Posts Tagged 'Passive House'

Energy to burn

That's Katrin Klingenberg's Smith House, Urbana.

For the past couple of months, my husband Mike Knezovich has had two full-time jobs. He rose to the occasion after I broke my foot in June, walking Harper, accompanying me to doctor appointments, chauffeuring me to the Chicago Cultural Center so I could teach my memoir classes, running all our many, many errands. He helped me sort through the heartwrenching decision to retire Harper early, and once that decision was made he shepherded me to France to meet up with dear friends. Well, I guess that last part wasn’t really work.

Through all that, Mike was keeping up with his day job for Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), flying to DC to visit potential sites for their annual conference, working with vendors and exhibitors, promoting the event and juggling–with his coworkers–all other sundry things involved with planning a national conference. And now, the Passive House conference is here! It starts this week, and this article in USA Today helps explain what PHIUS is all about:

The passive house movement, popularized in Europe, where thousands of such homes have been built, is starting to catch on in the United States as consumers look to lower their utility bills. These homes don’t require pricey solar panels or wind turbines but focus on old-fashioned building science to reduce energy use by up to 90% less energy. They’re different from the “passive solar” homes of the 1970s, which used a lot of south-facing windows for heating, because they emphasize other features: thick walls and roofs (often at least a foot) and triple-paned windows, as well as efficient appliances and lighting. The secret is tightness, achieved via superior insulation and air sealing. A mechanical system brings in fresh air, heating or cooling it as needed.

Few U.S. homes, only a dozen so far, have obtained certification from the Passive House Institute US, a private Illinois-based group that bases its rules on the German Passivhaus standard.

Well, the number of certified homes is up to 24 now, with dozens more–including commercial buildings–in the pipeline. PHIUS is working to make passive house commonplace in new construction and retrofitted buildings.

When I tell friends about Mike’s work with passive houses, their first question is almost always about the windows. “So you have to keep the windows closed all the time?” The answer is no. When the weather is nice outside, you can still open the windows. But when temperatures are outside the range where you’d be comfortable with the windows open, the idea is to keep the inside of the home comfortable all year long, and the super-insulation means most passive homes don’t need a conventional furnace. The ventilator runs constantly at very low, quiet levels to provide air quality. And the windows–triple-paned in most cases–mean you can sit by one and never know it’s below freezing outside.

Katrin Klingenberg’s Smith House, completed in Urbana, Ill. in 2002, was the very first Passive House built in the United States. Which is appropriate, because fundamental passive house principles were actually developed at  the University of Illinois back in the 70s. Builder Mike Kernagis pitched in on other Passive House projects that were built as affordable housing in partnership with the City of Urbana, and in 2007 Klingenberg and Kernagis founded Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). Since then more Passive House structures have been built in the United States, and more are in the works. And PHIUS has certified more than 200 architects, engineers and builders as Certified Passive House Consultants. You can find consultants here.

The PHIUS conference will take place in Silver Spring, Maryland and includes tours of existing passive house projects and a ton of practical , academic and hands-on advice on how to design and build to the passive house standard–and even a panel of folks who live in these things. You can link here to view the conference’s full schedule, including passive house building tours and pre-conference workshops. You can still sign up for the conference online, but you’d better do it fast — registration closes Tomorrow night, October 23.

And hey, if you go to the conference and you see Mike Knezovich there, do me a favor: pat him on the back for two jobs well done.

Mike’s gone passive on me

One night when Mike and I were still living in Urbana, we sprung for a babysitter and headed to a nearby bar to hear some live music. The band was fun, the place was packed, and two young strangers invited us to share their table.

That's a just-completed residence built to the Passive House standard, in Salem, Ore.

Through the din of the band and the beer we managed to make conversation and discover that the two of them were newlyweds, both working as architects in Chicago. Katrin was born in Germany. Nic was born near Urbana. They were in town that weekend looking for an inexpensive empty lot where they could build something called a Passive House. I couldn’t make out Nic’s explanation of what a Passive House was, exactly, but before the night ended, Katrin had slipped a business card to Mike, and we promised we’d let them know if we heard of any property for sale.

The next time we saw Katrin, she was a widow. Nic had an undiagnosed brain tumor. He died suddenly. Unexpectedly. Katrin

That's Katrin Klingenberg.

left Chicago and moved to Urbana alone, determined to build a Passive House in Nic’s memory.

The Passive House concept began in Germany and represents today’s most stringent — most aggressive, you might say  — building energy standard. Buildings are constructed or retrofitted to cut the standard slash heating/cooling energy consumption by a whopping 90%. Windows usually face the southern sun, but the Passive House goes a lot further. Passive House construction uses thick walls and super-insulation –  a wall of a Passive House is about three times as thick as a typical  building. The buildings are super-tight; they use tape-sealed construction to keep cold out, and heat in, during the winter. Vice-versa during the summer. That means air doesn’t leak in or out through cracks and holes. But the air quality is still fine — there is a constant, low level ventilator operating. And it uses a heat exchanger so that exhaust air (already heated) transfers heat energy to the incoming air. Mike told me that some homes are heated with the equivalent of a blow dryer. Most don’t need a conventional furnace — or cooling system. Katrin told me that if Americans started using the Passive House design it would help energy conservation in the United States, her new home.

Twenty-five thousand certified passive structures — from schools and commercial buildings to homes and apartment houses — have been built in Europe. Katrin Klingenberg’s Smith House, completed in Urbana in 2002, was the very first Passive House built in the United States. Her determination to get the Passive House standard, literally, off the ground in America did not end with the completion of the Smith House. Local builder Mike Kernagis pitched in on other Passive House projects in Urbana, and in 2007, he and Katrin founded a non-profit called Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). They asked my Mike to sit on the board, and he’s been involved ever since. Since the completion of Smith House, more Passive House structures have been built in the United States, with more in the works. From a story in last September’s New York Times:

Ms. Klingenberg echoes many building science experts when she calls for more rigorous standards for energy-efficiency benchmarks, particularly if there is to be any hope of tackling the environmental and climate problems related to the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. “We have to stop using halfway measures,” she says. “Each new building that we don’t go all the way with now is putting us deeper in the hole.” Ms. Klingenberg was a co-founder of the institute in 2008, intending it as a domestic outlet for the design philosophy espoused for the last 14 years by the passive-house movement’s official sanctioning body, the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany.

To date, Passive House Institute-U.S. has educated about 160 builders, architects and engineers in the standard through a series of training programs and a final certification exam. By year-end, the number is expected to be 300, and Ms. Klingenberg said the institute was having difficulty meeting demand for its courses.

The PHIUS board is meeting in Chicago this weekend, and of course Mike will be attending. Not as a board member, though — as an employee! PHIUS needed someone else on staff to help meet the growing demand for information on the Passive House energy standard, and in January they hired Mike as Director of Marketing and Outreach. Learn more about Passive House Institute U.S. in a February article in USA Today and in another recent article in the Chicago Tribune.

If you like what you read, check out the PHIUS Web site or the PHIUS Facebook page.

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