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What is Passive House?

Passive House 101: A PH Primer

Andrew Peel
Andrew Peel

Co-developed by physicists Dr. Wolfgang Feist and Dr. Bo Adamson in the late eighties, Passive House is a standard used to design and build homes and building that are drastically more energy efficient than a conventional buildings. In fact, a building designed to the Passive House standard will use up to 90% less energy than one built to conventional code. Sounds too good to be true? It’s not! The beauty and effectiveness in Passive House is in its simplicity. Here’s how Passive House works.

This Nelson, BC project captures the beauty and simplicity of Passive House.  Source: Cover Architects

First, let’s take a look at what and how buildings—from homes, to apartment buildings and commercial spaces—use energy. Believe it or not, the vast majority of energy usage in all buildings mainly come from five sources. By a landslide, space heating uses the most amount of energy, followed by water heating, appliances, lighting, and space cooling. Contemporary space heating is fueled by natural gas, heating oil, electricity, wood, and the rest falls into the category “other”.

The resources used to heat our spaces and water are not only costly, but take a toll on our environment as well. The below five principles of Passive House, when combined with efficient and collaborative design, reduces heating requirements to the point where a traditional heating system is no longer required. Instead, a much smaller, more efficient Heat Recovery Ventilation (HRV) is used in combination with a smaller active heating system.

The heated fresh air is delivered to ensure comfortable, even temperatures throughout the house.  Source:  Passive House Institute

The Five Principles of Passive House

  1. Insulation: Thicker, better insulation means all that air at the temperature you want stays inside.  
  2. Airtight building envelope: No air leakages equals no hot air (in winter) or cool air (in summer) lost!
  3. High-performance windows: U-value, triple pane, low-e coated, insulated frame, warm-edge spacers are all the attributes of high-performance windows. These windows can be made of various materials, such as timber, fiberglass, aluminum, PVC, and more.
  4. Minimized or eliminated thermal bridges: Reducing and eliminating places in the building envelope where heat can be lost or transferred, means that precious heat stays put.
  5. High Performance Heat Recovery Ventilation System: Continuously exchanging stale air with fresh air while recovering up to 90% of the heat to minimize and ensure air temperatures are comfortable.

Source: Passive House Institute


There are many quantitative and qualitative benefits of Passive House, including:

Extraordinary thermal comfort & high indoor air quality: Created by superior windows and the post-heating or post-cooling of the fresh air required to ensure high indoor air quality, and without re-circulated air. Additionally, consistent flow of fresh air means much less exposure to viruses, moisture (and therefore mold!) and pollutants.

CO2 levels in Passive House buildings are consistently below best practice targets for high indoor air quality. Source: Passive House Institute

Reduced Heating/Cooling Costs: All that’s needed to regulate the heating of indoor air is a simple Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) and some top up heating or cooling. The sun, body heat, and appliances do the rest. Without a dependence on natural gas, furnaces, and electric baseboards everywhere, the mechanical systems can be simplified and costs associated with them are eliminated.

Passive House design focuses on the thing that lasts - the building itself.

Very low carbon footprint: With an up to 75% reduction in carbon emissions, Passive House loves the planet, and the planet loves Passive House!

These are just a few of the benefits of Passive House. There are many, many more. [note, link to blog Why Everyone Loves Passive House]

What further sets Passive House apart from other “green” building standards is the rigorous third-party certification process, based on formal targets that must be achieved. Quality assurance is done throughout the Passive House build and a certificate is awarded on project completion. Certification is a critical part of the Passive House process, as it not only upholds the Passive House standards to a consistent, international standard, it signifies that the building itself (and the planet) will indeed reap the benefits of this incredible design methodology. [insert link to Benefits of PH Certification?]

Over the past 30 years, Passive House has become the go-to standard for sustainable housing around the world, in all commonly habitable climates. Originating in Europe, it is quickly spreading to the far-reaches of the globe, from China to Canada. Because Passive House complies with diverse low carbon building codes that are coming into effect over the coming years, homeowners, builders, architects, and others in the building industry are embracing Passive House in rapidly growing numbers. And it’s easy to understand why, not only does it allow the building to easily comply with current and future code, it saves money, improves the quality of life, and reduces the negative impact on our environment.  

The Toronto Green Standard energy and carbon targets now and into the future. The top tier (T4) aligns with Passive House performance requirements.

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