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Passive Houses – the Secrets

By Univ.-Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Feist, University of Innsbruck and Passive House Institute, May 2010

If you want to explore all the secrets … just look at

I am often asked: What is the secret behind the success of Passive Houses? Why did it
became the leading orientation for buildings of the future worldwide?
I collected some reasons, may be that these are not complete – I might have to add some
other ones. But this is, why I think, Passive Houses became the yardstick for the
measurement of sustainable construction.

1) It's practice, not just theory

There are Ten thousands of realized Passive Houses, Thousands of them with a
thorough documentation. The Passive House concept is open to the public – it’s
not a secret!

2) It's working

Lot’s of advertisement has been made in the past for lot’s of energy saving
promises – not all of them had shown to be valid. The Passive House concept is
clearly stated, it’s published, it has been demonstrated and lot’s of examples have
been monitored. There is a solid statistics for the energy savings achieved: And
these are tremendous: In the range of 90% of the heating energy used in
conventional existing buildings are shown to be saved in practice. And still some
80% saved compared to typical new-built which fulfil contemporary requirements of
the governments. That is what we call tried and tested, well approved.
3) It's affordable Passive House Life Cycle Cost Analysis
Still a lot of economists
think, that being sustainable
will be more expensive than
the traditional path. With
Passive Houses this is not
true: The concept is clever
enough, not to add a lot of
expensive hackneyed ideas
to the building. But to
improve the components
needed anyhow (roofs,
walls, windows, ventilation)
in a way, that the result is
much more efficient. The
main concept behind is to simplify the building – and that is best done by reducing
it’s energy losses. All these losses go through the building envelope – so, it’s the
envelope, which has to be improved. This helps to reduce the additional
investment costs (yes, there are additional investment costs – but these are small
and these are quite lucrative investments, see graph). The graph above has been
recalculated compared to prior publications in March 2011, because boundary
conditions have changed again: The extra investments have been reduced due to
more market available products and energy prices are much higher now.
The Passive House concept additionally helps saving money on the investment of
the energy supply system: That is, what the concept is made for. Because energy
supply was getting and is getting more and more expensive – because we are
running out of the cheap energy sources.
So, Passive Houses turn out to be affordable, already now; normal people can
afford to build a Passive House; you do not have to be a rich person; may be, in
the future, the Passive House will become the only housing standard which will
remain to be affordable, if you do not want to spend a lot of your money for energy
– but still want to stay comfortable. May be, this time has already come now.

4) In a Passive House there is always best indoor air quality
Most engineers see ventilation still mainly as a tool for cooling, heating and other
simple thermal issues. But the most important task is Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). It is
important for the health of humans living in a building to have good quality indoor
air. The Passive House concept has a big emphasis on healthy indoor condition:
There is always a sufficient fresh air supply. And the success for better air has
been monitored and validated.
There is a particle filter (>F7) in the fresh air inlet of the ventilation system, which
keeps at least 95% of all dust – so, even in an emergency, the air in a Passive
House is much more healthy.
5) “Too cheap to meter”
You remember that promise from the nuclear industry? Electricity will drop in costs
as far, that it will not be wise to even measure the consumption you have – this
kind of promise came again and again, last time, in connection with the liberation of
the market for electricity. In reality most of us have seen electricity prices rising in
the past decades – and where it didn’t rise, there have been significant tax payer
paid subventions. This is not surprising – as long as our electricity consumption
mainly depends on not sustainable energy sources – which are going to be more
and more expensive.
But: Now, in a Passive House, the total energy consumption is so low, that it is not
necessary to meter. You heard right – the heating bill in a typical 100 m² Passive
House dwelling in Germany is some 250 € (per year!). That’s what others normally
pay per month. The costs for doing the measurements of heat consumption is in
the range of 100 €/yr. And doing the measurement, you might save 15% of the
energy – that would be just some 38 €/yr – it’ not worth the effort! Therefore, there
are already projects, in which measurements have been totally suspended and a
“flat rate” has been announced instead.
So, efficiency can already today fulfil a promise, energy suppliers came up with
– but never came even near to make it happen.
Or, to say it in another way: The “energy efficiency”-path is much more economi-
cally attractive than the “oil, coal and nuclear”-path. It’s not just cleaner, healthier
and environmentally sound – it’s also less expensive for the consumers.

6) Everybody can learn it:

So, the secret is – that it is NOT a secret. Every architect
and every civil engineer can learn how to build a Passive
House. Yes, there is some information needed, some
know how required. It’s like learning to swim or learning
to ride a bike. But, after being informed about the
principle and after having gained some experience –
everyone, who can build a home also can build a
Passive House. There are special educational programs
available in all parts of Europe and America to learn this

7) Best thermal comfort by default

With a well insulated building envelope a home, an office and every other space
used by persons automatically has improved indoor thermal comfort conditions,
less temperature differences, less drafts, less radiation temperature differences.
Liz Male put it this way: “Passivhaus is a fantastic comfort standard
(not just energy & carbon standard) – that will make it a
winning proposition”. Bill Butcher: “This is green without the
sack cloth. There's no sacrifice to be made. Even without the
environmental benefits, Passivhauses are simply better places
to live: incredibly bright, clean and fresh.”

Figure: In a really well

insulated home, like a
Passive House, there
are no big differences
in the radiation tem-
peratures. This is
reason for best
possible thermal

8) Passive Houses are of great architectural advantage Architecture Award 2010

Such a tough energy standard is an advantage for architecture (!?) – yes, it is. You see
from these projects of the 2010 Passive House Architecture Award – and you can
understand, why this inspires architects by looking at this video:

How to learn more about Passive Houses?

• There is lot of information available on the internet: A full basic course on passive houses you find here:
Passive House course. And a growing resource is this: Passipedia,
• May be, you would like to see a video first? CNN made this one:; and
another video:
• You find Passive House Associations already in a lot of countries. And here is the international Passive
House Association iPHA: Everybody can join.
• You may order the small booklet “Active for more comfort: The Passive House” which gives basic
information for anybody, who wants to know more about the passive house. You get it from iPHA.
• There is an International Passive House Conference. It takes place in different places around the world.
• There are post graduate educations offered for becoming a Passive House expert.