Passive house aggressively tackles energy efficiency | St. Louis Public Radio

Passive house aggressively tackles energy efficiency

Jun 28, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: You would never suspect anything unusual when entering the home at 1455 Gregg Ave.

No visitor would guess that a 1,500-watt hairdryer could heat the entire home on the coldest night of the year, that the windows are recessed six inches into a foam-filled wall, or that the house is generating more energy than it will use.

This contemporary home, known in the energy world as a passive house, reflects the future of energy efficiency in the state. The first one of its kind in the state, the passive house meets the highest energy standard for a low energy building.

Missouri's first passive house is in Dogtown.
Credit Gary Steps | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

Owners Dan Berg and Michelle Ong first approached architect Ralph Wafer in the summer of 2011 to design an energy efficient home. Wanting to stay in Dogtown, Berg and Ong found a double lot on which to build the house. “We couldn’t find a house we agreed on so Dan (said) 'Let's just build our dream home,'” Ong said.

Berg added, “We had never heard of passive house, but I always knew I wanted to make an environmentally friendly house.”

First taking hold in Germany in 1990, thousands of passive-certified buildings have cropped up around the globe.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, buildings are responsible for 48 percent of greenhouse gas emissions annually. The passive house, a virtually air-tight building, slashes the energy consumption of buildings by 90 percent.

“There’s energy efficient and then there’s energy efficient. A passive house is head and shoulders above any energy efficient house you or I ever imagined.” Wafer added.

"Passive" refers to the building's use of natural resources such as capturing solar energy and applying that gain to a well-insulated, nearly air-tight structure for heating and minimizing cooling load in warm months through window placement and shading.

Wafer first learned about passive houses from a seminar conducted by Gary Steps, founder and chief visionary of Butterfly Energy Works. Wafer recruited Steps as the energy consultant on the project.

“My team is certified in every green certification on the planet,” Steps said. “When I ran into the passive house group a number of years ago, it was like a revelation. My fellow crazies! I am a true believer that this is the absolute future of building.”

Steps spent a year designing the house, considering every building element. “If you just came over for drinks with the family, you would be unaware that almost nothing in the house is normal. All the doorways are bigger, the light switches are lower, the outlets are higher, and I could talk about the windows for literally an hour.”

The goal of a passive house is to retain as much heat as possible. That means they are most effectively accomplished in colder climates. Missouri isn't an ideal location. “If you get into Missouri and farther south, you can warm yourself with the sun coming in, but the reverse doesn’t really happen. You want to radiate the heat out. There’s no anti-solar energy, at least not that we can tap,” Wafer said.

In addition to climate, the low cost of energy in Missouri reduces financial incentives to “go green.” Berg and Ong will save large sums of money in the long run, but the up-front cost deters many from investing in sustainability.

Building to meet the standards of a passive house generally adds 5-10 percent to the cost of construction of a home. However, as sustainability increases in popularity and familiarity, initial costs should decline.

“Those costs will continue to ratchet down as we learn how to do this and as more vendors learn to fly the flag," Steps said.

Missouri’s first passive house has raised awareness of environmental sustainability in the community. “It's an achievable building standard," Ong said. “If we spread the word it could make a big impact on energy use in America. It’s reachable. We did it.”