passive house vs pattern language smackdown!

measure_twiceMay 19, 2007

A passive house is supposed to have very little surface area and no fireplace to reduce energy loss.

"A Pattern Language" states livable homes must have a fireplace and many bump outs and alcoves which greatly increase surface area and cost of the foundation.

It would seem impossible to build a comfortable passive house that did not feel like a shell. Has anyone managed to create a livable, passive house for unpredictable, wet new england?

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I'm not familiar with a passive house, but I did read (and reread) "A Pattern Language". The problem with designing anything to meet a particular ideal is that what you are left with may not be very appealing. If you designed a car to have perfect aerodynamics, it wouldn't be very practical for its intended usage: transporting people! Your house is, after all, where you live, and some (many!) compromises are necessary to make it comfortable and practical. I can't imagine a house in New England without a fireplace! There are ways to temporarily seal off a fireplace when not in use- even the damper will do that. Bump outs don't need to complicate the foundation; you can cantilever a room out to create spaces like that, although it costs more than a square box. I think the increase in wall area is negligible if properly insulated. I'm really amused that people argue back and forth over a few points in 'R' value for insulation, and apply it to a 7000 square foot 'Mcmansion'. If people really considered what they really NEED in a house, and built smaller homes, then worrying about surface area and fireplaces would be greatly negated. My wife and I were surprisingly comfortable for a number of years in an 800 sq. ft. house, and in some parts of the world, even that would be considered extravagant. If you really want an energy efficient house, build a very small home underground. It is dramatically warmer in the winter, and cooler in the summer. In fact, in some parts of the country, with appropriate clothing, a healthy young couple could 'survive' in such a home with no heating or cooling. I think people have been moving farther and farther from 'good sense' type energy saving strategies, and still are. What ever happened to clotheslines and manually powered kitchen and yard tools? Get the job done, and save a trip to the gym! And why don't people make an effort to live closer to work? If I drive a gas guzzler 3 miles to work, and someone else drives a Prius 50 miles, who's being more responsible? Sorry to go on such a rant, but there are easy and practical ways to reduce our 'carbon footprint', or whatever the current term is these days. And your house ultimately has to be livable for YOU. I tend to take many of the ideologies with a grain of salt, using what fits for me, and modifying what doesn't. A purely passive home is difficult and expensive to build, I would think. Likewise, "A Pattern Language" has many good ideas, but some of them strike me as goofy. So when I build my small, energy efficient retirement home in a few years, I'll try to incorporate as many good ideas as I can, and not lose sleep over the ones I can't.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2007 at 8:35AM
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I just re-read my rant, and I hope no one thinks I'm flaming Measure Twice! On the contrary, I think it's a great subject to debate, with no pat set of answers.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2007 at 9:46AM
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I agree. We just built in a lovely island county, in Washington state, a mild northern climate not unlike new england. In this area, anything ecologically irresponsible is unconsionable. However, here on the reactive west coast, with a more ecologically resposnsive public than most, it is still not clear exactly what kind of house an environmentally sound one is. Probably "none at all, just leave please", as one architect jokingly suggests. We have dome homes, berm homes, straw-bale homes, modular units specially constructed out of exotic materials with special solar panels incorporated. All have their positives and negatives, none of the alternative homes have proven to be a great deal better than carefully built more standard types, although we have more than our share of homes in glossy magazine spreads.

A lot of the most efficient energy saving technology has been around for hundreds of years, after all reducing energy costs boils down to keeping a house warm or cool without using electricity etc. I have read The Passive House and agree with most of the ideology and many of the concepts although they are not all new ones. Thermal mass can be a large stone fireplace surround for instance. The problem I have with some of the alternative building books is the style they push in an effort to be more cutting edge. If you like the "alternative" look (and many people do) fine, personally I prefer a more traditional one and I firmly believe you can sucessfully build a lovely energy efficient home in a traditional style (farmhouse, craftsman,whatever,) if you choose to do so. From an engineering, energy usage, point of view common sense properly applied is your best friend. Purchase a good lot,(one with a favourable sun exposure, yet protected from wind, and nearby the places you want to be so that you can walk or bike if you want to), and then site the house properly upon it and add deciduous trees as necessary. In my experience these are all issues that matter to you, the homeowner, but are somewhat out of the realm of others, you will have to do your own legwork.

Then INMHO you should pick the sort of style you like, hopefully one that fits with the neighbourhood, build only as much house as you need using energy efficient buiding practices (enough insulation, thermally efficient windows, energy efficient appliances etc.). The concepts introduced in Pattern Language are not entirely new ones either , but the book teaches them well, Susanka's small house books are good also. Both of these have excellent information, and are good resources for helping you design a space you love living in.

You sound like you would like an attractive socially responsible home. I do not see any conflict here, just lots of legwork and a willingness to sort through the hype and jettison what you do not like or what will not work for you. Remember you will have to live there.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2007 at 7:21PM
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merry ann, I lived in the NE and now am on Whidbey Island. I don't think we even have winter here when comparing ourselves to New England. Isn't it great? Tom

    Bookmark   May 20, 2007 at 11:14PM
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I just want to thank you for calling my attention to Christopher Alexander's books. I have ordered them from my library and look forward to being able to join in the discussion - they sound fascinating.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2007 at 6:04PM
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Whew - took a while to get some free time to reply.

flgargoyle - No flame taken. I hope the discussion remains lively. :)

A passive house (PH)is generally defined as one that uses little or no sources of external energy for heating and cooling. Imagine heating your house with a single 1500 W electric heater in the middle of an Indiana winter or New England. (Skagit_goat_man - "Thhhibbit" take that for no new england winters! a very mature repsponse)

That is the target although most so-called passive houses use a bit more than that. Like, the equivalent of 1 cord of wood. Not bad. On to more interesting things.

