What's Our Excuse?

By Dan Bertolet June 24, 2010

Last week, PubliCola reported that the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) succeeded---with the helping hand of Governor Chris Gregoire---in delaying the implementation of an updated energy code that would require new buildings to be more energy efficient.

Note that this is the same energy code industry lobbyists succeeded in watering down last November, though oddly enough, Gregoire was on the other side of the argument that time around. Gregoire initially asked for a 30 percent increase in energy efficiency over the current code, but the final adopted code only requires 15 to 18 percent.

Passive house multifamily in Bregenz, Austria; Photo: Andreas Praefcke

In marked contrast to the foot-dragging we witness around here, two years ago the European Parliament proposed a binding requirement that all new buildings meet the highly energy-efficient "passive house" standard starting in 2011.  Passive house is a European building standard that relies on high insulation, an airtight building envelope, and heat-recovery ventilation to reduce energy use for heating by 80 to 90 percent. The philosophy is grounded in the idea that you tackle conservation and efficiency first, before considering more complex strategies such as photovoltaics.

Passive house office building in Dornbirn, Austria

The term "passive house" is an unfortunate translation of the German "passivhaus," because the standard can be applied to any building type, not just houses. Worldwide, about 17,500 buildings covering a wide variety of types and uses have been built to passive house standards. Most of these are in Europe and Scandinavia, with about 13,000 in Germany alone (see this presentation for examples). Passivhaus Österreich projects that by 2015, 95 percent of the 50,000 new housing units built annually in Austria will meet the passive house standard.

Passive house fire station in Heidelberg, Germany

Back here in our part of the world, we've been a bit slower on the uptake: As PubliCola reported last March, so far the entire state of Washington can boast of only a single passive house project, a single-family house currently under construction in Seattle's Rainier Valley.

So how are passive house buildings performing in the real world? The short answer is, as advertised. The two charts below---courtesy the Passive House Institute US---tell the story:

Clearly the passive house standard works. But wait, does it cost too much?

A key goal in passive house design is to create a building that is so efficient at holding in heat that it doesn't require an expensive furnace, thereby offsetting some of the extra cost of construction. In places like Germany where contractors have experience with the standard, the typical cost premium runs between 5 and 8 percent.

That extra expense is relatively small, though not negligible. However, when you consider that buildings last for 50 to 100 years, and that over such time periods energy prices are guaranteed to rise significantly due to both scarcity and greenhouse gas regulation, and that energy use has multiple externalized costs that we all end up paying in the end, then that up front cost is worth paying many times over.

So what, exactly, is our excuse for lagging so far behind the Europeans on energy-efficient buildings?

Because how much more obvious can history make it that the big losers will the ones who cling to outmoded ideas and resist change in the face of a rapidly evolving world? The parallel to the battle over fuel efficiency standards for the auto industry is excruciatingly plain to see. And we all know how that story has turned out for the American car manufacturers.

Here's an idea: What if instead of pouring money into lobbying for the weakening of energy codes, groups like BIAW spent their members' dues on providing leadership that would elevate the building industry to the international cutting edge in energy efficiency?

And government needs to step up too. In Austria, the federal government writes a check for 35,000 euros to any individual who builds a home designed to meet the passive house standard. Since 2007 the State of Vorarlberg, Austria has required that all publicly financed housing meet the standard. In Frankfurt, Germany, all buildings owned or used by the city must target passive house.

Hey there city of Seattle, might I suggest sponsoring a passive house pilot project?
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