Here we share some observations about and snapshots of the Passive House we had built in Michigan. All photographs were taken by us unless otherwise noted.

—Maura and Kurt Jung

Are passive homes the future?Thursday, 7 December 2017

There can’t be too many people on the planet who can speak so clearly and authoritatively about the Passive House concept as Michael Klement. Listen to Cynthia Canty and Michael discuss this topic in an 18 minute conversation brought to you by Michigan Radio.

Life in a Passive HouseTuesday, 28 February 2017

In coordination with our friend Michael Klement we recently hosted at our house a gathering of people interested in energy performant buildings. Participants included people involved in the design and construction of passive houses (including members of the outstanding Phoenix Haus team) as well as prospective passive house homeowners.

Snow, fence, shadows

Monte, Jake, Ellie and people

Photo by Jim Dowd

Ice bells

Sunrise, haze, frost

Visit from Byron

Pond, autumn

Certain discussion topics come up routinely at events like this. Here is a summary of some of them.

Price

Clearly, passive house construction comes at a premium. Hammer and Hand estimate the extra cost over standard code-compliant construction to range between 5% and 15% for a single family home. Our particular home was at or above the high end of that range. This is notably due to the use of its combination TJI truss over 2x6 wall assembly rather than the more commonly used structural insulated panels, a decision motivated by reasons of sustainability rather than cost.

At this time, most passive houses in this country are designed by certified professionals. Designing a house to the passive house standard will, unsurprisingly, come with its own premium. We would welcome a trend in which inexpensive home plans include a passive house option.

Appliances

We use a condensing dryer when the weather keeps us from hanging laundry outdoors. This kind of dryer, common in Europe but still a rarity here, is electrical and is not vented to the outdoors. Water from the fabric being dried is plumbed directly to a floor drain or to a removable tray. During the times that we use this dryer we welcome its warmth. This is thermal energy that stays in the house where we want it rather than discarded outside through a vent.

Our water heater is a standard electrical model. Last year it replaced a heat pump water heater that was continually problematic for us. We have concluded that a heat pump water heater does not make sense in our Michigan cold weather climate. The ambient thermal energy it transfers to its evaporator leaves the surrounding area uncomfortably cold. Heat pump water heaters undoubtedly make good sense in warmer climes.

Bathroom and kitchen range ventilation is surprisingly effective in our house. Rather than use vents to the outside that would compromise the airtight aspect of our home, we have a simple option to step up the energy recovery ventilator’s flow rate. Normally, day in and day out, the ventilator exchanges fresh air with stale at the rate of 96 cubic feet per minute. At this rate, an entire house volume of air is recycled in three hours. Fresh air (that has been warmed by outgoing stale air in the winter and cooled and dried in the summer) is continually supplied in bedrooms and living areas. Stale air is collected in the kitchen and bathrooms. Even without the step-up feature of our ERV, the continual air flow into the kitchen and bathrooms removes odors. This is unlike standard construction in which some under-powered utility fan must work against the static air pressure throughout the building. Even when the ERV flow rate has been doubled we can’t feel or hear any air movement.

Heating, cooling, ventilation

In our house, ventilation is separate from heating and cooling. The building is so airtight and well-insulated that temperature variation throughout the interior is minimal. Even when the outside temperature is below 0 °F we are as comfortable sitting on our window seat as we are away from the wall.

Two wall-mounted minisplits (air-to-air heat pumps with reversible refrigerant flow based on the season) provide all the warmth in winter and dehumidification in summer that we need. One of the units is on the ground floor; we use this almost exclusively for winter heating. The other is upstairs and is used almost exclusively for dehumidification during hot, muggy summer weather. Even though the units came with thermostats we control them manually. When it feels a little cool indoors in winter, we turn the downstairs unit on in heating mode. If it’s especially cold and cloudy outside, we may have to crank up the fan speed a notch. The power draw is roughly the same as a hair dryer, although it is very quiet. When it feels a little warm indoors, we turn the unit off. In general, the cycles of operation span days or weeks, an entirely different effect than using a high capacity furnace to heat or air conditioner to cool. In spring and autumn the minisplits are rarely used. During those seasons we control temperature by opening and closing windows.

One observation is worth noting with respect to the energy recovery ventilator. On our house, the fresh air intake and the stale air output vents are located on a west wall about eight feet apart. A couple of times after we have prepared something aromatic in the kitchen and the outside conditions are very calm, we have detected the faintest trace of the aroma elsewhere in the house. There is no branching in the eight supply and eight exhaust conduits that connect the ERV and the various room registers, so we figure this results from kitchen air drifting outside from the output vent to the intake vent. In retrospect, we wish we had separated the vents more, possibly by putting them on different walls.

