kind of housing, which needlessly delays pollution cuts and makes us ill-prepared to withstand the extreme weather and climate disasters that are becoming hallmarks of the climate crisis.”
The report says Passive House buildings lower energy use by up to 80% compared to a standard building at a similar price point. For utility companies, regulators, and policy-makers seeking to solve the building decarbonization puzzle on aggressive timelines, Passive House can be an indispensable tool, enabling “a quicker leap away from polluting, volatile, and expensive gas infrastructure and a softer landing onto a decarbonized, clean-energy power grid.”
PHN adds that policy-makers can help accelerate the shift to Passive House construction with targeted financing, bold changes to building and energy codes, support for training programs, and more flexibility for innovative compliance pathways.
Design that Keeps Families Safe
Multi-family Passive House dwellings are purpose-built to keep families safe even during power outages, PHN notes, citing a 2020 RMI study. When passive homes lose power during a cold snap, it takes six days and eight hours for indoor temperatures to fall below 4.4°C, a critical safety threshold. By contrast, a new code-compliant conventional building will fall under that threshold in one day and 21 hours, while 1980s- and 1950s-era homes will do so in just 23 hours and eight hours, respectively.
When it comes to cooling homes in summer, the authors use data from the devastating heat dome that hit the U.S. Pacific Northwest and British Columbia in 2021 to explain that passive-standard heat pumps performed best at keeping indoor temperatures around a comfortable 23°C, even as temperatures outside reached 42°C. In homes without air conditioning, indoor temperatures reached 35 to 37.8°C, and a standard AC could only keep temperatures between 27.7 and 30.5°C.
Thanks to the HVAC system that is a central element of Passive House design, multi-family dwellings can also provide long-term health benefits by protecting residents from air pollution, including wildfire smoke.
Design that Reduces Energy Poverty
As of 2022, 54% of low-income households in the U.S. relied on fossil fuels to keep warm. The figures for the cold-weather states of New York and Massachusetts were 84% and 75%, respectively.
In recent years, with energy prices spiking, more households have had to default on utility payments, and disconnections have soared. “From 2018 to 2022, 14.5 million customers lost service, a 24% increase from the five years prior,” writes PHN.
Enter affordable housing built to Passive House standards: The future residents in 140 units of affordable housing being built as part of an 800-unit, all-electric Passive Housing project just outside Boston won’t even receive heating or cooling bills, since the utility costs for the super-efficient build will be so low. The cost of $35 to 55 per month—70% lower than average—will just be factored into their rent.
Design that Cuts Construction Costs
Despite the common misconception that Passive House building will break the bank, the PHN’s survey of 45 multi-family Passive House projects in New York and Massachusetts found the average cost to build them was “just 3.7% more than standard,” mostly to ensure adequate ventilation in the building envelope. When incentives are factored in, the buildings become cheaper than standard.
The report cites the affordable, 98-unit Finch Cambridge Passive House project, completed in 2020 in Massachusetts, as an example. It cost US$495,000 more to build than a standard equivalent, or 1.4% of a $36.7-million total—before incentives were applied.
With the application of two state incentives totalling $619,000, the cost of Finch Cambridge ended up $124,047 less than standard. Today, courtesy of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, the project would have been eligible for tax credits worth up to $5,000 per unit.
“With no economic barrier to building smarter buildings, there is simply no excuse to continue business as usual, particularly because the benefits of Passive House are immense,” writes PHN.
Design to Help Decarbonize Grids
In the U.S., 53% of the country’s residential gas consumption “comes from just 11 cold-climate states, including New York and Massachusetts,” PHN writes.
And by “effectively flattening wintertime heating loads,” incredibly snug, multi-family Passive House dwellings could collectively become “a fulcrum to the heavy lifts in these states’ electrification plans that will decommission the gas grids without causing a resulting overload on the power grid.”
Alert to this boon, a number of Massachusetts communities representing 20% of the state’s population “have adopted a new specialized energy code that requires large multi-family construction to be Passive House, which has added 10,000 to 20,000 units of Passive House into the construction pipeline” in the state.
Passive House ‘Primed to Soar’
“Bold” policies like Massachusetts’ new energy code, along with incentive and energy efficiency programs and the Inflation Reduction Act, mean that all-electric multi-family Passive House dwellings “are primed to soar,” at least in early adopter states like New York and Massachusetts, as well as Pennsylvania, PHN writes.
In addition to allocating $330 million for municipal and state governments to adopt energy codes that meet or exceed the latest version of the International Energy Conservation Code and energy codes from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the federal climate law “earmarks $670 million for states and local governments to adopt zero-energy stretch codes, meaning codes that supplement or overlay a state’s base code to push energy efficiency targets forward by as much as 20%, which could be a major driver of multi-family Passive House projects,” the report says.
“We have the blueprint for coast-to-coast adoption of all-electric, multi-family Passive House buildings,” Bronwyn Barry, one of the network’s founding board members, said [pdf] in a release.
“Our nation is facing an affordable housing crisis and an energy cost crisis, while also confronting severe challenges posed by extreme heat and storms from climate change,” she added. “Everyone should get to experience the comfort—and we have the policy tools and professional know-how to ensure every new multi-family housing project in America is built this way.”