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Natural Awakenings Bucks and Montgomery Counties PA

Local Article: The New Greenhouse

Apr 01, 2013 12:19AM
Passive House Construction Redefines Energy-Efficient Architecture

by Lauren Eckstein

Robert Rosania and his wife are building a 6,000-square-foot, French Provincial-style home at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac in Montgomery County. It features an open floor plan, four bedrooms, two master bedrooms (one on the first floor) and three-and-a-half bathrooms. Yet the entire luxury home is heated using a device as small as a space heater.

How do they do that? The answer is Passive House construction. Developed in Germany in the late 1980s, the Passive House (or Passivhaus, in German) concept refers to buildings that meet strict guidelines for energy efficiency. The strategic use of sunlight, shade and airtight construction, along with maximization of the heat generated by household appliances and human bodies, results in a building that is ultra-low in energy consumption, requiring very little heating and cooling. While there are tens of thousands of Passive House structures in Europe, fewer than 20 exist in the United States. Rosania believes he is building the first single-family Passive House in Pennsylvania. The labor of love grew from his concern about global warming, interest in sustainability and desire to be more self-sufficient; he felt that it was just the right thing to do.

“We all live on the same planet,” says Rosania. “For individuals and corporations it only makes sense to be sustainable; it only makes sense to use low energy. I can join a cause or vote or contribute money, and that’s all wonderful. But at the end of the day, I can also lead by example and vote with my feet. Why not build an energy efficient home? Why not do the right thing?”

The Passive House concept is relatively simple. “All passive is, is letting the building work with nature to be comfortable,” describes J. Robert Hillier, an architect at Hillier Studio, in Princeton, New Jersey, who built his home in Solebury Township using Passive Solar elements. An architect for 45 years, Hillier, who is also an adjunct professor at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, has always been interested in green building. He believes that Passive House, LEED and other environmental building designs are a growing trend. “On the good side, you’re helping [to mitigate] global warming,” he reasons. “On the economic side, it lowers your utility bills and the construction cost is coming down.”

While costs may be coming down, achieving complete air-tightness and finding the appropriate triple-pane windows can be pricey. Yet proponents of Passive House say the long-term energy savings balance out the short-term expense of construction. “It costs more, but the energy savings more than pays for the increase in cost,” affirms Paul Thompson, an architect with BluPath Architects in Philadelphia, who is currently designing Passive House projects. “From day one, it costs less to live in that building.”

Rosania is convinced that Passive Houses work. He reports that throughout the winter, his house remained comfortable even on cold days and last summer, he didn’t use air conditioning. “On a 105-degree day, we had 72-degree air for free,” he says.

For Rosania the increased cost of construction is worth it anyhow. “We need to be thinking long term,” he states. “I figure, I can complain about how I’d like the world to be, or I can do something and make a small difference. I can feel confident that I did my little part. I’m a true believer.”

For more information on Passive House, visit

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