Renovation versus new construction

Among the discussions we have with visitors, a fairly common topic is that of applying passive house principles to existing structures or to new standard construction. Anyone considering a project like this would do well to study the Passive House Retrofit site that details the successful efforts of Lucy and Ed Marion to transform their home in Ontario. One takeaway is that the Passive House standard sets a really high bar and demands attention to every detail of the building envelope including the foundation. Another is that a passive house isn’t merely a code-built house with extra insulation and without air leaks, but one that provides continual, energy efficient ventilation and optimal sunlight exposure and seasonal shading.

EnergyTuesday, 11 August 2015

Over the course of two years our all-electric house has consumed on average one kilowatt. Since there is no consumption of gas or wood, this rate includes all heating, cooking, ventilation (almost always running in a passive house), lighting, refrigeration, computer use, etc. From spring through summer the consumption is about 12 to 15 kWh per day; in the winter on cold days and nights we can reach three times that amount. However, the energy consumption rate is only part of the story. This house is comfortable. At one whole house change of air every three hours the interior air is always fresh.

Our new solar panel array was installed by Michigan Solar Solutions on the eight-to-twelve pitch roof of our barn. During July, its first full month of operation, we collected over 1,000 kWh. Depending on how well it performs in winter, this rate should bring our farmstead close to net-zero over the course of a year. It is a grid-tied system; our electrical utility credits us for any excess energy we place in the grid.

Solar array on barn

Solar-powered clothes dryer

Faith, evening before wedding

Debbie and Ryan with Scott driving Jake

Shiawassee: landscape excavator

We enjoyed hosting the wedding of Faith and Ryan over the weekend. Our draft horse Jake had the honor of conveying Faith to the ceremony with much appreciated help from Chris and Scott, Jake’s former owners.

Links of interest

G • O Logic

Energy Wise Homes

J F Shewchuck Construction

Bostwick Excavating

Hanneman and Fineis Concrete Construction

Northern Michigan Hardwoods

RTM Heating & Cooling

Bach Electric

GoldStar Hardwood

Randy Lalone Well Drilling

Nu•Wool Premium Cellulose Insulation

Weaver Tile

Passive House Academy

WKAR / Lansing Home Builder Pushes Green Envelope

Pro Trees Unlimited

MPC Cashway Lumber

Lumbermen's Inc

Spartan Painting

Reynolds Water Conditioning, Co.

Zehnder

Mitsubishi Electric Cooling & Heating

Young Supply

Equilibrium Energy Spaces

PlantWise

 

Picture index

 

April 2012

Breaking ground

Preparing the footings

Completing the footing forms

The Passive House standard

Compromises

Footings poured

Crawlspace walls

Concrete poured

Additional insulation

Drain tile wrapped

 

May 2012

Backfilling and compaction

Crawlspace backfilled

Support posts installed

Framing delivered and barrier installed

Installing TJI joists

Installing the subflooring

Installing the first floor walls

Preparing for the second floor

Straight, Plumb, Level, Square and now Airtight

Second floor taking shape

Attic joists

Roof trusses

Roof trusses and attic deck

Roof deck and overhangs

Fascia boards

 

June 2012

Crawl space insulation and roof

Made in Michigan

Special delivery

Crawl space preparation

First floor preparation, TJI base

Sealing air barrier

Soffits and tape seams

First floor concrete and first envelope trusses

Crawlspace concrete

Excavating, trusses and crawlspace stairway

Water line excavation

Stairway, window framing

Fiberboard installation

Fiberboard installation and wrap

 

July 2012

Framing crawlspace walls

Envelope, plumbing

Beginning of wraparound porch

Porch

Porch and ceiling

Wrap-around porch

 

August 2012

Wrap-around porch

Window installation

Preliminary blower door test

Insulation

 

September 2012

Wiring, insulation, porch roof

Siding

Siding progress

Well drilled

Mechanical system installation

 

October 2012

Insulation of inside wall

Drywall and siding

Drywall

Drywall and attic insulation

Drywall, mechanical system

Wood floors and exterior painting

Doors and cabinetry delivered

 

November 2012

Exterior concrete, kitchen cabinets

Upstair floors, porch siding

Painting, tiling, flooring

WKAR interview, floor finishing

Exterior concrete, crawlspace walls and floor

Crawlspace floor

Compressors, exterior lights, tile

Entrances: drive and house

 

December 2012

Trim work

Front entrance

Floors and windows

Exemplary results in blower door test

Walkway, bathroom vanity top

Counter tops

Kitchen back splash tiling

 

January 2013

Upstairs painting

Upstairs painting and trim

Downstairs door finishing

Upstairs floor finishing, water conditioner

Downstairs painting

Kitchen shelf, painting

Cabinetry trim, painting

 

February 2013

Cabinetry hardware

Final interior painting

First Holly Passive House Conference

 

March 2013

Certificate of Occupancy

Home

 

December 2013

Settled in

 

January 2014

Winter storm

 

February 2014

Winter

Snowshoeing

 

April 2014

Habitat restoration

 

May 2014

May

 

August 2015

Energy

 

February 2017

Life in a Passive House

 

December 2017

Are passive homes the future?