What is Passive House?

What is Passive House?

Passive House is both a building energy performance standard and a set of design and construction principles used to achieve that standard. The Passive House standard is the most stringent building energy standard in the world: buildings that meet the standard use 80 percent less energy than conventional equivalent buildings, and provide superior air quality and comfort.

A systems-based design strategy carefully models and balances a comprehensive set of factors including heat emissions from appliances and occupants--to keep the building at comfortable and consistent indoor temperatures throughout the heating and cooling seasons. Continuous mechanical ventilation of fresh filtered air, assures superb air quality.


“Maximize your gains, minimize your losses”. These are the basic tenants of the Passive House approach. A Passive House project maximizes the energy efficiency of the basic building components inherent in all buildings; roof, walls, windows, floors and the utility systems: electrical, plumbing & mechanical. By minimizing a building's energy losses, the mechanical system is not called to replenish the losses nearly as frequently, saving resources, operational costs and pollution. Unlike any other structures, Passive House buildings maintain occupant comfort for more hours of the year without the need for mechanical temperature conditioning of the indoor air. The opposite has been the norm in this country with a history of inexpensive fuel and construction techniques with little consideration for energy losses through thermal bridging, air-infiltration, let alone being conscious of using some or even any insulation.

The Passive House approach focuses on the following:

Strategic Design and Planning:
Passive House projects are carefully modeled and evaluated for efficiency at the design stage. Certified Passive House Consultants are trained to use the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), a tool that allows designers to test “what-if” scenarios before construction begins. They are also trained to use other software tools, such as LBNL's THERM to identify and address potential thermal bridges, and WUFI (Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, and Oak Ridge National Labs) to assess moisture issues, potential for mold risk and other hygrothermal phenomenon at the design stage.

Specific Climate, Siting, Sizing and Shading:
Passive House design uses detailed, specific annual weather data in modeling a structure’s performance. Passive House theory leans towards minimizing the surface area to interior volume ratio, favoring an efficient shape to minimize energy losses. Building orientation and quantity, placement and shading of windows are optimized to maximize winter solar gain and minimize summer solar gain, resulting in reduced heating and cooling loads, minimized mechanical systems and energy use.

Super-Insulated Envelope:
To keep the heating/cooling in, wall assemblies require greater insulation values to “stop the conditioned air” from leaving. Walls are typically twice as thick as today’s standard construction, for good reason. Wall assemblies are analyzed to allow for proper water and moisture management to make a long lasting and an exceptionally healthy building.

Thermal Bridge-Free Detailing:
Breaks in the insulation layer usually caused by structural elements and utility penetrations in the building envelope create a “thermal bridge,” allowing undesirable exterior temperatures to migrate to and “un-do” expensive interior conditioned air. Passive House design attempts to eliminate thermal bridges via progressive mindful architectural detailing.

Air-Tight Envelope (But Diffusion Open):
Anyone who has been in an older drafty home understands how stopping unconditioned air from squeezing to the inside, effects comfort and the efficiency of the mechanical system. Passive House takes great care in designing, constructing and testing the envelope for an industry-leading control of air leakage to the interior. Blower door testing is a mandatory technique in assuring high performance. Walls are designed to be virtually air tight, while allowing water vapors to dry out providing an excellent strategy to maintain a healthy environment.

Advanced Windows and Doors:
Historically these items are the weak link of a building’s envelope and thermal defense system. Passive House places significant emphasis on specifying high performance windows and doors to address concern. To meet the high performance needs of various climate zones, windows must meet strict performance standards regarding: component insulation, air tightness, installation and solar heat gain values.

Energy Recovery Ventilation:
The “lungs” of a Passive House come from a box called a heat (or energy) recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV). It provides a constant supply of tempered, filtered fresh air 24/7 and saves money by recycling the indoor energy that is typically found in exhaust air. The heat from outgoing stale air is transferred to the unconditioned incoming fresh air, while it is being filtered. It provides a huge upgrade in indoor air quality and consistent comfort, especially for people sensitive to material off-gassing, allergies and other air-borne irritants.

Heating and Cooling:
One of the best benefits to implementing Passive House design is the high performance shell and extremely low annual energy demand. This allows owners to save on operational costs as they can now significantly downsize a building’s mechanical system. Passive solar gains, plus heat from occupants and appliances supply most of the needed heat. Thus, Passive House design puts a project within reach for achieving true “Net Zero” performance (the building generates as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year), making use of alternative energy systems smaller thus more affordable and attainable.

