Recently I had the opportunity to interview Martin Holladay, senior editor of the Green Building Advisor, former editor of Energy Design Update and former associate editor of the Journal of Light Construction. He was the keynote speaker at our Spring PHNW Conference that was held this month in Olympia, WA. I was curious in what challenges he would see for the Passive House movement in America since he had been following and reporting on energy and sustainability movements for quite some time.
I asked Martin what was different for Passive House coming into the American market as opposed to ANY green building program that starts up (like LEED, Energy Star, or Built Green). He was quick to point out that he really didn’t have the inside track on how to get people motivated to want a green label. He went on to distinguish Passive House as being different than green programs since it focuses strictly on energy. That focus, however is one Martin heartily agrees with because “energy is something that can be quantified and is easy to compare from an environmental standpoint.”
Some comparisons of Passive House statistics with other energy use or building costs have struck a dissonant chord with Martin though. In his keynote speech he called out those who declare Passive House as a “home without a heater” or claim that it is the most cost-efficient way to build towards energy efficiency. I would wager he had everyone’s attention as he flashed quotes that he found online on the screen to see if they would have their own words held up for examination.
I chose the word examination specifically for it was not to ridicule, but a desire for accuracy that continues to be Martin’s position. He sees exaggerations as an impediment to the forward movement of any program, and for our program in particular, because of the focus on energy, if we do not understand the basics of energy use and explain it appropriately we can come off too basic for those with more knowledgeable backgrounds . He says we don’t want to appear amateurish.
How then is it that we are being inaccurate, especially in the realm of energy use? With our focus being to fulfill the requirements of the Passive House standard and pass the rigors of the PHPP as well as the blower door test it would appear that the diligence in our efforts should speak for itself. But Martin does not believe the standard should be followed as a one size fits all solution, but as a reference point to build upon. He spoke at length of comparing the costs of PV (the upper end of reasonable energy costs in his opinion) and the costs of placing foam under a foundation. With cost as the comparator and the amount of energy being normalized, if PV wins out over foam under the foundation he feels that foam should not be used even if the lack of foam causes the project to not fulfill the PHPP requirements, and there for his argument is that the standard should be changed to include cost effective measures. Martin further explains his cost position “I am not advocating for the installation of a PV array. Rather, I am advising that the cost of PV should be used as the upper limit of any measure under consideration. If foam is more expensive than PV, it shouldn’t be installed. But I believe it’s better to use grid electricity than to install a PV array.”
My active imagination just took Martin’s argument in a slightly different direction. Martin’s PV/Foam argument might just be the solution for the issue of Passive House retrofits being more difficult to achieve. Perhaps future discussion could include a step in the PHPP where you assume you can lift an existing house and put foam underneath to reach the PHPP certification and then calculate how large of a PV array would be needed to be equivalent and install that instead. Of course if it works for the retrofits, it should be available for the new construction as well. [Insert argument on embodied energy here.] Debate is good.
Back to Martin – I did ask him about ways people try to sell the idea of Passive House, both through climate change reasoning as well as health impacts. He enthusiastically said that the “main health benefit attributable to Passive House is that it has guaranteed mechanical ventilation.” and that “Anyone who wants high indoor air quality should look at an ERV or HRV, especially if they live in a cold climate.”
When it came to the topic of climate change he said that it appears more people are listening to the global warming skeptics. In his opinion we are facing an incontrovertible global crisis – one that we should not exaggerate, but that we should also not ignore the topic as a hot potato. Which is also excellent advice for the Passive House community when stating our position or facing an opposing challenge. We should not exaggerate, be careful to stress accuracy, and not hold any of our positions so dear that we can not hold them up to be publicly examined. It is in that examination and discussion that understanding and progress is made.
As the Passive House movement grows and establishes itself in the United States, we should not continually re-hash the old arguments, but we should also not shy from new ideas that can take Passive House in directions that have not yet been considered. As we build in the different climate zones in the US and with different materials, it will be good to reassess the standard at times to make sure that it is at its own optimal level. We need the opinion of people who have seen the green building programs and energy programs that have come and gone. We also need the ideas of new thinkers. The only way that can happen is with discussion, examination, and debate. You never know whose active imagination will be inspired towards thinking in new directions.