The home of the future is here, now!

Passive House for affordable housing

It’s clear that we need simple, affordable, low energy, healthy buildings to combat the economic, social and environmental problems we face as a society. What if we could create buildings that will use 75-90 percent less energy for heating and cooling? And, what if we could do this for little to no additional cost? And… what if could do these things right now?

The Climate Context…

By now the climate context is undisputed. Canadian leadership helped drive the world to the more ambitious goal of striving to hold global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees C over pre-industrial levels. Even the 2 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement would require 80% reduction in building energy by 2020 and net zero by 2030 (according to the Architecture 2030 Challenge).

The Economic Context…

The term “Energy Poverty” was coined to describe the situation where energy costs exceed 10% of income and ongoing homeownership costs are above 30% of income. In the UK, this is referred to as “Fuel Poverty”. During the winter of 2012/13, fifteen thousand deaths in the UK were attributed to people not being able to afford to heat their homes (link). Attached is a UK report stating that Fuel Poverty in the UK has increased 51% since 2011 — it now affects 1 in 4 households in the UK.

Things aren’t much better here in Canada. 1.7 million Canadians are in core housing need according to the Federal National Housing Strategy document released Nov 22, 2017. A report issued in 2011 by the Guelph-Wellington Poverty Elimination Task Force estimated that the lowest income for quintile – one in every five households – spend on average 12 percent of their income on utilities. This percentage is increasing because electricity costs are rising faster than income. Energy poverty has been shown to be the 2nd-most common reason for economic eviction and homelessness. The report also concludes that “Energy poverty can be eradicated…by improving the energy efficiency of homes”.

Both the UK and Task Force reports reinforce the fact that first-cost affordability cannot be looked at in isolation to ongoing operational costs (energy and maintenance). Affordable housing owners/landlords also need to seriously consider energy since electricity costs are rising faster than rents, which are typically linked to income &/or inflation. This quickly erodes the operational business case.

Nov 22, 2017, the Federal National Housing Strategy details $40 billion that will be spent over the next 10-years to combat homelessness and improve access to affordable housing. The budget states that investments in social housing will prioritize “sustainable development” and promote “self-reliance” but, beyond this vague reference, there is no mention of significantly reducing the climate-specific impact of buildings and built form. The Affordable Rental Innovation Fund through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) goes one step further in defining resource efficiency requiring that “..‎the energy use/GHG emissions need to be 10 percent below a comparable project constructed under the current local building code expectations”. This is hardly aspirational.

The question many would ask is “can we promote ‘low cost’ and ‘sustainable’ development at the same time?” Consensus for many years has been that sustainable building costs more. However, a growing percentage of the building sector, including myself, is now convinced that the Passive House (aka Passivhaus) building methodology is the key to accomplishing ultra-low energy and affordability.

The Passive House path to Affordability

Passive House is the fastest growing near-zero energy performance standard in the world…and it’s fueling a revolution in affordable housing. Passive House offers crucial success elements for affordable housing:

  • Ultra-Low Energy

    A Passive House requires as little as 10 percent of the energy used by a code-minimum building. This is achieved by adopting a fabric-first approach to the design, relying on passive techniques including good insulation and air tightness to keep desired warmth in the house or undesirable heat out. With very low heating load requirements, internal heat gains from occupant body heat, appliances (especially cooking) and passive solar heat entering the building provide sufficient heat such that traditional heating & cooling systems are no longer necessary.

  • Comfortable

    Passive Houses are more comfortable than traditional homes. Drafts and internal temperature differentials are eliminated, summer over-heating is minimised through insulation, orientation, and shading.

  • Healthy

    The air-tight, thermal envelope ensures that drafts and internal temperature differentials are eliminated 100% HEPA-filtered fresh air ventilation ensures healthy living conditions – less indoor air pollution and no mildewed walls. This provides improved comfort, and avoids indoor air quality-related health risks.

  • Resilient

    A traditional home, even with grid-tied PV, won’t keep you warm at night during an extended blackout, whereas a Passive House will hold heat or keep the heat at bay long after a utility disruption.

