When you visit Sloan and Jennifer Ritchie’s new passive house in Seattle’s Madison Park neighborhood, it takes a while to notice all the things you’re not hearing.
Look out the living room windows and you can see a gardener wielding one of those ear-piercing leaf blowers in the yard, but you would never know it inside.
There is no furnace or air-conditioner clicking on or off, no whir of forced air, and yet the climate is a perfect 72 degrees, despite the chilly air outside.
Then there are the things you’re not feeling. In one of the most humid cities in the country, you aren’t sticky or irritable, and the joints that sometimes bother you are mysteriously pain-free.
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The air inside the house feels so fresh, you can almost taste its sweetness.
On paper, at least, the Ritchies’ home sounds too good to be true: an environmentally responsible house without traditional heating and air-conditioning systems that will be an airy 70 to 74 degrees on the coldest day of winter and the hottest day of summer, but use only a fraction of the energy consumed by a typical house.
And yet it’s not some experiment or futuristic dream. Nearly 30,000 of these houses have already been built in Europe. In Germany, an entire neighborhood with 5,000 of these super-insulated, low-energy homes is under construction, and the City of Brussels is rewriting its building code to reflect passive standards.
But in the United States, since the first passive house went up 10 years ago, in Urbana, Ill., only about 90 have been certified. Why aren’t they catching on here?
Part of the problem is the cost. Higher fuel prices and energy taxes in Europe provide a major incentive to embrace passive standards, which are complicated and make construction more expensive. In this country, it could be a decade or more before the energy savings someone like Don Freas enjoys in his 1,150-square-foot passive house in Olympia, Wash., offsets the extra $30,000 or so it cost to build.
“But those are such non-sexy ideas,” says Freas, 61, who is a sculptor and poet. “What matters is that I have never lived in such a comfortable house.”
Proponents of passive building argue that the additional cost (which is estimated at 5 to 20 percent) will come down once construction reaches critical mass and more American manufacturers are on board. And there are a few signs that day may be coming. More than 1,000 architects, builders and consultants have received passive-house training in the U.S.; at least 60 houses or multifamily projects are in the works; and Marvin Windows, a mainstream manufacturer based in Minnesota, recently began making windows that meet passive certification standards.
For all that, there are plenty of people who aren’t buying it — even some of those who support passive principles.
Martin Holladay, 58, a respected voice within the building industry, writes the Musings of an Energy Nerd blog for greenbuildingadvisor.com and lives off the grid in Vermont. He doesn’t believe passive houses are right for the American market.
“What I’m worried about,” he says, “is that the current halo around the passive-house standard will result in its being incorporated into the building code. That would be unfortunate because they are unnecessarily expensive houses, from $300,000 to $500,000 on average, that cost more than will ever be justified by lifetime energy savings or carbon reductions.”
The basic idea is that these houses are so airtight that warm air won’t leak out in the winter, and cool air won’t leak out in the summer. Windows are three panes thick, and there is far more insulation than you would find in a standard American home.
Stale indoor air is exchanged for fresh outdoor air without altering the internal temperature by mechanical systems you would not find in a conventional house: things like heat-recovery ventilators, which draw the heat from outgoing air and mix it with incoming air from outside in the winter, and do the opposite in the summer. (In high-humidity climates, an energy-recovery ventilator is used instead to strip moisture from incoming air.)
Vents that look like small, round audio speakers are placed throughout the house to exchange fresh air. These devices have prevented the formation of mold, which plagued the passive-solar movement of the 1970s and ’80s.
And the more extreme the weather, the more insulation is needed. In a place as cold as Minnesota, a passive home’s walls would have to be 18 inches thick, but even in the more temperate Portland, Ore., 12 to 14 inches is typical.
This kind of meticulous construction results in big energy savings, but just how much is a matter of some dispute. Passive House advocates claim their buildings require 10 to 35 percent as much energy as standard buildings, while others, like Holladay, put that at closer to 50 percent.
While their black, fiber-cement-paneled house was going up in a neighborhood of traditional million-dollar homes, the Ritchies couldn’t help noticing the openly hostile stares. Ritchie, 42, a wireless engineer turned sustainable builder and developer, speculated, “They probably wanted something Craftsman here.”
Ms. Ritchie, 39, who owns a public relations firm, says: “We could have toned it down. Our architect came up with six color schemes for the exterior.” Instead, they went with the boldest option, black.
They also put out a sign explaining in simple terms how the house is so energy-efficient that it will run on the same amount of power it takes to operate a handheld hair dryer. After that, Ritchie says, “the negative feedback went back to almost zero.” An elderly woman gave him a big thumbs-up. Others stopped to chat.
But not everyone was won over. One man walked up to Ritchie and said, “I really don’t like what you’re doing with your house.”
Later, Ritchie realized what his comeback should have been: “And I don’t like what you’re doing with your furnace.”
Early passive houses were boxy, with few windows and even less style, but as designers have grown more comfortable with the modeling software, homes have become more elegant and inventive. In the Ritchies’ house, everything feels textured and substantial, like the metal-framed windows from Lithuania, the skylights from Poland, and the touches of spruce throughout, which came from a tree on the long, thin lot that had to come down.
Building it has been a learning experience for Ritchie, one he intends to continue, he says. But now he plans to build passive houses to sell.
“To me, the saddest thing is taking apart a building from the 1950s and realizing, ‘Is this all we’ve done in 60 years: added an inch or two of insulation?’ ” he says. “We can do better.”