New standards aim to make low-energy building affordable in the U.S.

By Mary Chris Jaklevic

Aiming to popularize energy efficient construction in North America, a building certification group has overhauled its rigorous German-based energy standards to make them more cost-effective for the American market.

The move is expected to “accelerate uptake” of passive house design, which emphasizes super-insulation and airtightness, said Katrin Klingenberg, executive director of the Chicago-based Passive House Institute U.S. The approach is used for schools, commercial buildings and apartments, not just houses.

So far the group counts 125 certified projects in North America, far fewer than in Europe, where higher energy costs offer greater incentive for energy efficiency.

Graham Wright, an engineer who led the committee that developed the new standards, noted that the German rules have been tweaked in other countries such as Sweden. But the U.S. changes are more sweeping. “We are now going into the standard-setting business,” he said.

Wright called the overhaul an effort to “re-Americanize” passive house, a design approach developed in Germany but based on U.S. building science research conducted during the 1970s energy crisis.

It dovetails with the U.S. Department of Energy’s recent Zero Net Energy initiative, which is pushing for all homes and commercial buildings eventually to generate at least as much power as they consume. The agency partnered with PHIUS in crafting the voluntary new standards, along with leading U.S. building scientists. They are slated to launch in January following DOE and public review.

Still in place are three benchmarks established by the German Passive House Institute: airtightness, limits on annual heating energy, and limits on total annual energy use. But the new benchmarks vary for each U.S. climate zone. For example, more heating energy will be allowed for buildings in cold climates such as Minnesota with lower limits for warm zones such as California. They add an allowance for energy needed to dehumidify spaces in subtropical regions.

The fine-tuning addressed a range of factors including Americans’ avid use of lighting and electric appliances. Wright said as a country, “We should be using less, but we’re not certifying occupants.”

Cheaper solar panels and the relatively short life cycles of U.S. buildings were also weighed. “It’s important to have credibility as to the current reality, at least for the next generation,” Wright said.

Passive house is still a relatively new concept in North America. The first certified U.S. project was completed in 2003 in Urbana, Ill., and PHIUS was founded in 2007.  It’s captured the attention of American architects, engineers and builders who are hungry for guidance on energy-efficient design. Today the group has 16 chapters and more than 350 members. It’s trained more than 1,500 professionals including 550 certified passive house consultants and 150 certified builders.

But those eager designers and builders face a skeptical marketplace, where a perception often holds that passive house projects are more expensive than standard construction, even if they do save energy down the road. Crafting a new consumer message around quality was a recurring theme at PHIUS’s annual conference in the Bay Area over the weekend.

Sam Rashkin, chief architect in the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and an advocate for retooling the U.S. housing industry, said efficient buildings should be marketed on health and comfort, not just energy savings. Passive houses, for example, have clean air from constant ventilation that can reduce the symptoms of asthma. Their thick insulation and triple-glazed windows buffer occupants from street noise.

“The consumer experience living in these homes just blows away any other home,” Rashkin said. “That’s like having a car that gets 100 miles per gallon. (It’s) hard to give up once you have it.”

New York college plans passive house demo

One of the fun things about owning an unusual house is you never know who is going to stop by. Today we welcomed two visitors from Farmingdale (N.Y.) State College on Long Island, which is gearing up to build a passive house on campus to serve as a model for the New York metro area.

No passive house yet exists in downstate New York, where nearly half of homes are heated by soot-generating fuel oil. Converting to cleaner fuels and reducing energy consumption are local environmental priorities.

As envisioned, the Farmingdale project would include a public space for meetings and workshops where visitors could experience a passive house up close, as well as a residence for visiting scholars, said Kamal Shahrabi, dean of the college’s School of Engineering Technology. Ideally students at the technology college would help build it.

Kamal Shahrabi, engineering school dean at Farmingdale State College, visits the house.

A native of Iran, Shahrabi agreed “the time is ripe” for passive house technology to take hold in the U.S. He and Dawn Grzan, the college’s director of research and sponsored program development, traveled all the way here to Chicago for a day to get an idea of what passive house design can do. They were escorted by Chicago architect Mark Miller, who is executive director of the National Passive House Alliance.

The college received a $206,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build its demonstration building, which will include solar panels, wind and other renewable energy sources, Shahrabi said. They hope to attract corporate sponsors to kick in the remaining $500,000 or so the project is expected to cost, plus more to continue research and operations down the road. The completion deadline is December 2013.

