In construction industry marketing, the term “energy efficient” often means building to code compliance and nothing more.
Sometimes, though, it means much more. Engineering a building for airtightness and insulation nearly eliminates the need for heavy-duty heating and air conditioning systems. Filtered ventilation controls all airflow into the home, scrubbing out pollutants to laboratory levels. Proper sun exposure even heats the building almost entirely.
This approach, called Passive House, doesn’t bear the strange appearance of the “passive solar” building of the 60s and 70’, yet adheres to much more stringent and comprehensive standards than its predecessor.
A Passive House or Passive Commercial Building looks like any other house but consumes about 90 percent less energy. Yet, building a Passive House-compliant building doesn’t cost much—if any—more than conventional construction.
“People think this Passive House thing—that they can’t afford it—but if they look at it, they’ll find they can’t not afford it,” says Sam Rodell, owner of Sam Rodell Architects in Spokane. “The initial cost is so easily overcome by the savings.”
The savings pencil out for families whose energy bills can get as low as the price of a pint of beer. For corporate projects, the numbers astound.
“We did a project for a [corporate] client last year that is saving them $120,000 a year on their energy bill. It was in Spokane Valley and it didn’t cost them any more to build.”
In recent decades, the Passive House approach Rodell uses for all his projects has gained such momentum that it’s been adopted as building code in many German, Austrian and Scandinavian municipalities. The European Union requires all member states to elevate building codes to “nearly zero-energy” by 2020.
Gavin Tenold owns Pura Vida High Performance Builders with his wife, Anne Grayhek Tenold. Like Rodell, Tenold is a certified Passive House Consultant and Certified Passive House builder specializing in energy-efficient homes and “green” building using sustainably sourced materials.
Tenold’s custom-built homes do cost more than production housing—but not because they’re built to Passive House standards. Clients in a position to build a custom home often want larger homes with big-ticket luxury interior finishes.
“We encourage our clients to build a little bit smaller and a whole lot smarter,” Tenold says. “A well-designed space that’s a little bit smaller will always be more desirable than a larger, poorly—or less thoughtfully—designed space.”
Sustainably sourced building materials, which are optional for Passive House construction, can also drive up building costs, not because the materials are pricey, but because finding them can be time-consuming. Clients often hunt down products and materials on their own to bring down costs.
Pura Vida sees growth in “deep energy retrofits” for existing buildings that reach beyond what Tenold calls the “low-hanging fruit,” like replacing furnaces and sealing air leaks commonly subsidized by public utilities.
“They’re trying to—and justifiably so—help as many people as they possibly can,” Tenold says. “So, the simplest way to do that has been through very basic energy audits of projects.”
Tenold says we can do more. The region is at a tipping point, he says: to meet projected energy demand, we must either build additional power power plants or buckle down on efficiency. His money is on energy efficiency—and he’s not alone.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, charged with creating the Northwest states’ twenty-year regional power plan in accordance with federal law, reports, “Using modeling to test how well different resources would perform under a wide range of future conditions, energy efficiency consistently proved the least expensive and least economically risky resource.”
In an overwhelming 90 percent of scenarios, energy-efficiency measures, not building new power plants, could meet all the region’s increased energy demand through the year 2035.
Tenold expects the retrofit industry to fall in line with his “deep energy retrofit” model in the coming years, examining insulation levels, lighting and other energy hogs in addition to sealing leaks and replacing old furnaces.
Energy used to light, heat and cool buildings accounts for 47 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Factory pollution, agriculture, forestry and transportation trail behind significantly.
Yet, both Tenold and Rodell say that’s not a selling point they often use.
“That’s a values question. Energy-efficiency is not a values question; it’s a pocketbook question,” Tenold says. “My current Passive Home construction clients are educated people. They are making a smart financial decision,” he says.
Rodell even thinks the environmental angle repels certain clients.
“It’s unfortunate that this is politicized, but highly conservative people are very conservative about ‘green,’” he says. “They’re very skeptical about it—they feel you reaching into their wallet.”
Instead, Rodell’s learned to speak their language: laying out the costs and savings in a spreadsheet. “Numbers don’t lie,” he says.