What is a passive house?

Not only is DC Habitat a partner in the passive house (‘Empowerhouse’) project for entry into the Solar Decathlon competition this year, we’re also making plans to build passive homes as part of our Ivy City Phase III development in years to come.  So what exactly is a passive house?

In short, the term passive house originated in Germany as a reference to the rigorous, voluntary standard for energy efficiency used in construction of a building in order to reduce its ecological footprint.  Passive homes use a combination of low-energy building techniques and efficient power generating technologies, such as solar energy, so that energy consumption is much lower than that of homes built to traditional codes.  The concept involves a shift in approach to both building design and construction.

The Completed Empowerhouse - Photo Courtesy of Parsons The New School of Design

The Empowerhouse – Photo Courtesy of Parsons The New School of Design


A little more detail is available in this description taken from the US Passive House Institute’s website:

“The Passive House concept represents today’s highest energy standard with the promise of slashing the heating energy consumption of buildings by an amazing 90%. Widespread application of the Passive House design would have a dramatic impact on energy conservation. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that buildings are responsible for 48% of greenhouse gas emissions annually and 76% of all electricity generated by U.S. power plants goes to supply the Building Sector [Architecture2030]. It has been abundantly clear for some time that the Building Sector is a primary contributor of climate-changing pollutants, and the question is asked: How do we best square our building energy needs with those of our environment and of our pocketbook? In the realm of super energy efficiency, the Passive House presents an intriguing option for new and retrofit construction; in residential, commercial, and institutional projects.

A Passive House is a very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. Energy losses are minimized. Any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source. Avoidance of heat gain through shading and window orientation also helps to limit any cooling load, which is similarly minimized. An energy recovery ventilator provides a constant, balanced fresh air supply. The result is an impressive system that not only saves up to 90% of space heating costs, but also provides a uniquely terrific indoor air quality.”

So why is this concept especially relevant for Habitat homeowners?  The lower-income families who partner with us to buy these houses will not only live a more energy efficient lifestyle, they will also benefit from significant savings on utility expenses, making the homes even more affordable to maintain.

Visit the US Passive House Institute for more information, and learn more about our involvement in the Solar Decathlon project at the Empowerhouse website.

DC Habitat believes that everyone deserves a house they want to call home. That's why we work to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness in the nation's capital by building (and rehabilitating) affordable, energy- and resource-efficient homes for people in need.