According to its web site, the college has a strong foothold in renewable energy research, including acting as the site of the first utility-scale photovoltaic demonstration project in the Northeast. It’s about 35 miles east of Manhattan.

One-year anniversary

Today’s drizzle brought stressful memories of our move-in day, exactly one year ago. With heavy rain and no grass yet planted in the yard, we scrambled to install makeshift cardboard pathways and floor coverings to keep the movers from tracking mud through the house.

But that soggy experience proved to be merely a harbinger of challenging weather to come. The first 12 months have brought ice storms, a major blizzard, severe cold snaps, a killer heat wave, and wind storms that felled trees and power lines. The temperature in our yard has spanned more than 100 degrees. These extremes enabled us to see how comfortable the house could be in all kinds of conditions. They also revealed some glitches in the system that needed repair.

But to be honest, we haven’t done a good job of measuring our energy usage, particularly for heating and cooling. That neglect has been partly intentional. The first year of data for a new house is considered unrepresentative because materials are drying out, contributing to interior humidity, while occupants are learning to optimize use of the temperature controls and in our case also ventilation. In this coming year we plan to measure our usage accurately with the help of a monitor called The Energy Detective. The device will enable us to track real-time energy usage of our heat pump and some major appliances. Stay tuned — we hope to have some interesting results to report.

Meanwhile, fall brings a new round of teaching opportunities. This month our architect Tom-Bassett Dilly and I spoke to about 30 people at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. We stayed for 40 minutes after the scheduled session answering questions about the passive house model. It was heartening to see so much of interest in the idea of building and renovating homes to be ultra-efficient, both from architects and ordinary homeowners like us.

Next Saturday our house will be open to the public on the Green Connections Bike Tour, which will include 15 residential and community initiatives in Oak Park and River Forest. Participants must pre-register for the sites they want to visit. The tour is being held in conjunction with’s Moving Planet Day, a worldwide rally to encourage moving beyond fossil fuels.

Keeping quietly cool in a heat wave

Wednesday marked the hottest day in six years.

As 90-degree temperatures lingered and the heat index flirted with 110, we decided to the put heat pump in cooling mode this week. In other words, we turned on our version of AC.

Up to now we have been stayed comfortable without mechanical cooling thanks to the home’s insulation and tight construction. In addition, our architect designed overhangs to shade the windows during the summer, blocking heat from the sun. Ceiling fans cool the bedrooms. In the basement, the heat pump water heater actually chills the house a bit by removing heat from surrounding air to warm the water.

Strategically placed overhangs perfectly shade most of the windows in midsummer.

I should add that we’re relatively heat-tolerant people, so our definition of comfort might not match everyone’s. But this week’s heat wave was too much even for us. What’s neat is the same heat pump that warms the house in winter by drawing heat from outside can cool the house in summer by acting in reverse, pushing heat outside. Heat pumps are more efficient at extracting humidity than standard air conditioners, according to the U.S. Department of Energy web site. However, they move air slowly rather than blasting it, which means it can take longer to cool a space.

The upshot is, our heat pump is performing extremely well in the heat wave. Twenty-four hours after we switched it on, the second-floor temperature dropped from 89 degrees to 77 degrees, stabilizing around 75 degrees at night. The humidity fell from 64% to 45%. Alas, everyone is getting a good night’s sleep.

The cost to cool seems reasonable. At its maximum cooling capacity of 24,000 BTUs, the heat pump uses about 1.4 kilowatts per hour. That costs $3.73 per day, or about the price of a large iced coffee. That compares with about $2.50 per day for heating in March, according to our rough calculations. We figure cooling might cost more for us because we use it only during extreme conditions like a heat wave, when we need to run it constantly. Also, the heating operation is assisted by numerous supplemental sources such as appliances, computers, cooking, sunlight and the pellet stove.

What’s more, the heat pump is REALLY QUIET. In fact, you can hardly hear it, making it a big improvement over the rumbling din of a standard AC. I love that!

Purrrr. The heat pump barely makes any noise.

On the downside, there is one temporary glitch in the system. The thermostat isn’t working correctly so the heat pump does not shut off when the temperature reaches the set temperature. In other words, we have to shut the system off and on manually. Our HVAC contractor believes there is a sensor problem. In practical terms it’s not a huge deal right now, since we are only cooling the house in extreme temperatures when we’d want the system running pretty much constantly anyway. Still, we hope to get this resolved by the fall, when we will really need a thermostat.