  • Affordable

    Taking energy savings over time into account, Passive House is the most economical way to build, with reduced energy costs more than covering the borrowing costs (repayment plus interest) for the upfront cost premium. Even at today’s low Canadian heating fuel prices, a Passive House owner can enjoy lower total monthly house ownership costs from the beginning. The main reason that passive homes can “tunnel through the cost barrier” is that they are much simpler buildings, trading active, expensive, energy-sucking heating/cooling systems for cheaper, passive approaches like better envelope and windows and thermal bridge-free details. Simpler heating systems and no air conditioning dramatically reduces maintenance and replacement costs.

  • Future-Proofed

    Energy consumption is so low in the Passive House that the occupants no longer have to worry about increasing energy prices, providing security against the risk posed by fossil fuel decline and unstable international energy markets. Near net-zero energy consumption also makes it much easier and cost-effective to achieve grid independence by adding on-site renewable energy, either now or down the road. Important to many homeowners is the fact that future-friendly houses retain their value, and are even being sold for a higher market price.

Affordable Passive House Examples

Passive House has been the preferred methodology for the provision of affordable housing in Europe for two decades…but it’s only now coming to North America. In Ontario, two examples of Passive House affordable housing have been built within the last year. The first, Karen’s Place in Ottawa is a four-storey building with 42 bachelor apartments (Ottawa Salus Corp). The other affordable passive house is currently being built by Indwell, a social housing provider in Hamilton. Indwell’s Parkdale Landing project includes 57 affordable apartments and is the first of three affordable Passive House projects being constructed by Indwell, including the 26-bed Blossom Park complex in Woodstock, Ont. Graham Cubitt, director of projects and development for Indwell, said that most current multi-residential projects trying to incorporate passive house design are tied to “some sort of affordable housing target.” Cubitt estimates that Indwell’s first two passive-house developments had a 5% cost premium but that Blossom Park might be on par with a traditional building for costs. Other social housing providers in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and across Ontario are now looking to the passive house standard for their projects. But Passive House adoption within the Canadian affordable housing community pales in comparison to widespread adoption seen in the US. As of the end of 2017, housing agencies in eleven US states have prioritized Passive House in their applications for affordable housing funding, with twenty-four additional states actively working to develop similar programs. The standard proposed to achieve this was Passive House. By incorporating Passive House into its scoring criteria for the award of limited federal funding (via a 9% tax credit) available for affordable housing, nearly 40% of the 2015 affordable housing proponents in Pennsylvania applied as Passive House Projects. The construction cost premium calculated between Passive House projects and non-Passive House was less than 2%.

Onion Flats, a development firm responsible for several Passive House projects in Philadelphia, designed an affordable net-zero Passive House 3-plexin Oct 2012. The houses cost about $129 per square foot to build, the same as — if not less than — construction costs for traditional homes in the area. Since that time, Onion Flats have gone on to develop four other affordable housing projects.

The passive house model embodies Habitat for Humanity’s vision that all people deserve safe, comfortable, affordable and sustainable homes. At the 2017 Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) High-Performance Home Summit in Atlanta, Tiffani Irwin, director of construction with Habitat for Humanity, talked about the importance of building homes that perform well and cost less to live in (link). Habitat for Humanity is building passive houses in a number of locales in the US. 10 projects are either certified or seeking certification through the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS):

Habitat For Humanity Passive House Projects

PHIUS Certified
Charlotte, VT
Single Family
See presentation by Peter Schneider, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation showing that the total cost of ownership for this passive house is less than an equivalent Energy Code home
PHIUS Certified
Berea, KY
Single Family
PHIUS Certified
Washington, DC
Single Family
built for $92/sf. This project was the lowest cost entry in last year’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Affordability contest, competing and beating non-Passive House projects. The design team, Parsons, is now in the planning stages of a second project to build a home with Habitat in Philadelphia.
PHIUS Certified
Santa Barbara, CA
12-unit affordable housing project for Habitat for Humanity of Southern Santa Barbara County, built to the very strict Passive House standards.
PHIUS Certified
Washington, DC
PHIUS Certified
Washington, DC
six passive townhomes in the Ivy City community of Northeast Washington link
Tacoma, WA
Single Family
Bowling Green, KY
Single Family
Belgrade, MT
Single Family
1,600 square foot single family residence costing $128,000 to build or $80/sfLink
East Montpelier, VT
Single Family

