Passive house is fundamentally about world peace.

If successful it will be one of the most significant disruptors of the energy market right up there with technologies such as solar and electric vehicles. It will mess with a whole bunch of people’s established money flows and business practices. Significant economic interests are at stake.

As a civilization, this past century, we have relied on fossil fuels exclusively to heat and air condition the structures we live in. The notion that we could build all structures in a way that they will only need minimal electrical active heating and air conditioning is radical. It changes everything.

So, why murder mystery? 

Like a detective, I have been unraveling the fascinating history of how and why we got here. I have unearthed the political context, motivations, originators, and important relationships between the power brokers involved. 

To say it with a snowclone – it’s the energy, stupid!

Setting the Stage

Professor Konzo, a highly regarded fellow and ASHRAE hall of famer, Professor of Engineering at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (yes, the same Urbana where I built the first passive house in 2002) is said to have invented air conditioning in the 40s and lived in the first house that was air conditioned. Under the Small Homes Council, later renamed the Building Research Council, Konzo experimented with the ideas that led to the Lo-Cal House later in his career, even before the oil crisis hit in the early 70s. Some say the Lo-Cal house was never built, but a young builder/architect, Mike McCulley, who worked with the Council, decided to build a few. I have been in them. They are fantastic, long-lasting, high-performing healthy homes to this day and sell quickly when on the market. 

The Illinois Lo-Cal House

Meanwhile north of the border, a Canadian team took up the ideas of the Illinois Lo Cal team in the much harsher climate of Saskatchewan of all places. Early research on heating super-insulated homes mostly through solar gains with only a very small active micro-load backup system and a balanced ventilation heat exchanger were presented at conferences by scientists such as Rob Dumont in the mid-70s. Those homes were already called passive houses. The idea then spread and young builders such as Joe Lstiburek started building such homes for actual people, because it was such a compelling idea. Many hard-won lessons were learned during that first round. Joe went on to become the first Director of the R2000 program.

Around the same time, physicist William Shurcliff (who in an interesting twist to the story worked on the Manhattan project in his earlier career) takes an interest in passive house technology in Massachusetts. He began to compile the work done by the super insulation people and the passive solar people and concluded that both strategies are necessary in different combinations for varying climates. He focused his research on air-to-air heat exchangers in combination with high-performance envelopes and micro-load heating and air conditioning systems. He defined design targets for energy efficiency and gave design guidance for peak loads and total annual demand for homes: 80-90% annual demand reduction and 1-1.7 W/sqft peak loads. In 1980, he declared the technology mature and made recommendations on what is left to improve: better vapor retarders and water barriers, high performance windows, high efficiency heat recovery ventilation systems, and small integrated micro-load space conditioning systems.

The Plot Thickens

In the 80s, the murder mystery plot starts to thicken. The established energy industries begin to understand the potential disruption to their business model that is underway. Led by the fossil fuel industry, established interests begin to push back by actively launching campaigns to discredit research about climate change (already a well-known and established threat at the time) and the need to save energy. They lobby successfully and politicians respond by stopping investments in the energy efficiency developments and efforts in large-scale deployments of solar and passive homes into the market. With funding pulled, high performance components and micro-load systems developments come to a screeching halt. 

A few pioneers were not deterred by the political shift as yet another physicist, Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute, doubled down on the efficiency theme and gave it a business angle. Lovins presented efficiency as a lucrative business proposition in his co-authored book Natural Capitalism. In 1995, he published the first known paper on passive buildings and advocated for them to become the baseline of all construction, outlining the benefits for the economy and the environment.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Europe, the political system stays on track to figure out the energy transition. While behind their North American counterparts, necessary research and investment in needed components now begins in earnest. Once again it is a physicist, Dr. Feist, picking up the baton. He begins researching, amongst others, the North American history and begins to apply the findings to the Central European moderately heating dominated climate. A standard was then developed around a townhouse project built to the peak load target similar to the one that Shurcliff defined. His target had made it as 1 Watt/sqft into the first model energy code in the US in 1975 and that provision is still there to this day as a definition for a structure that needs no heating system. This target translates to 10 Watts/sqm. In the German climate, the annual consumption for heating for an end town house of that load then translates into 15 kWh/sqm.yr. That’s where those numbers came from. This annual demand target is easily understood in a European context where modeled energy performance data is already being used to govern energy efficiency in building codes. 

What began as a research project in 1991 evolved into an energy standard and a certification system – a hard line in the sand to comply with. It resulted in a design methodology and guide for an actionable solution in Germany to achieve the Agenda 21 goal of cutting energy in buildings by a factor of 10. 

But as you will find out in Part II of the Passive House Murder Mystery, that hard line in the sand would eventually be washed away on shores throughout the world.