First, it is very difficult to have a big passive house in a cold climate. If you look at their criteria, Vermont Builds Greener suggests a "sweet spot" of 1600 to 2500 sq ft.

Given that New England covers latitudes from about 41 to 43, a cape house with a 45 degree roof is nearly perfect for a solar water heater. Solar water heaters have good ROI, solar electric much riskier ROI.

Cape code dormers fit "a pattern language" (APL) because they are cozy nooks for a window seat. I must agree. Dormers also provide more surface area for heat loss. However, a south-facing dormer can provide a net increase in heat gain. Modern structural insulated panels (SIPs) techniques can provide a highly insulated shell.

I ran extensive spreadsheet calcs, and a Cape Cod is a very good shape for energy efficiency. It tends towards a cube which is the least possible exposed area (few houses are spheres). SIPS allow for super-insulated cathedral Cape roofs.

DW wants a 1-level home. An insulated slab, timber frame, straw bale would do that. Bales inherently give the "thick walls" suggested by APL. OTOH, basements are considered necessary in NE. Beats me, 'cuz most of them end up wet!

Here is a link that might be useful: very plain passive houses

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 9:04PM
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Another possibility, if you have the land, is to have a 'summer living room' incorporated into an out building. My mother's house in CT is very small, but one end of the barn is a huge finished great room, complete w/ a heating and cooling system. She leaves the HVAC off unless she needs the room, such a big family get-together. A couple of sleeper sofas make it into handy quarters for over night guests. The rest of the time, the barn costs her nothing other than maintenance. We intend to incorporate a similar idea when we build in SC. I would like to include a bathroom in ours for guests.
measure twice- I think if you look into basements, you'll find they've made a lot of progress in the area of waterproofing, although it raises the cost. The walls are waterproofed, then have a dimpled plastic sheet applied, so that any water runs down, rather than resting against the walls. Further, it is back filled w/ gravel, and perforated drain pipes lie at the bottom of the gravel, so as water percolates down, it is carried out via the drains. There is also gravel and drain pipes under the floor slab as well. All this gravel is covered in landscaping cloth before back filling with dirt, so the dirt doesn't wash into the gravel and clog it up. Of course, if you build in the middle of an underground stream, nothing will keep it out forever. Where we are going to build in SC, the soil is tested for various conditions before they will even let you put in a basement. A friend of mine building nearby has had all this done; we'll see how his works out.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2007 at 4:51PM
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We live in Nova Scotia and are building a basic square shaped house and making the best use of passive heat that we can. We're also making insulation a priority. I think we will have an enjoyable house when we are done but it certainly doesn't look much like the most common houses on the Building a Home forum.

FWIW, we spoke with the engineers at ConserveNS and they suggested we should be able to heat the house with about 1 cord of wood per year. I find that very hard to believe but I'll be pleased if it's true.

We live in a similar house now but built 12 years ago. The insulation etc have changed a lot I guess. We burn about 3 cord of wood now.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2007 at 11:53AM
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Okay, now you guys have got me hooked - I've read "A Pattern Language" and "Timeless way of Building" and am now starting on the "Nature of Order" series. Really mind-expanding reading! Now I know why my dining room always seems skewed (light from only one wall) - so many things fell into place for me reading these books. THANK YOU!!

BTW, does anyone actually build the way he recommends (ultralight concrete, vaults, etc?)

On to the OP's topic - if you have thick walls, than alcoves, niches, etc will fit in naturally. I don't see them as consuming a lot of energy, especially. You can also use built-ins as alcoves - for example, built-in bookcases surrounding a window with a window seat built between them; built-in bed alcoves; home office/desk space built into kitchen cabinets. And certain furniture items that weren't available when PL was written (such as an office armoire) can serve the purpose as well.

As for a fireplace, see the link below for energy efficient fireplaces. If I were building, I would certainly include a fireplace - I really feel the lack of it in my house.

Here is a link that might be useful: Fireplaces

    Bookmark   June 14, 2007 at 2:25PM
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I'm in Vermont. And any new home with a fireplace is asking for high heating bills. We installed a woodstove and it does the job very nicely. And there's no heat loss up the chimney. We use it as our main heat source and we go through about 3 cords annually.
Solar? Here in VT it won't work as well as there are too many cloudy days.

We are a full cellar and with a sump pump installed due to the high water table in spring, it keeps the cellar quite dry.

    Bookmark   June 15, 2007 at 6:44AM
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We are installing a masonary wood heater as a heat source besides our in floor radiant heat. It looks simular to a fireplace but its much more efficent. It burns at an incredibly high temp that stays in the masonary and radiates into the house. We can burn sticks or pieces of wood. Heat loss is very little.

    Bookmark   June 15, 2007 at 11:32AM
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Hi we are planning to install a Masonary Wood Heater. Not well known in this country but are used in countries like Russia, Germany, Finland and other European countries
heres some info.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2007 at 8:34AM
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    Bookmark   June 26, 2007 at 8:35AM
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