Efficient Systems:
Through fitting buildings designed to the Passive House Standard with efficient appliances, hot water distribution, and energy efficient lighting, electricity consumption is also slashed by 50% compared to the average housing stock, without any loss of convenience. Most residential ventilation systems, for instance, are typically driven by a highly efficient motor only consuming 40w.

Alternative Energy:
Considering alternative energy systems on your project? Building to meet the Passive House Standard is the smartest starting point. The significant reduction in energy use, allows alternative energy to power a greater percentage of a buildings demands. Likewise smaller demand equates to smaller and more affordable alternative energy systems providing higher cost-benefit value. Passive House design puts a project within reach for achieving true “Net Zero” performance (the building generates as much energy as it consumes)

Passive House Performance Criteria & Certification

Performance Criteria
  • Maximum Heating or Cooling Energy: 1.4 kWh/ft2 or 4750 Btu/ft2 (15 kWh/m2) per year
  • Maximum Total Source Energy: 11 kWh/ft2 or 38,100 Btu/ft2 (120 kWh/m2 ) per year (“Source Energy” by definition includes the energy required to produce and deliver the energy to the site, and can be offset with solar thermal and other measures. Photovoltaics cannot be used to offset this energy, but are recognized, at this time.)
  • Maximum Air Leakage: equivalent to 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals (ACH50), (~0.03 ACHNAT )

    In addition, the following are recommendations which vary based on specific climate region:
  • Window u-value ≤ 0.8 W/m2/K (varies based on climate zone)
  • Ventilation system with heat recovery with ≥ 75% efficiency with low electric consumption @ 0.45 Wh/m3
  • Thermal bridge free construction ≤ 0.01 W/mK

Passive House performance is verified by review of the in the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), a third party verified blower door test, formal record of adjustment of the ventilation system, a declaration of construction supervisor and photographic documentation.

PHIUS+ Verification Program (New in 2012)
PHIUS+ adds Quality Assurance/Quality Control to the Passive House evaluation process, providing and added level of quality assurance and helping qualified projects earn financial incentives.

PHA-US is continually working around the country to connect projects that meet the passive house standard with available governmental energy efficiency programs and rebates. Currently certified homes can take advantage of the Energy Star program. Check back periodically as this list grows with our mission. PHAUS-SF will be working specifically to integrate Passive House practices and knowledge with local municipal programs and codes


The roots of Passive House trace back to the 1970s, when the concepts of superinsulation and passive solar management techniques were developed in the United States and Canada. Early ASHRAE documentation also sites energy metrics that are amazingly similar to current Passive House criteria. In the 1990s European scientists refined and augmented these concepts to develop the Passive House standard and design techniques, which were tailored to the Central European climate zone.

German-born architect Katrin Klingenberg studied with Dr. Wolfgang Feist—a German Passive House pioneer—in Darmstadt, Germany. She also studied in the United States—at Ball State University--and believed that Passive House could work and thrive in the United States. She provided a proof of concept by building her own Passive House in Urbana, Ill., in 2003. The single-family two-story was the first Passive House building in the United States.

Klingenberg collaborated with construction manager Mike Kernagis to build—in partnership with the City of Urbana, Ill.--several affordable housing Passive Houses. Their experience convinced them that Passive House was ready to go national, and in 2007 they founded the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). Since then PHIUS has trained and certified hundreds of Certified Passive House professionals. The development of Passive House in the North America has grown exponentially since, with upwards of 100 projects completed in 2011 and many more in process. Similarly, PHIUS has trained and certified hundreds of building professionals this year, with numbers growing each year. These professionals have accumulated an invaluable body of realworld experience, adapting Passive House principles to meet the challenges of North America's widely varied and extreme climate zones.

PHA-US was founded to support and connect these professionals, to expand the community and to build Passive House into a mainstream market force in the United States. PHIUS will focus on advancing Passive House knowledge by developing new training programs, certifying professionals and projects, conducting research and verification, and adapting Passive House principles for the United States.

The PH Alliance SF

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Media January 6, 2012 3:50 PM former member
Passive House Exam Prep January 3, 2012 1:58 PM former member
CPHC January 3, 2012 3:41 PM former member
Passive House Advocacy January 2, 2012 1:52 AM former member
Passive House Training SF January 2, 2012 1:53 AM former member
PHAUS-SF Chapter Membership January 3, 2012 4:03 PM former member
Passive House Education January 4, 2012 12:40 PM former member
Passive House Protocols January 2, 2012 1:53 AM former member
Passive House Projects SF January 24, 2012 3:07 PM former member
What is Passive House? December 31, 2011 4:46 PM former member
Certified Passive House Consultant Training January 9, 2012 10:50 AM former member
About Passive House Alliance SF January 4, 2012 10:51 AM former member

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