Passivhaus Power!

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When we speak of the construction of homes and institutions today, the modern environmenally-conscious zeitgeist would have us focus on “reducing the carbon footprint” or eking closer to “net-neutral.” Imagine, for a moment, instead that we demanded answers to questions like “Will the carbon footprint on this building be net-*positive* immediately or will it take a few years?”

The building standard called Passivhaus allows for this very shift in how we frame discussions about construction, ushering in a desperately-needed new paradigm: the net-positive paradigm. One where our dwellings and institutions are considered part of the problem if they are not actively contributing toward the solution. Just being “less bad” isn’t good enough anymore, if we accept the reality of climate change and wish to have any hope of mitigating its effects, before they become more disastrous than they already are.

Gorgeous Passivhaus in Maine built by Maine Passive House, out of Bethel, Maine

Originally born from a Scandinavian-German partnership in the 80’s, Passivhaus is an approach to building that requires very little energy to heat and cool the building (generally around 90% less than conventional building- imagine heating with a cord of wood over the winter, instead of nine!), so it seemed natural to John and I that it would be of particular interest in extreme warm or cold climates, like Maine, where energy consumption is such a large part of our carbon footprint. As we have researched our architecture plans over the past few months, we learned of the Passivhaus standard and immediately resonated with its elegant basic principle: hyper-insulate everything, including double walls and triple-glazed windows, such that the building maintains the temperature you set it at. Surprisingly, the extra cost for initial construction as compared to conventional building is generally less than 10%, and the payback is measured in single years due to the energy savings achieved. Clever use of building site features such as trees and site orientation maximizes this energy-conservation benefit. Everything about Passivhaus is intuitive, practical, and sustainable.

Above, a Passivhaus certified “Treehouse” (read: elevated home) in Dursley, Gloucestershire, England, U.K., shows that Passivhauses needn’t shackle themselves to earthly confines!

As you may notice from a few Passivhaus pictures, the design standard does tend to carry with it a certain smart, modern blocky “look” – largely derived from the need to not create many small nooks and pockets that interrupt the thermal envelope. Although we love this look, at first face it is certainly at odds with a more traditional look of vintage rural Maine cabins that we are – at least in part – seeking to invoke. However, rather than seeing this dichotomy as a problem, we see it as an exciting opportunity to create a new blended look, and we look forward to partnering with the right architect to help us merge the best of what worked in Maine’s camps of yesteryear, with new sustainability goals, to create something truly one-of-a-kind!


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