6 Myths About Passive House Construction

Skender Construction's Brian Skender debunks common misconceptions about a rapidly growing specialty.

Brian Skender
Brian Skender

Passive House design is booming in multifamily development. However myths about this sustainable building approach may be holding back momentum.

Originating in Germany in the late 1980s, PH is a building concept and certification standard emphasizing airtight construction, reduced thermal bridging and passive daylighting, heating and cooling. Leveraging natural elements like sunlight and strategic shading to minimize energy use, PH design can achieve significant energy savings—between 60 to 85 percent compared to typical buildings—and offer thermal comfort, affordability and healthier interiors.

Already popular in Europe, PH design is gaining ground across the U.S. where square footage in the industry has more than doubled every two years over the past decade. Amid the broad push for buildings to become more efficient, more grant and rebate opportunities are now available to help PH projects move forward. Further, cities are increasingly requiring projects to implement green initiatives and more housing authorities are scoring ‘green’ projects higher for funding awards. 

Despite the positives, common misconceptions about Passive House building persist. The reality is that this industry could be a game-changer for decarbonizing multifamily while helping meet urgent housing gaps.

Myth 1: Passive House design only works for single-family homes.

The reality: Though derived from German Passivhaus, the term Passive House is applicable to various building types including multifamily and mixed-use developments so long as it includes the building envelope and efficiency features mentioned above. In fact, the world’s largest PH building is an office building—the 691-foot-tall Winthrop Center in Boston. In 2022 in New York the Sendero Verde, a 100 percent affordable apartment development, was set to be the largest PH apartment building.

Myth 2: Passive Houses are a passing fad.

The reality: Ten years ago, the U.S. was home to only a few multifamily Passive House buildings. By 2023, nearly 16,000 Passive House multifamily projects have been built or are under construction nationwide, according to The Passive House Network. While markets in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York are leading the way, Passive House design is revolutionizing sustainable multifamily construction in other states too. More municipalities are pushing green initiatives and driving climate-friendly building codes, so many projects by default need the efficiencies of PH to get through permitting.

Federal housing authorities are also helping to ensure that PH principles are here to stay. Fannie Mae’s Green building loan program offers preferential pricing on loans for multifamily properties with Passive House certification.

Moreover, the Inflation Reduction Act, 45L tax credit and Investment Tax Credit all offer potential incentives for Passive House Projects.

Myth 3: Passive House construction is another name for Net Zero building.

The reality: Passive House and Net Zero buildings are distinct concepts. Passive Houses reduce the demand on utility grids. As the power grid reaches its maximum capacity its output becomes less efficient. This means that the more buildings can reduce their own energy use, the less the grid will experience strain and lead to higher emissions. 
 
Net Zero, on the other hand, aims to be carbon neutral: the energy consumed equals the energy produced on site. This may mean increasing onsite renewable energy sources like solar, geothermal and wind in addition to implementing PH strategies like insulation and air-tight envelopes. Net Zero may incorporate Passive House design concepts but the reverse need not be true.

Myth 4: Passive House and LEED are the same thing.

The reality: While performance-based criteria have been incorporated with later iterations, LEED and its four certification levels are rooted in a point-based system. LEED takes a broad approach to sustainable standards and includes variables like a building’s access to bike parking and proximity to transit.

Passive House is focused on building envelope construction and certification is achieved through specific performance metrics related to the control of air, thermal, radiation and moisture.

Myth 5: Passive House construction costs aren’t worth it—especially for affordable housing.

The reality: More often than not, the slightly higher construction costs (approximately 3.5 to 20 percent, according to the same source) for PH projects can lead to higher return on investment—especially in affordable housing. PH construction costs often pay for themselves in three to seven years from operational savings.

The truth is that about half of all Passive House projects under construction in the U.S. are affordable housing developments. Many residents of PH buildings enjoy utility cost savings while benefiting from improved air quality.

A 2021 building energy exchange study found that a large multifamily Passive House building saved $155,000 a year on energy costs when compared to a conventional multifamily building of the same size. And savings aren’t the only benefit. A California Air Resources Board study found that Passive House elements, such as improved building envelopes and balanced energy recovery ventilation, could reduce air pollutant infiltration by 3 to 11 times.

Myth 6: Passive House elements are a simple add-on to construction plans.

The reality: Strict energy modeling standards and compliance requirements make certified Passive House construction expertise a must. During preconstruction, early PH team onboarding and alignment are critical to help mitigate costs and impacts to the schedule. During construction, continuous testing will ensure compliance with thermal bridging, air sealing, hot water heating and other technical components.

Per example, Fifth City Commons, an all-electric affordable housing development in East Garfield Park, Ill., is pursuing Passive House certification. Four members of the project team are Certified Passive Home Builders who participate in bi-weekly Passive House coordination meetings to review project details and ensure the design and its implementation meet building certification requirements.

What is a fact is that the future is bright for expert Passive House construction.

Passive House buildings represent a powerful opportunity for multifamily leaders to improve sustainability and residential value in one concerted effort. The key to unlocking that potential begins with understanding it—one fact at a time.

Brian Skender is a senior project manager and team leader at Chicago-based Skender Construction. He is currently managing the construction of Fifth City Commons, a 43-unit, all-electric, Passive-House affordable housing complex and retail space on Chicago’s West Side.

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