Seriously, a House Without a Furnace?

28 Sep 2010

Passive home under construction in Salem, OR. Photo credit:

Yesterday, the most viewed and emailed article on the The New York Times website was one about passive homes, “Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green?”  Passive homes are ultra energy-efficient and, with some on-site energy generation, can be net-zero energy or energy producing (a few months ago I blogged about Dow Chemical’s net-zero energy home).   According to Passive House Institute US (“PHIUS”), 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 and any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source.  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 very good indoor air quality.

Even though the passive house standard is used all throughout Europe, the U.S. market for passive homes remains very small, and the materials and expertise needed to build passive homes are often hard to find.  According to PHIUS, while some 25,000 certified passive structures — from schools and commercial buildings to homes and apartment houses — have already been built in Europe, there are just 13 in the United States, with a few dozen more in the pipeline.

With the green movement in full swing, it will be interesting to see if the passive house standard catches on in the U.S.  According to the NY Times article, although the additional cost for a passive house in Europe is below 5%, the premium in the U.S. puts the added cost at over 15%.  Hopefully as more people in the U.S. experiment with the standard (Habitat for Humanity is even doing so) and materials become more readily available, the difference in the premium will continue to drop.

Leave a Comment to “Seriously, a House Without a Furnace?”

  1. Arthur Siegal 29. Sep, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    Here’s the video that went with the article….

  2. Debbie 08. Oct, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Great article. One point in the original NY Times article that disturbed me is that Ms. Landau was declined for homeowners insurance by several companies because the insurers worried the pipes would freeze…don’t they worry about carbon monoxide poisoning or house fires that could be caused by a furnace? Is being declined for insurance a common occurrence?

    The truth is, insurers just knew the house wasn’t conventional and didn’t want to take any risk. I see it as a form of unfair discrimination and prevents people from pursuing innovative and potentially safer building techniques.

    Considering Ms. Landau is an attorney herself, I’m curious if she’ll file suit against the insurers for unfair discrimination. Does she have a case? Is there any channel for her to seek justice? I’d like to see her make a case of it so the courts can establish a precedence. I hope to hear more on this topic.

  3. Kevin Plumstead 14. Oct, 2010 at 9:37 am #

    Debbie, thanks for your comment, you raise a lot of great points. Clearly there is resistance by insurance companies to new technology and ideas. They underwrite their insurance based upon strict standards and are hesitant to insure risks that they have not yet fully evaluated. There is no “right” to property insurance, and companies can discriminate against green buildings since it is a matter of private contract and the prospective insured is not a protected class (like race, religion, etc.). Hopefully the demand for “green insurance” will increase and insurance companies respond accordingly.

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