Pittsburgh Pivots toward Passive House

Pittsburgh has spent the last thirty years greening its economy, which initially involved merely a shift from heavy industry to the less resource intensive health and technology sectors. It was motivated by concerns for public health (if one more person references ‘hell with the lid off’ this author might revolt!), but mostly by economic necessity. Put quite simply, if Pittsburgh didn’t evolve, it would hemorrhage its entire working population.

Fast forward 3 decades, and the city has drafted two Climate Action Plans, a citywide sustainability rubric, and boasts the largest 2030 District in North America. In many ways, Pittsburgh has caught up to its more progressive peers.  But with recent redoubled commitments to the Paris Climate Accords, the city has a tall order of environmental imperatives to meet by 2030. So where does Pittsburgh pivot next? Two words, or an efficiently German compound noun:  PassivHaus.  And the good news is, our fine city is poised to be an early adopter.

A PassivHaus (Passive House) Primer

PassivHaus is an international design standard whose buildings consume 10% of current energy usage. Based on building science developed at the German PassivHaus Institute, there is no one prescribed design, but instead a book of best practices which lead to guaranteed air tightness, heating and cooling loads, and low overall annual energy use. Its English translation Passive House has long misled US architects, for the standard applies to anything from kindergartens and grocery stores to college dorms and factories.  In a word, these are the most energy efficient buildings in the world, and Pittsburgh has begun to build them.

Western Pennsylvania Popularity

With more than 40,000 certified buildings in the world, why has Pittsburgh become the North American Passive hot spot? Much of the local progress has to do with local advocacy, both from Western Pennsylvania Passive House and your neighborhood GBA staff members. Seven of the eleven Passive House trainers currently reside in Pittsburgh, which give local architects and engineers uniquely abundant access to technical expertise and certification. And our relatively cold climates make for a particularly profitable cost proposition. High heating costs = tenants eager to install energy saving technology.

A Solution for the Future

Meeting the Paris targets by 2030 will require a coordinated effort from multiple players. There is no easy solution, and every city has its own urban development with which to contend. So why are we so hasty to highlight PassivHaus in Pittsburgh? Let’s count the 5 reasons.

  1. Delivers high performance from design
    PassivHaus has one of the most accurate modeling softwares in the game (Passive House Planning Package), which means that the energy use predicted is the energy use in reality. The increased insulation and often triple pane windows make the houses extremely weather tight, and tests reveal that even decades after construction building performance remains the same.
  2. PassivHaus ensures a low carbon future
    With 40% of US energy consumption from buildings, reaching the Paris Climate Accords 50% reduction in overall energy use requires a significant rethinking of our built environment. PassivHaus construction uses on average 90% less energy than a standard building, which means that any alternative energy generation is on a significantly smaller scale. With such minimal energy use, it becomes feasible to think not only about a net zero energy future, in which buildings require no fossil fuels, but even net positive buildings, which contribute clean energy back into the grid.
  3. Lock into cheaper living
    PassiveHaus buidings are estimated to be 5%-10% more expensive to build, but their repayment periods can be as short as 5 years.  According to Green Building Advisor, “this economic ‘sweet spot’ is what defines the Passive House standard,” for its metrics have been specifically selected to minimize cost while maximizing efficiency. That means that they have figured out a range of return on investment for insulation, and have determined exactly when its costs outweigh its savings. Owners save money every year after the building is built, even as fuel and utility rates continue to rise.
  4. The cleanest air you’ve ever breathed
    PassivHaus’ required heat recovery ventilation system (virtually unheard of in residential construction) brings fresh air from outside, providing unparalled indoor air quality. PassivHaus certified residences smell different, and people with allergies or asthma have often reported significantly improved breathing patterns. And because PassivHaus construction is better insulated, you can open your windows with less of an impact on the overall air temperature. Plus, the building is so quiet you will forget you live next to the shoutiest neighbors on the planet.
  5. PassivHaus is an investment in your local economy
    Constructing a PassivHaus building requires skilled laborers who receive commensurate compensation. Workers with greater expertise are paid for a more valuable product.  And these are of course local jobs that cannot be outsourced, helping to keep money in the community. The PA Clean Energy Jobs report shows more jobs are created with energy efficient construction than fossil fuel industries, which is of course where a building owner would be sending more money if they did not construct a passive house.

Passive is the new black

So successful is the PassivHaus standard that local governments are beginning to enforce the metrics as law.   A province in Austria requires public buildings to be to PassivHaus Standard, including a courthouse and a jail, and Brussels, which had the least energy efficient buildings in Europe in 2003,  has even adopted the principles as its building code for all new construction. For Pittsburgh to meet the Paris Accords’ significant 2030 goals, the city must recalibrate how it evaluates the built environment. No longer can buildings merely function less poorly, reducing the inevitably negative impacts on our environment. Rather, PassivHaus asks us to see buildings as instruments of change, capable not only of providing more affordable accommodation, but also of creating a clean energy future. If you are a building professional interested in designing Passive, register for GBA’s 5-day certification course on September 18th through the 22nd. To learn more about PassivHaus and its role in your life, visit passipedia.org

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