Passive House
Image Credit: Jeremy Levine (CC BY 2.0, flicker)

We used to have a simple and poignant idea: that structures should be built to harmonize with their surroundings. We took the ideas of our ancestors, people who never knew about electricity, air conditioners, or on-demand-hot water, and incorporated their inherent morality into our own spaces.

Then Americans cast it aside our post-war, 1950s scramble to build as many rows of replicated suburban houses as humanly possible. Homes designed by a firm in New York were slopped onto the face of hot and muggy Miami as fast as they were in frigid Minneapolis. Cheap in both material cost and time investment, these houses used the newly widespread miracle of electricity to compensate for poor architecture. By all accounts, they are (as many still stand) slapdash structures built in spite of their surroundings; not with consideration for them.

The real shame is that in this rush to spill over into the suburban American dream, we intentionally paved over twenty years of innovative thinking that was assumed would stand forever.

It was an innovation that started on a cold day in early 1933. The architect George Keck was hard at work on his twelve-sided House of Tomorrow for the Chicago World’s Fair. Uniquely, Keck’s concept used large amounts of glass throughout its construction. Though he hadn’t designed the building with a stove or furnace, his workers complained incessantly of the house’s intensely hot environment. Visitors had to limit their time in the concept home to avoid overheating.

As his workers were forced to shed their heavy clothing, Keck realized that the glass he had used was providing his House of Tomorrow with more heat than its “occupants” could handle. Even in the dead of a Chicago winter.

Keck took that experience back to his daily work and set about designing houses that incorporated large, glass exposures to heat their interiors. Aided by the newly invented Thermopane windows which featured two panes of glass with a blanket of air in the middle, owners of Keck houses were marveling at the cost savings of using simple sun exposure as a heat source. Some claimed a savings of 20% simply from the unique design. Many of Keck’s contemporaries in the 30s and 40s were convinced that these “solar houses” were clearly the wave of the future. Especially in a wartime America filled with rationing, they found it impossible that a house would ever be built without these concepts.

Keck’s solar houses were complemented at the time by breakthroughs in other passive uses of solar energy. As far back as 1891, the new-fangled solar water heater was making a name for itself in regions where it was otherwise too expensive to heat residential water by coal or, later on, natural gas. The solar water heater, of which there were many competing designs through the first half of the twentieth century, offered residents the luxury of hot running water at a fraction of the price of other options. It was, for a time, considered inevitable that these heaters would be installed on every home in the nation. They fit especially well with Keck’s architectural philosophy of building a house tailored to its surrounding environment.

The development rush of the post war era all but obliterated these ideas. Between a rush of GIs returning to civilian life and an exploding middle class, the extreme demand for housing stock was driving new ideas about development. For the first time in American history, entire streets were being lined with houses designed to nearly identical specifications. The idea was simple: build it fast and build it cheap. An architect in one place could design a house and see entire suburban neighborhoods of it spring up across the country.

Never mind the obvious climate differences between the various regions in the US. Architects of the day had a simple solution: electricity. It was cheap and, for the first time, widely accessible almost everywhere they wanted to plop down a cookie cutter housing tract. Simply put, they could use electricity to make up for indiscriminate design. Whereas Keck’s homes had to be designed specifically to the land they were built on, leaning heavily on electric heating and cooling meant the same house could go anywhere in the nation. Same with the solar water heaters which had to be constructed specific to each house. They were discarded for electric water heaters which could go in any home.

This generic approach to building greatly increased the availability of houses on the market. Though, as is proving to be a mounting problem today, it came at the cost of woefully poor energy efficiency. But at the time, electricity was cheap, accessible, and no one was paying serious attention to climate change. Keck’s dreams of houses tailor-made to their environment, once thought inevitable, now seemed utterly behind the times.

That dream laid dormant until a pioneering group of European architects reexamined the notion that energy efficiency was obsolete. Starting in the early seventies, interest in low (or no) energy houses resurfaced. Ideas that seem relatively simple today such as carefully insulated houses, energy-efficient windows and appliances, and roof mounted solar panels started as cutting edge ideas passed around a small circle of architectural mavericks.

Also reemerging were the ideals of Keck and his contemporaries thirty years earlier. Dual pane and even triple pane windows became sought after again. A new generation of solar hot water heaters were being installed on houses designed by people driven to make greater livability out of fewer resources.

Today, the concepts and design techniques of these low energy houses have been formalized in the Passive House concept. Through incorporation of extra insulation, modern air exchangers, carefully designed sun exposures, geothermal heating, and the sealing of small air gaps, this voluntary standard in building efficiency is leading to structures that require 90% less energy to heat and cool than the average home. The utilization of solar energy and hot water further lower energy costs. Even existing buildings can be retrofitted to meet this high bar.

All of this effort and planning culminates in a dwelling that is exceedingly comfortable. Having stood in a few myself, one becomes instantly jealous over the cozy nature of the space. But the Passive House standard accomplishes something much more important. We can no longer claim ignorance to the total cost of our resource consumption; high resource use means high levels of degradation in our air, water, and land. By continuing to use cheap electricity as a fill in for lazy architecture, we ensure the continued destabilization of our global climate.

From ancient earthen homes, to the designs of Keck, to the modern Passive House standard, we keep circling back to this idea that our living spaces should be built with consideration to their unique surroundings. We’ve forgotten that a few times when our latest technology briefly deludes us into thinking that we can conquer planetary processes.

I’m optimistic that we are circling back to this idea. We have the models and the drive to build better homes. The poorly designed structures of the second half of the twentieth century are still out there; still wasting large amounts of energy. Retrofitting these buildings is considered by many to be the most pressing frontier for a low-carbon society.

It’s an effort gaining attention along with other aspects of a holistically efficient society. Solar panels and electric cars have become must-have status symbols. Xeriscape yards that require no watering are viewed as upgrades to properties. Geothermal floor heating is a major selling point for today’s homes. Simply put, energy efficiency is cool again.

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