Mark Twain said “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.” That can certainly be applied to many areas, including the sustainable building movement. Of course there is knowingly stating something as true that is known to be false, and there is stating something that you believe to be true, that in actuality is false. The first is a lie, the second is anything from a misunderstanding of the facts, to blatantly holding on to your belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps this should be considered the difference between “Missteps” and “Damned Missteps”. Which still leaves “Statistics” as that marvelous conundrum where the truth can pretty much be whatever you would like it to be.
We recently held the 2nd annual PHNW Spring Conference in Olympia, WA. It was quite well attended – in fact breaking our previous attendance record by 50%. It started out with a challenge from keynote speaker Martin Holladay. In addition to listing 7 things he liked about Passive House, he also had an equally numbered list of Passive House missteps which became the focus of his speech. The missteps he attributed to Passive House included a confusion between its US name and the passive solar movement; false claims that these were “houses without heating systems”; requiring heat to be delivered through inefficient duct systems; the PH heating limit being arbitrary; no cost effectiveness oversight; small house building penalties; and no distinguishing between where the actual energy used came from.
As with any new program there will be problems, missteps, misunderstandings, and statistics to prove all that. The Passive House name - a marketing misstep or opportunity? Soccer Mom’s may not have flocked to a Van (associated with Hippies!), but they sure liked the idea of the Mini Van that was marketed to be more energy efficient and safe for transporting their families. Todays’ Passive House can easily be associated with a more energy efficient and healthful construction method reminiscent of earlier passive construction, but improved upon.
The statements of “houses without heating systems” as well as a later claim that these were the “most cost efficient building method” as being false statements are valid points. Absolutes used in a general way do hurt the Passive House movement. If you have a provision for heating, then you do NOT have a house without a heating system. What you may have is a house without a traditional furnace – explain it that way. If you are able to price out your Passive House project as being the most cost efficient scenario – say so, but be ready to defend exactly what you mean. No particular way of building, providing energy, or saving energy will be the “most” anything for every circumstance. It does come down to specifics, so be as specific as possible.
As we build and monitor Passive Houses it will be easier to provide these specifics. It will also be easier to provide cost comparisons, show the merits of larger multi family structures energy usage vs a small single family structure, discuss the merits of different forms of energy, and have the debate of climate specific standards. The idea of a separate standard for retrofits as well as a phased Passive House approach has already been broached and accepted in Europe. As we learn what does and does not work in the US reasonable discussion can be expected should we find that there is something to gain with changing the standards here, but that should not be the starting point of the debate. We must first challenge ourselves to see what can be done if the payoff is worth the struggle. Until then we should not throw the baby out with the bath water.
There is something to be said for having a high bar. If you reach it you have attained a great challenge that is a measurable sustainability achievement. There will never be an official “close enough to Passive House” bar to reach. How much is “close enough”? There will be those who will state they want to build “like Passive House” or “close to Passive House”, but if your intent is to lower the bar, be prepared to state why and be specific. The bar exists, just as in any measurable achievement, to show that you did or did not surpass it. Don’t believe me? Tell the judge that the 60mph you were traveling is “close enough” to the 55mph zone you were driving in.