Is the Passive House Building Standard the Future of Energy Efficiency? A Primer on How Buildings Can Achieve This Conservation Goal

Imported from Germany, the Passive House standard could lead a path to energy efficiency for buildings here (iStock).

The energy-efficient building is steadily becoming one of the main focuses of both developers and city planners looking to simultaneously cut costs while reducing the carbon footprint of a bustling metropolis. As a result of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015, the de Blasio administration has been tasked with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent by the year 2050, an initiative known colloquially as simply “80 x 50.”

A major boon toward achieving this may be the Passive House building standard, a voluntary performance standard developed in Germany during the 1990s that, according to the New York Passive House website, results in “a roughly 90 percent reduction in heating and cooling energy usage and up to a 75 percent reduction in primary usage from existing building stock, meant to aggressively meet the climate crisis carbon reduction imperative while making a comfortable, healthy and affordable built environment.”

All Passive Everything

While “house” may be right there in the name, Alessandro Spinelli, a senior mechanical engineer with RAND Engineering & Architecture, DPC, in New York, explains that the standard applies much more vastly.

“You can apply Passive House to any building type that consumes energy,” Spinelli says. “The ultimate goal is to get the property to net-zero, which means that it consumes as much energy as it produces, or to net-positive, which is the golden crown, as it conveys that the building produces even more energy than it consumes.”

The key to limiting energy consumption lies in the building envelope. “You build a very air-tight shell – 10 times more air-tight than a regular building,” says Andreas Benzing, an architect by trade and the president of New York Passive House. “You have a heat recovery ventilation system, which is basically a box with two fans, that brings air from outside in, while exhaust air--which is usually moisture and pollutants from kitchens or bathrooms--leaves the building through the exchanger. The fresh air recovers the heat from the outgoing air stream in the exchanger, and then gets redistributed throughout the building. And you can filter the incoming air, such that you're exchanging the entire volume of air in your building every three hours.”

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