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Overview of Passive House Building: An Interview with Graham Irwin of Essential Habitat

By Graham Irwin

Tell us about your company and its foundation.

I've worked in the construction industry for over twenty years, as a carpenter, builder, etc. About twelve years ago, I turned my attention to design and started a design company called "Remodel Guidance" that focused on residential remodels and permit expediting in Marin County. I had long been interested in sustainability, and while I was working on conventional projects, I was also exploring green building and trying to encourage and incorporate it into my projects. In early 2008, I learned about Passive House at a local green building meeting and was immediately intrigued. That summer I completed the first training in the US for Passive House designers and consultants. In 2010, the first Certified Passive House in California (also the first Certified Passive House remodel in the US) was completed in Sonoma. I was the consultant for that. Since then, I've consulted on and/or designed a dozen or so Passive House projects in California, New Mexico and Alaska. These are mainly single-family houses, but I've worked on a dormitory, a library and now a college classroom building, and have consulted on some multi-family buildings. I still do conventional design projects, but my main focus is Passive House, so I've transitioned completely to a new company, "Essential Habitat," that I started in 2008 when I got involved with Passive House.

What is the idea behind "Passivhaus" or "Passive House" building?

Passive House (Passivhaus) buildings emphasize building performance to deliver unprecedented levels of indoor air quality, comfort and energy efficiency. Through design and construction of a high quality building shell, these buildings minimize their need for heating and cooling equipment. A Passive House is carefully balanced with the local climate and generally stays comfortable with next to no extra heating or cooling energy - a ninety percent (90%) reduction over typical construction is fairly common. Because Passive House buildings require so little additional heating and cooling, they are inherently comfortable for the occupants. At the same time, the buildings provide a steady and regular supply of filtered fresh air at a rate that exceeds US building code. It's basically a "win-win-win" approach! While this is a fairly new phenomenon here (the first Passive House in the US was constructed in 2003) there are tens of thousands of these buildings worldwide, with a concentration in and around Germany, where the first "Passivhaus" (German for "Passive Building") was constructed in 1990. It's a proven construction approach with extensive field verification of its benefits and promise.

How can someone become certified in Passive House Building?

There are organizations that focus on training Passive House builders, designers and consultants. In the US, the Passive House Institute, US (PHIUS) has the longest track record, founded in 2007 and training since 2008:

Do the building techniques vary at all for a Passive House versus a traditionally built home?

Yes and no. Passive House certification is quite flexible on design and very straightforward, with three basic requirements: 1. A virtually draft-free building shell (verified through a "blower door test," 2. a limit on required heating and cooling energy and 3. a limit on what amounts to the total carbon emissions produced through the building's operation. There are a host of good practices and favored techniques, but buildings of all types and styles have been constructed as Passive Houses, from sleek modernist designs to traditional farmhouses. In general, one would expect to see careful attention to construction quality, more insulation, and better doors and windows than in a typical building. The degree to which these aspects vary from typical construction depends a lot on the local climate and the building's design and use. Also, the main mechanical system is a ventilation system, since heating and cooling needs are minimal but high quality indoor air is important. You won't find a forced-air furnace or central air conditioner in a Passive House; these systems are simply unnecessary, even in extreme climates.

What are the benefits of owning a Passive House?

Aside from superior indoor air quality and comfort and low utility bills, these buildings tend to be incredibly quiet when the doors and windows are closed. The high-quality shell blocks most outdoor traffic noise, etc., and the absence of a noisy forced-air system contributes to a profoundly peaceful sensation inside. Beyond that, people who construct Passive Houses can feel good about addressing the climate crisis in a holistic, robust, and field-verified manner. There's no higher performing building system in the world today.

What is the best way to contact you and your company?

We have a website at with an email link. Our office number is 415-258-4501. We have additional information about Passive House available on the website and are happy to answer questions via email or telephone.

This fall, from September 10-14, the North American Passive House Conference is being held in San Francisco for the first time since it began nine years ago. Experts and enthusiasts from all over North America will be there to share experiences and insights. It's a great place to immerse oneself in the topic. You won't find a more informed, dedicated and talented group of builders and designers anywhere. The only problem is how to attend more than one presentation at once!

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About The Author

Graham Irwin has worked in the construction industry for over twenty years. He has a...

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