Storm renders us powerless

This would be a great week to have solar panels.

A brief but violent storm blew through Monday morning, knocking out power to a reportedly record 868,000 Chicago-area ComEd customers. That included the residents of our block, where a tree branch fell on electrical lines. The 75-mph winds also blew the hinge off one of our casement windows and popped three porch screens out of their brackets. Having an all-electric house, we bid an abrupt adios to cooking, clothes drying and hot water as well as lights, computers and refrigeration.

As I hauled ice from the Jewel, scrambled to locate flashlights, and pedaled around town searching for a place to charge my cell phone (thank you, Oak Park Public Library), I dreamed of being liberated from the electrical grid. Ah, yes. With solar power, my husband could have avoided a long commute to the office to get his work done, we could have cooked dinner at home instead of going out, and our ceiling fans would have cooled the house, making sleep easier.  That’s not to mention the environmental benefits. Hmmmm.

A tree branch lies on electrical lines in our back alley. It knocked out power for 28 hours.


I know, I know. It’s been way too long since my last post. Along with a series of medical issues and a ramped-up summer schedule with the kids, we took a vacation to the East Coast where we witnessed both environmental heroism and depressing instances of thoughtlessness. On the positive front, we visited ground-breaking Clover Food Lab, a Cambridge, Mass., restaurant where EVERYTHING is composted. In fact, they don’t even have a trash bin. Rockin! In Washington, D.C., we stopped by the home of our eco-conscious friends Liz and Rob Albro, who own a waste-saving SodaStream machine. Very cool!

Liz Albro makes sparkling water in her SodaStream.

Then there were those moments that make you want to scream. Like those “free” hotel breakfast bars where everything gets pitched in the garbage: styrofoam bowls and plates, plastic utensils, mininiature boxes of cereal that fill up a third of the average child’s stomach. At the end of a meal, our family’s table looks like a small dump.

Our environmental low point had to be the U.S. Capitol, where the kids watched in amazement as angry visitors were forced to throw EMPTY  reusable bottles, large bags, snacks, sunblock and other serviceable items into a giant trash bin before entering the building. If these things really present a security risk, it seems the Capitol could avoid horrendous waste along with the resentment of constituents by setting up a station for visitors to check personal belongings. The kicker: our son noticed there were water bottles on sale inside the Capitol gift shop. That’s right: Visitors are required to throw away their reusable water bottles before entering the building, but they can buy another one once they get inside. Wah?

Snacks, reusable water bottles and containers of sunblock fill a jumbo trash bin outside the U.S. Capitol.


One person who might just have a field day salvaging items from the Capitol trash bin is Jennifer Tiner, who runs the Bright Olive Gallery in the Oak Park Arts District. Jennifer strives to display the work of artists who use at least 50% recycled materials, which means she has a lot of cool bottlecap jewelry, paintings in refurbished frames, bowls and spoon rests fashioned from glass bottles and other intriguing knick nacks. The items are reasonably priced, and it’s fun to browse.

I’m getting to know Jennifer this week because our 6-year-old is enrolled in her week-long Eco Art Camp. Our daughter has created such things as a collage of plastic bottle caps, colorful wish boxes made from Altoid containers, and a journal decorated with magazine images. Can’t wait to see what comes home next!

Jennifer Tiner shows off a windsock made of VHS tape in her Oak Park studio.

Going local at the Oak Park Earth Fest

This year we skipped Chicago’s ginormous Green Festival at Navy Pier. It’s pretty much a full-day commitment, which was more than we could squeeze into our schedule. But I did manage to swing by the more quaint Oak Park Earth Fest Saturday.

In its second year, the fest takes place at the village Public Works Center, which is really like a big garage. The vendor selection, amenities and food offerings don’t compare to the elaborate two-day showcase on the lakefront, but this gathering boasted a nice community vibe. You could chat with an architect, inquire about solar panels for your house, buy a lunchbox made of recycled materials, or learn how to “green” your neighborhood school. All while leaving time to get the kids to baseball or whatever else they have going on a typical Saturday.

A new kind of lawn ornament: Village Environmental and Advisory Commission Chair Michele Gurgas distributes eco-friendly yard-care signs at the fest.

