Passive Aggressive

Bensonwood to aggressively promote Passive House living

By Rick Reynolds

In September of 2010, during the Obama administration, the New York Times featured a Passive House story on the front page of its business section: “Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green?,”  by Tom Zeller Jr.

The story followed a prefabricated Passive House being partially constructed off-site in southwestern New Hampshire and assembled on-site in northeastern Vermont by a well-known high-performance builder, Bensonwood Homes.

The ultra-energy efficient home, with its 18-inch thick walls and near spaceship levels of air-tightness, was to serve as an exemplar and beacon for those serious about curbing greenhouse gases and lessening their environmental footprint. The house would continue to demonstrate that one can live in northern New England, using 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than code-built homes, without giving up comfort and well-being.

Now, after nearly seven years, and the recent seismic shift in US presidential administration and its departmental cutbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate scientists are more concerned than ever about the environmental and social consequences of human-induced climate change.

It’s important to note that compared with other economic sectors, US buildings have an outsized (48%) impact on the atmospheric CO2 levels that lead to global warming —higher than any other sector, including transportation. It’s precisely because our buildings are the largest culprit in this alarming trend, that improvements in building manufacture and performance represent the lowest hanging fruit in taking meaningful, remedial action.

Bensonwood, for its part, is putting its capital into raising the bar in home performance in order to foster comfort and health while at the same time, forestalling the worst effects of a warming world. Both Bensonwood and sister company, Unity Homes, strive to achieve super-insulated, super-tight houses that often meet and sometimes exceed Passive House standards of airtightness while offering extraordinary durability, quality, comfort, and wellness.

Before going into the key benchmark for Passive House performance, it must be stated that the tolerances required for building super-high performance buildings, whether residential or public structures, can best be achieved within the controlled conditions of a factory.

As with cars, airplanes, and computers, precision house components demand high levels of control in their fabrication. But unlike cars, airplanes, and computers, all but the smallest of houses are too large to be delivered whole to the end user. That’s why Montage building, wherein a finite number of highly-aggregated, closed-panelized assemblies are shipped flat to the build site for rapid assembly, is considered by many to be the prefab model of the future here in the US, as it has been for decades in European countries like Sweden and Germany.

Following these protocols, Passive House levels of air infiltration--one of the most important measures of home energy performance after triple-pane windows and insulation--dictate that 0.6 ACH at 50 Pascals of pressure be achieved. Blower door tests on Bensonwood and Unity Homes houses indicate that this extremely low level of air infiltration is possible. Moreover, the two companies offer triple-pane windows that meet stringent Passive House standards and Passive House levels of insulation, at the client’s request.

According to certified Passive House Consultant and Bensonwood’s and Unity’s Building Technology Energy and Sustainability Specialist, Rheannon DeMond:

“Building to Passive House standards, or close to them, will free us from our dependency on fossil fuels much faster than our current energy code approach, which allows states to decide which level of code to enforce.  The technology is available to convert to renewable energy sources in place of fossil fuels, but the combination of reducing energy consumption, so that you need less equipment to produce that energy, is the best sustainable solution.”  

So, Bensonwood’s and Unity’s missions aside, why would anyone want a home with Passive House qualities? Beyond altruism, early adopters to Passive House levels of home performance tend to seek:

  • Even, draft-free, thermal comfort, floor-to-ceiling and floor-to-floor
  • Healthy, secure, noise-free environment
  • Freedom from excessive energy needs
  • Freedom from fossil fuel living
  • Freedom from wasteful living
  • Sexy, performance-based appeal (think Tesla)

In addition, they look to:

  • Support and expand the environmental homebuilding sector
  • Play a role in the energy revolution
  • Become an advocate of zero-energy living
  • Own—and promote the new green revolution in housing
  • Support a (livable) future. Owning their future.
  • Avoid drawing from a dead past

Luckily, solutions need not await future technologies to implement. Off-the-shelf technologies exist today to build Passive Houses that, over time, cost only marginally more than conventional, code-built houses. Moreover, many Passive House studies state that PH homes can be built for the same costs as code-built houses: it just means sacrificing higher-end finishes. And, Passive House benefits and dividends are considerable.

At the end of the day, it’s a matter of priority. For example, some consumers, regardless of income, choose to support organic food production and sustainable farming, spending more in that category and skimping on others. The same holds true with the green home movement. Honest value is what most of us seek, and our value systems are not all alike.

But as more people invest in the green building movement, the costs of ownership could even reach parity with code-built homes.  All that’s needed is the willingness to embrace our better angels and technologies.