I have been here in Minneapolis for 15 years [from native Germany] because I love the challenge of the seasons here. I like figuring out how to design the best buildings for comfort in these extreme ranges.
I love the Passive House standard that has been successful in Europe, even for this climate. But, I don’t claim it’s the only option. I think a lot of creative designers here are doing great things. GreenStar is a great comprehensive local program we use in our practice. I support anyone who goes beyond the basic practice to try to improve the status quo.
Not necessarily for the do-it-yourselfer, however. There is a lot of important building science that goes into our structures. And there is risk if you don’t do it right. Thermal bridging, for example, is an important piece – but hard to explain. And people attempting without understanding the science makes me nervous. These are simple solutions for energy efficiency that we know about scientifically, but they can be executed wrong – which gives these techniques a bad reputation.
I have successfully created certified Passive House buildings in Minneapolis and Bemidji, Minnesota, Hudson and LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and am now working on projects in Fridley, Golden Valley, Arden Hills and Minnetonka, as well as Massachusetts and Michigan. We did low-energy homes with Passive House components locally in Minneapolis and Northfield.
I love what my clients get out of it. How it changes their life. I have one client who can now grow exotic orchids, here! Some are using passive solar heat gains to grow fruit trees inside. They take selfies of themselves in t-shirts with a view out the window of how cold it is outside. I love moments like that. And, I love coming to this office, which is retrofit with Passive House methodology and where it is always in the comfortable range. I pay the utility bills. So I know firsthand that it works.
I love what my clients get out of it. How it changes their life. I have one client who can now grow exotic orchids, here! Some are using passive solar heat gains to grow fruit trees inside. They take selfies of themselves in t-shirts with a view out the window of how cold it is outside. I love moments like that.
And, I love coming to this office, which is retrofit with Passive House methodology and where it is always in the comfortable range. I pay the utility bills. So I know firsthand that it works.
Q: How does Passive House physically work?
It’s not just about lower consumption. It’s about an airtight envelope. Not having drafts, excessive dryness or moisture. Having the interior surface of our exterior walls within a couple of degrees of room temperature all year around means little to no radiant heat loss.
That’s how we lose our body comfort in “conventional” buildings, by the way. Our body warmth travels outward – it’s not just about temperature in the room. It’s about heat transfer to cold surfaces surrounding us. The elderly, and the young, are more sensitive than others, but ultimately everyone can experience a reduction of radiant heat loss.
Passive House is a massive improvement over the status quo, and something that is extremely pleasant.
But, not all places can perform at the same level. I had one client here in Northeast Minneapolis whose house couldn’t meet the passive solar heat gains needed to meet Passive House certification, because it was a very shaded property.
Nonetheless, using the standard still means over 80% less heating energy than “conventional” construction, and upward of 50% reduced energy footprint overall. Fueled the right away, it also means 90% reduction in carbon footprint—even under limited circumstances.
We did a research report for the governor of South Dakota that showed that the Passive House building energy standard would be a much more fiscally responsible option in that state. It reduces the life-cycle cost of state-owned real estate based on fiscal parameters set forth by the state.
My business partner is involved with the 2000-Watt Society — another strong standard — which provides real targets to enable actual change around our carbon footprint per capita.
Q: What do you like about the Passive House building energy standard?
I don’t consider myself a passive guru, but what I like is that there are quantifiable measurements of the energy flow through a building and agreement on how to quantify that. With rules and a framework of targets, it’s a nice way to help everyone get more efficient sooner. Creating targets is important. There are design tools to use.
And you see tangible benefits – a means for getting from A to B for ultimate sustainability, economics, comfort, lifestyle. Sometimes you fall short of the target, sometimes you are higher. The important part is that you are well above the standard we are accepting now for our buildings.
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