Low-energy buildings: A future without monopoly


The policy of New York State and New York City to achieve 80% carbon reductions by 2050 is critical to ensure our long term prosperity.   As we know, building operational energy use is a very large component of our current carbon emissions, and dramatically reducing our building energy usage with available tools such as Passive House construction is essential to achieving success. Led by the Passive House Institute, Passive House has been developed for over 25 years and represents a collective and global effort that continues its progress today here in New York and across the U.S.

While incremental energy code improvements underway are moving toward greater energy efficiency, they are also locking in relatively high carbon emissions for decades to come, particularly when compared to the dramatic efficiencies locked in with Passive House construction.   To accelerate our progress toward low-energy buildings, policy makers should consider two complementary approaches:  code exemption and code modifications.

Today the building energy efficiency code for the U.S., the International Energy Conservation Code, also defines a “low-energy building”. (see here.)  The code says low-energy buildings are:

“Those with a peak design rate of energy usage less than 3.4 Btu/h  ft(10.7 W/m2) or 1.0 watt/ft(10.7 W/m2) of floor area for space conditioning purposes.”

This existing code definition practically matches the functional definition of Passive House, which defines a peak load limit option of 10 W/m2.   Consequently many of today’s Passive House buildings already achieve the current code standard of a low-energy building.

The goal is low-energy buildings and Passive House is a tool to reach it.  With such a generic goal, defined as functionally equivalent to Passive House, all interested parties can accelerate adoption of the means and methods to achieve it in a competitive marketplace.

Consequently we ask that policymakers help lower barriers to voluntary low-energy building adoption. We ask that they ensure clear goals and an open and dynamic market that resists exclusive private pathways.  Resist the formation of monopolies.  There are options today and we should encourage more options tomorrow – while keeping the rigorous Passive House goals in-hand.

Policy makers should look to all levers available to encourage Passive House construction, but first start by lowering barriers with code exemptions and code modifications.

Code Exemption: New York and other states should help construction projects leapfrog the energy code by providing an alternative compliance pathway. While the existing code allows for exemptions from enclosure requirements, because Passive House addresses total energy usage we propose a broader exemption from the entire energy code.  We have asked that policymakers consider exempting construction projects from the energy code that obtain certification from the Passive House Institute, or a determined substantially similar certification (such as from PHIUS).   We suggest that a Passive House pre-certification be obtained and provided to the Department of Buildings (DOB) with jurisdiction prior to issuing of building permits, in addition to filing the final Passive House certification with the DOB upon substantial completion.

Code Modifications: Building and energy codes – often working within a “lowest common denominator” framework – have certain stipulations that unnecessarily make it more difficult to achieve Passive House performance. These include prescriptive requirements regarding ventilation and component certifications. Similarly, historic preservation approval requirements often unnecessarily burden energy-efficient retrofits. Such codes can be amended to encourage Passive House construction while protecting health and safety as well as protecting our architectural heritage.

To reach our carbon reduction goals, to make low-energy buildings, Passive House construction is one of the most powerful tools we have.   States and cities can spur deeply energy efficient buildings on a voluntary basis and provide economic and environmental benefits to New Yorkers across the state and citizens across the U.S.