Passive house opens to educate public

| by Teena Hammond
Passive house opens to educate public

Imagine a house that doesn't need a furnace to stay warm — even in one of the most challenging winter climates in the U.S.

That's precisely what the Cleveland Museum of Natural History has built as an exhibit on the museum's grounds. The house, known as a passive house, was built to the world's most rigorous standard of energy performance. It opened to the public last month.

The museum built the house to educate people about what a passive house is and to teach them how much energy a home uses, as well as how much money they can save with an energy-efficient home. It also teaches about climate change and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

PNC SmartHome Cleveland

The 2,500-square-foot home, known as the PNC SmartHome Cleveland, will be on exhibit this summer, and in October it will be moved to a vacant lot and installed on a permanentPNC SmartHouse Cleveland exteriorbasement foundation and sold as a private home, said David Beach, director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland museum.

There are currently 20 buildings in the U.S. that have been certified by the Passive House Institute U.S., and another 70-100 projects in various stages of construction, or waiting for final certification, said Ryan Abendroth, lead certifier for the institute. The Cleveland house is waiting for certification from the institute, he said.

The Cleveland house is one of two passive homes in the U.S. currently open to the public, with the only other one the Mini-B Passive House in Seattle.

Several thousand people have toured the Cleveland home since it opened June 6.The home cost $500,000 to build, but approximately $100,000 of this cost is due to the home's need to be moved from one location to another, permanent site. A similar house could be built in Cleveland for $400,000, which is about 10 to 20 percent more than a similarly sized traditional home in the area.

The additional cost for the house will be offset by the lower energy costs. The house will cost about $20 a month to heat and cool, compared to a $200 monthly average in other similarly-sized Cleveland homes. At a 10 percent premium to build a $400,000 home, this means it will take 18 years to recoup the extra $40,000 building cost if energy savings are $180 a month.

"A lot of people are going through on tours and it's gotten a lot of interest from other people who want to build passive houses in northeast Ohio. I think it will jumpstart passive house construction in our region," Beach said. "Not only does it bring a lot of innovative technology to our region, it's simply a beautiful home."

Passive house uses 90 percent less energy

The home will use approximately 90 percent less energy than a traditional home. It features R-50 super thick insulation, air-tight construction, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, an energy recovery ventilation system, reclaimed wood floors and stormwater management features outside.

It was designed to take advantage of passive heat sources, including solar energy coming through the windows and body heat from occupants, as well as appliances and lighting. This, combined with super-insulated walls and an advanced air-handling system, means that the house rarely needs any mechanical help staying at a comfortable temperature.

There are two ductless air-source heat pumps that generate just enough heat to keep the house at a perfect temperature in extremely hot or cold conditions. They use about the same energy as a couple of hair dryers, but without the noise.

In the summer it stays cool as a result of shaded windows, and the same design elements that keep the heat inside the house during the winter also keep the heat outside the house during the summer. And for days when the heat or humidity outside are too great, the same air-source heat pump that provides heat in the winter also provides highly efficient cooling and dehumidification in the summer.

The house features triple-pane windows and 14-inch-thick walls, which are built from 2 x 6 lumber, similar to a conventional house. Every seam and corner was then sealed with building tape to create an air barrier. Then, Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) were attached. The SIPs are made of a graphite-impregnated polystyrene foam (Neopor) sandwiched between two exterior faces of oriented strand board (OSB).

Can be built in cold climates

Many people mistakenly believe that passive houses can only be built in temperate climates. But that's not the case. Germany is where the passive house concept began, in 1988. In Germany it is known as a PassivHaus, and thousands of these homes have been built there in the past 20 years.

"We are in one of the most challenging places in the country to achieve the standard," Beach said. "We're not the coldest, but we're also very cloudy in the winter because of the Great Lakes in part, and so having the cold and the cloudiness makes it really challenging to achieve the passive house standard. I think we say that if you can achieve the passive house standard in northeast Ohio, you can achieve it anywhere."

A slideshow of images of the passive house is available.


Topics: Building Green, GREAT GREEN HOMES, Heating & Cooling, Insulation, Passive House, Windows



Teena Hammond
Teena Hammond has published more than 2,000 articles in People and W magazines, Women's Wear Daily, and in dozens of newspapers and books. She also wrote a home improvement, remodeling and decor column that ran in Gannett newspapers nationwide. She's interested in all things green and would love to hear from you with your story ideas.

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