The fest also presented an opportunity to meet village officials who sit on the front lines of environmental issues. One such person is Water and Sewer Superintendent Brian Jack. If you want to know anything about water, ask Jack. He believes our area’s take-it-for-granted attitude about water consumption — fed by historically clean and ample Great Lakes water — seems to be changing.

“People are more aware of not wasting water. Ten years ago people would (do things like) let the water keep running while they were brushing their teeth,” Jack said. In fact,  water consumption has dropped in the village over the last decade, to about 1.8 billion gallons per year from more than 2 billion, he said. Part of that is attributable to more water-efficient fixtures mandated by the EPA.

Contaminants such as lead are not a significant issue in Oak Park, which buys municipal water from the City of Chicago.  Like with most municipal water supplies, chlorine is added to kill bacteria. Jack said filtering your tap water is “a matter of personal preference.” (In fact, we deliberated long and hard about whether to install a water filter in our kitchen tap. But since our home has new pipes and we’re long-time Great Lakes-area residents used to drinking water straight from the tap, we opted against a filter.)

Whether you filter or not, Jack opposes buying bottled water. Instead, the department urges people to carry their own water bottles. “We’re very lucky here that we have very high-quality water. You don’t really need to buy bottled water,” he says.

On his department’s table sat a typical store-bought plastic water bottle filled about one third of the way with a dark liquid, representing the amount of crude oil it takes to produce and transport a bottle of water.  Ugh! Of course, carrying your own bottle is also vastly cheaper. According to the village, a 24-pack of bottled water runs about $1.60 per gallon versus a fraction of a penny per gallon from your tap.

4000 gallons per minute: Water & Sewer chief Brian Jack shows how the village monitors real-time water consumption.

Composting 101. State solar snafu.

This week’s warmer temperatures inspired me to get outside and set up a compost bin. Finally! Eco-geeks say composting is a no-brainer if you grow things in dirt and have even the tiniest amount of space available for a compost bin. OK, so that means most of us.

According to Wikipedia, composting dates at least as far back as the Roman Empire. Compost bins keep your organic waste contained in one spot of the yard, allowing worms to crawl on in and have a massive party. After a few months, kitchen scraps and yard waste magically transform into nutrient-rich soil for your plants. The worms are happy. The plants are happy. The plant eaters are happy. The municipal waste stream gets smaller. What more do you want? For the bigger environmental picture, check out the EPA’s list of the benefits of composting.

After reading online reviews of several models, I settled on the popular Earth Machine, which was recommended by our landscapers, Jeff Swano and Freyja Conrad of Dig Right In. The Earth Machine also happens to be the only model sold at Oak Park’s earth-friendly housewares store, Green Home Experts.

The Earth Machine (above) is commonly described as a giant Darth Vader mask, but my son the Star Wars fan didn’t seem to note the resemblance. You be the judge. With 10.5-cubic feet of capacity, it was fairly easy to transport and set up. I expected comments from the family like, “Hey, what’s that big black thing in the yard?” But no. Nothin’. So I guess it’s not all that conspicuous.

While composting creates “free” nutrients for your yard, setting up a system isn’t necessarily free. Some people make their own bins out of scrap lumber, but I’m not that handy. Buying a composter was a bit of investment: $100 for the composter and about $37 for a jumbo kitchen composting pail, which provides a tidy place to store scraps until you dump them into the composter.

Solar panel funding hits a wall

It appears we will not be getting solar panels this year. Our application for a state renewable energy rebate was waitlisted, even though we submitted it within a week of the application forms becoming available last fall. Our application was No. 138 of 320 received, said Wayne Hartell, an energy program specialist in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. “We were flooded with applications as soon as the program opened this year and depleted all of our funds before we got to your application,” he said in an email.

We thought our request would sail through because our application for a rebate was approved in the previous fiscal year. But our construction ran behind schedule and we weren’t able to get the panels installed before that rebate expired. Meanwhile, lots of folks were lining up for the state largesse. Hartel said the number of applications grew 45% in 2010-11 compared with the previous fiscal year.

“We have seen growing interest in solar over the last few years, and we also added small wind (turbines) as an option for a rebate a couple years ago,” Hartel said. There was also pent-up demand because his office had stopped accepted applications in February 2010.

The 30% state rebate would make the project — estimated to cost around $30,000 — vastly more affordable. But it might be worth waiting a year or two to install anyway. Newer, more powerful photo-voltaic panels continue to enter the market while prices continue to drop. In fact, Standard & Poor’s recently estimated solar panel prices will drop about 15% in 2011.