An Introduction to Passive House Design

aware_ explores Passive House, the building standard for energy efficiency, and sits down with IdS/R architecture and OPALtwo US-based architects working with Passive House design.

In October 1973, Saudi Arabia announced an oil embargo, targeting countries which had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War – Canada, the UK and the USA were amongst the nations listed. By March 1974, oil prices had increased by almost 300%. Builders in North America, an area specifically targeted by the embargo, were tasked with building homes that used very little to no energy at all. Specific techniques developed in reaction to the shortages, such as using the sun’s rays as a direct heat source, later sparked a conversation between Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the early founders of the Passivhaus (Passive House) concept. Their original findings, with financial support from the German state of Hessen, lay the foundations for a concept that would inspire environmentally-conscious architects across the globe. 

OPAL – the architecture firm established in Maine in 2008 – is unique amongst its peers, working exclusively with Passive House design principles. Based in Belfast, on the coast of Maine, OPAL continuously strives to achieve the highest standards of building performance and prioritises occupant comfort and well-being. The image below shows a room in Alnoba, is a mixed use gathering space in New Hampshire, and built exclusively with Passive House standards.  

aware_ sat down with executive partner, Matthew O’Malia, to learn more about the Passive Design process. 

passive house design

aware_: Why does OPAL choose to incorporate Passive House standards in its practice?

OPAL: We have made the choice to build all of our projects to the passive house standard, because we feel that is the only responsible response to global climate change. Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of global energy use, and for an equivalent amount of carbon emissions worldwide. At OPAL, we understand that stemming climate change will require a massive reduction in the energy consumed by the buildings we design and construct.

Standard construction practices have improved energy efficiency in recent years, but we need to pick up the pace. World population is on track to grow from 7 billion today to 9 billion in 2050—all of us sharing the same finite resources, most living and working in buildings, and everyone wanting to be comfortable. To accomplish that while addressing the climate crisis, we’ll need buildings that use dramatically less energy—or none at all. And because the buildings we create today will be in service long after 2050, we’ll have to start building that way now.

aware_: Are there particular challenges OPAL has been presented with when working with Passive House standards?

OPAL: Passive house does require increased building performance, and the know how to do that, but in general, we find that it is no different than solving any other problem in our discipline, including fire or life safety, building code, etc. There have been several projects where unique planning and design were required to meet the passive house standard, including building the first certified Lab in the US for the University of Chicago, or building a masonry fireplace and full commercial kitchen in Alnoba. The key is to work at a detailed level and solve the problems based on how energy flows in a building- all of this can be modeled.

passive house design

The New York architectural firm Ibañez de Sendadiano/Rouhe Architecture introduces Watershed House: a sustainable single family house prototype built to Passive House design standards in New York. The site, which lies in the NYC watershed, is a long, signal rectangular structure, sitting nestled in the woods. The prototype sits on a platform to both minimize disruption to surrounding woodland and allow views of the forest.  

 “The house is supported by seven steel piers and the partially below ground concrete mechanical room. Five main steel beams support the house and the two cantilevered decks which run the length of the house. 

The house is built to be well insulated and airtight. The number of penetrations is limited and are taped to be airtight.” 


passive house design

aware_ sat down with Todd Rouhe, one of the co-founders of IdS/R, to find out more about the limitations and opportunities that exist when working with Passive House standards. 

aware_: Are there elements of a Passive House design that are particularly intriguing to IdS/R? 

IdS/R: The fundamental nature of enclosure in intriguing. Enclosure is fundamental to architecture. We are interested in the performance and geometry of the dwelling envelope. 

We also appreciate the need for efficiency of design and resources required in Passive House design. 

aware_: Are there limitations that arise when working with Passive House design? For example, do they limit artistic vision to any extent? 

IdS/R: There are limitations with any building system. One of the enjoyable aspects of architecture is working with and responding to the rules that a system brings with it.  

This could be a social system or guidelines for efficient building. 

aware_: Is Passive House the future? 

IdS/R: Passive House design is PART of the future. Interestingly, Passive House is not a new idea…but then again lots things that will be part of the future of construction are not necessarily modern concepts. 

(Header Image by Eric Petschek for IdS/R architecture)

– By Eliza Edwards

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