Passive Houses in the New York Times

Gayle Fleming at EcoGayle’s Blog recommended an article in the New York Times that addresses the effectiveness of passive homes: Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green?

The New York Times article chronicles the experiences of Barbara and Steven Landau, who are building a 2,000 sq. ft. house to the passive-house standard in Norwich, Vermont. They had a run-in with insurance companies over the lack of a heating system and several insurers declined coverage. (Their super efficient home didn’t need a heater.) This is just one more example of the widespread ignorance that permeates the entire building/lending/insurance industry. Americans stick to their outdated methods even though some 25,000 of these passive structures that far surpass Energy Star Homes and LEED standards have been built in Europe.

To the Landaus credit, they stuck to their goal of building a super efficient house. Steve Landau said “I remember reading a book about someone in England in the 1980s who built a superinsulated house that was only heated by the body heat of the occupants and maybe a tea kettle,” Mr. Landau recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we build our houses that way?’ ”

Passive homes join the ranks of other similar designs such as Earthbag Earthships, Earth Sheltered Solar Powered Homes, Underground Houses, and Zero Energy Homes.

The exciting thing for me is combining these energy efficient techniques with earthbag building to 1. reduce construction costs, 2. use lower embodied energy building materials, and 3. provide basic needs such as water catchment, food production and so on. In other words, what we talk about here at Earthbag Building Blog is three steps ahead of passive homes.

8 thoughts on “Passive Houses in the New York Times”

  1. My thoughts on this are absolutely in line with Gayle’s. At the same time, I’m hesitant to lob criticism at these people in particular (even though I really want to).

    We actually need people like those mentioned in the article to pave the way for the rest of us. If we have those who are wealthier and more “mainstream” in building working to build houses without heating systems, plus those of us building non-traditionally, smaller, and more cost-effectively at the other end, we can chip away at changing bureaucratic perspectives and meet somewhere in the middle. Like a two-pronged attack of sorts.

    Then again, my first reaction is always “how can a multiple-thousands of square feet house be considered efficient when two people are living in it? Much less a second, vacation home…” But I think we should look at it positively.

      • I definitely didn’t think you were! I was referring to my own tendency to judge. I actually missed your first comment, and after reading it, I agree. It never has made much sense to me to for people to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an over-engineered LEED certified house to save a few hundred bucks a year. If you ask me, at that point it’s just an exercise in ego, like “look how much I’m saving the environment even though I just put 12 tons of waste in a landfill.”

        Preaching to the choir here, though, eh? :-)

  2. Hi Owen,
    I don’t know enough yet to really discuss the earthbag concept but I do have a problem with the size of home Americans have come to expect. 2,000 square feet is a lot of house for a vacation home. It’s a lot for the regular home for a family of four. And you are right about the amount of materials used. You might want to check out my blog, “Do We Still Want Such Big Houses?” I live in about 750 square feet and whenever I start to feel like things are getting tight I know I’ve accumulated to much stuff-so I purge.

  3. I agree with the basic principles of solar design, superinsulation, etc. advocated by Passive Houses, but disagree with their use of materials. Look at this Fine Homebuilding article (excellent magazine by the way) and look at the massive amount of building materials being used. It’s equal to about 2-3 houses!

    Another way to look at it is this: Saving energy is great, but when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars extra to trim your utility bills… then it goes beyond what I recommend.


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