Other low energy Habitat for Humanity projects of note in the US:

  1. Habitat for HumanityNet-Zero Northside House in a low-income Minneapolis neighbourhood.
  2. Kentucky, Designed by Kentucky Habitat Sustainability Specialist Ginger Watkins. “Affordability for the homeowner is the most important reason we decided to learn how to build this highly energy-efficient house. For families without a lot of discretionary income, energy costs are a major factor” – Judy Flavell, executive director of Habitat for Madison and Clark Counties.
  3. Whatcom County, energy efficient “Passive House Design” inspired home at 2776 W. Indiana Street in the Birchwood neighbourhood of Bellingham
  4. Columbia County Habitat for Humanity two affordable townhouses in Hudson, New York, aligned with the Passive House standard with an estimated 90% less energy for heating.

The following Green Building Advisor article showcases three new American Passive House homes built in cold climates for $130/sf to $173/sf, the latter includes rooftop PV in the cost. One of the showcased architects – US firm GoLogic – summarizes has a good summary of the business case for building a 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom to Passive House standards for a cost comparable to traditional construction (roughly $150 per square foot). This analysis is based on several Passive House projects completed by the firm.

Utah’s most energy-efficient and cost-effective house, 125 Haus, is a case study of affordable and energy-efficient single family home. With a construction price of $120 per square foot, the 125 Haus is on par with the market standard for new home construction.

An interesting case is presented by Hickory Hall and Elm Hall in Virginia – two identical side-by-side student dormitories – one built as using Passive House, one not. The Passive House version used 62% less energy and was also cheaper to build ($118/sf versus $125/sf) Link. The designer, Adam Cohen, maintains that Passive House method can actually save upfront costs. Cohen uses pre-fabrication to further reduce costs. The Build Smart panelized wall system he developed integrates insulation and air/vapour barriers within structural wall panels.

Here is an article showcasing a number of affordable multi-res projects built to high-efficiency standards. These span the past several years, although they pre-date Passive House in N.America.

Affordable Passive House is also beginning to make inroads into Canada.  Social housing providers in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and across Ontario are now looking to the passive house standard for their projects. “The Heights” is an 85 unit, six-story, Passive House rental apartment building in Vancouver will be the largest PH project in Canada.  Designed by Cornerstone Architecture with Peak Construction, this building will come in at only two percent above conventional construction cost.

Closer to home, Salus Clementine, design by CSV architects, is a 42-unit affordable Passive House housing project in Ottawa that provides housing for individuals living with mental illnesses.  Invizij Architects is designing and building three affordable Passive House projects for Indwell, a Hamilton-based affordable housing provider.  My own company, Local Impact Design, is working on four multi-residential Passive House projects including

  • 24 unit co-housing project that will employ passive house methodology
  • 16 stacked townhouses with accessible ground level units, Habitat For Humanity, Guelph.
  • two 27 unit Passive House condos in Creemore, ON
  • Design of three infill laneway houses to Passive House level of construction, incorporating a shared earth tube and BuildSMART pre-fab walls.  With the installation of photovoltaics, the project is aiming for net-zero energy.

To summarize…

In short – taking into account mortgage, energy and maintenance costs – Passive House represents the lowest cost of home ownership which is why Passive House has been adopted by affordable housing groups like Habitat for Humanity and affordable housing funding agencies in ten US states. Passive House offers simplicity, rigour, and cost-effectiveness – crucial success elements for affordable housing with low purchase and operational costs. It appears, from the reported cases listed above, that multi-residential projects are coming in at a lower premium or at no premium at all. As more components are developed and built in North America and as contractor familiarity increases, the premium will reduce. There are simply no longer any excuses to not build Passive House / Net Zero Energy. For further details, see my white paper Business Case for Passive House based on my own passive house experience in the affordable housing sector plus recent industry data and trends.

Cost estimates and weblinks current as of April 2016. For more information, see my websites: & http://Leap.House

Rob Blakeney, P.Eng. Certified Passive House Designer LEED Accredited Professional 226-820-2927,