by Christine Beaderstadt
- Capitol Hill Times Magazine -
Many of us live in what laymen call an active house. The energy we put into a home to build, heat, and maintain protection from outside elements has an active, and often negative, impact on the environment. A trend in house building, however, is reversing this environmental cost by developing passive homes.
Based on a series of performance measurements developed in Europe, a passive home is a highly-insulated building that meets these specific criteria to leave minimal impact on the earth. Passive building architects work with professional builders and contractors to develop and implement practices that yield extremely low energy output. Windows, walls, doors, every portion of the house is evaluated and insulated to prevent outside air from entering and leaving the structure.
“A part of the process is based on air [flow],” explained Frank Mestemacher, a carpentry instructor at Seattle Central Community College, who helped build a Seattle passive home. “Every time [there was] a nail hole that was nailed into the plywood and didn’t get filled, [there’s] an 1/8-inch air hole in the structure,” he explained. “Compound that and pretty soon [there can be a gap] the size of an open window,” he continued. “If air is going through then heat is going out too.”
Originally a 1970s American concept, Europeans got wind of this low-impact idea and ran with it, taking particular interest and success in countries like Germany and Austria, and sprinkled throughout places in Scandinavia. Due to the low cost of oil, surmises Mestemacher, American interest in building and regulating passive homes did not immediately take off. Now, 40 years later, higher oil prices translate to higher electric bills, and some Americans, especially those who are environmentally conscious, resurrected the practice.
The first American passive building was finished in Urbana, Ill. in 2003, and another followed a few years later in frigid Minnesota, one of the coldest American states. Pacific Northwesterners have also recently become more interested and involved in this practice, and several buildings are located throughout Seattle.
Climate variables, like temperature and humidity, primarily play roles in the construction of a passive structure. Official regulations were developed in Germany and U.S. standards have been altered slightly to adapt to the warmer temperatures of the South and colder climes of the North. The Passive House Institute US, a leading organization in the passive building world, states on its website, “The principle [of passive homes]… can be applied in all climates…Neither cooling nor de-humidification prevent application of the passive house concept, and can be managed by a corresponding design of the minimized mechanical system.”
In 2010, a group of Seattle Community College students studying under construction teacher Frank Mestemacher, helped build a mobile version, the size of a small garage, nicknamed the Mini-B (currently located in Woodinville for demonstration purposes).
Sloan Ritchie, founder of Cascade Built, a general construction company that specializes in sustainable building, is currently undertaking the development of his first personal-use family passive home, which he hopes to move into at the end of the year or beginning of 2013. The Madison Park house, which Sloan began constructing in May of this year, will be a normal-sized house, roughly 3,000 square feet, and take about six to eight months to build – about the same amount of time spent on an average house.
The passive home wave, while not taking American homeowners (and potential buyers) by storm, is opening the conversation to a different type of construction. Denver is hosting the 7th Annual North American Passive Home Conference this month, which began seven years ago. With the pressure to cut costs in reaction to the struggling economy, passive home building may be a long-term solution to people’s current monetary spending. A typical passive home can reduce heating and cooling costs by an estimated 10 times, Ritchie said. Additionally, the belated cost benefit seems to substantially outweigh the initial building cost, which can be 5 to 10 percent higher than constructing a regular structure. With numbers like these, there seems little difficulty in building or buying a passive home, and taking part of an increasing monetary and environmentally friendly movement.