The realities of living in a PassivHaus

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Thermal image of a PassiveHouse (Young Germany)

Once the scaffolding is down and the blower door test has been passed, what is it actually like to live in a PassivHaus? How does it feel to occupy a house that is kept warm using only your own body heat; a house that is completely airtight and needs no conventional heating system? How does it change your behaviour, needs and habits?

PassiveHouse as a concept

The concept of the passive house (or PassivHaus for the internationalists amongst us) is becoming increasingly well known amongst British architects, contractors, developers and clients. It has moved from being yet another forward-thinking construction method that is adopted in mainland Europe but largely ignored in this country, to being championed by a number of UK built environment professionals.

Information abounds when it comes to PassivHaus certification requirements, test results, design detailing, building physics and heat capacities. The Passipedia website is a good resource in this respect. It also gives an interesting historical review of  passive houses from the past. Did you know, for example, that Fridtjof Nansen’s 1883 polar exploration ship Fram functioned like a PassivHaus? Nansen wrote:

The Fram is a comfortable abode. Whether the thermometer stands at 22° above zero or at 22° below it, we have no fire in the stove. The ventilation is excellent, especially since we rigged up the air sail, which sends a whole winter‘s cold in through the ventilator; yet in spite of this we sit here warm and comfortable, with only a lamp burning. I am thinking of having the stove removed altogether; it is only in the way.

The ice-bound Fram – a “PassivShip”

PassiveHouse as a reality

Perhaps the best way of finding out about the post-occupancy realities of living in a certified PassivHaus is to read the owner/occupiers’ blogs.

Gary Konkol lives in a Passive House in the Woods in the American Mid-West. After a cold winter’s month of occupancy, he writes:

My biggest surprise has been the amount of heat the windows allow into the house.  Sitting in the sun a few weekends ago, it was clear that this was not a typical indoor sun experience.  The sun was warmer than what I had previously noted in my other houses.  It was comfortably warm. … Earlier in the Fall, I needed to lower the exterior shades to prevent the house from overheating.  After this experience, I thought I would see how long I could have my in-floor heating mats unplugged before the house became too uncomfortable.

On sunny days the house temperature goes up 10-15 degrees using only solar heating through the windows along with the heat my two dogs and canary contribute, with an outdoor temperature of 10-30 degrees.

Similarly, the solar hot water and photovoltaic systems are very sensitive to the cloud cover.  But even on the 10 degree days, the solar hot water tank gets up to 100 degrees.

This relationship of the house to the sun, outside and weather has heightened my awareness of the outdoors in my day-to-day living.  …

The cold weather brought house contraction sounds; some quite loud.  It took a me a while to determine this was the cause of my dogs being skittish and on a hunger strike last week.  Fortunately, they and I have become accustomed to this “house talk”, as well as having less of this settling as time has passed.

One of Norway’s first passive houses (Design: Steinsvik Arkitektkontor; Photo: Ravn Steinsvik)

Here in the UK, Mark Tiramani keeps a diary of daily life in his Welsh passive home. There are beautiful photos of life in the house, as well as live energy monitoring with heat graphs. Enthusing about his house’s energy performance, he admits that others might not find this quite as gripping as he does:

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit how excited I am. Everyone else around me is being very polite and tolerant. To most it’s just a little less interesting than watching grass grow.
I’m jubilant actually … Given how low the average temperatures have been this year, especially compared to our PHPP climate model, the house is performing magnificently.

He makes an important point here, I think: a large number of passive houses has already been built. According to their occupiers, the houses work. The information, technology and skills already exist. Why is there still so much confusion about how to build sustainable, comfortable housing? Tiramani writes:

… after all is said and done, it’s not rocket science. It is simply good design based on coherent energy conservation principles, following PHPP. I find it more and more incomprehensible that the UK is still discussing how to create a model for designing and building houses with a reduced energy footprint.

PassivHaus buildings are not without their problems, of course. In an airtight house, the right level of ventilation is key. Healthandenergy.com raises a few points in Is your house too tight? Their advice is:

  • Have a blower door test done on on your house.
  • Avoid natural-draft combustion appliances.
  • Beware of open fireplaces.
  • Try to minimize sources of indoor pollutants.

For those who wanted to have a wander around a PassivHaus or two, the Ecobuild exhibition featured its own PassivHaus Pavillion:

The UK SIPS Association, the trade body representing the Structural Insulated Panel manufacturers in the UK, will be constructing a pair of PassivHaus compliant dwellings at Ecobuild.
The two-storey dwellings will include room in the roof space and will each provide an internal floor area of 135sqm.  The design of the units, by Miller Hughes Associates, will be taken from a live PassivHaus scheme of 38 units being built for Saxon Weald Housing Association in Horsham in January 2011.  …
Over 35 suppliers will be represented on the PassivHaus pavilion, giving visitors the opportunity to learn about the detailing and performance requirements involved in delivering PassivHaus dwellings in the UK.

For more on PassiveHouse occupant experiences:

  • Geoff and Kate Tunstall write about life in their Denby Dale home (Building.co.uk – paywall alert).
  • Passipedia lists ‘unvarnished’ quotes from PassivHaus residents about their experiences.

Do you live in a PassivHaus, an underground house or an earth dwelling? I would love to hear about your experiences of an active, everyday life in a passive house.

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5 Responses to “The realities of living in a PassivHaus”

  1. The PassiveHouse « RegenerativeHomes ™ Says:

    […] Comment on Benedikte Ranum’s blog here:  BUILDING […]

  2. Tweets that mention The realities of living in a PassiveHouse « Building -- Topsy.com Says:

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  3. The realities of living in a Passive House | The Passive House – Ukrainian Initiative Group Says:

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  4. How to design a Passive House « Building Says:

    […] Passive House design, you probably already understand the concept, but if not, first take a look at The Realities of Living in a Passive House, where the theory and the reality are […]

  5. PassivHaus: the devil is in the detail « Building Says:

    […] Bill Butcher, the construction manager of the Denby Dale house, kept a 17-instalment diary during the building process. But what happens post-occupancy? How does the building perform, and how does it shape the lives and behaviours of its occupants? In a separate post, I have taken a closer look at the realities of living in a PassiveHouse. […]

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