Phius and Housing Equity: We Can Do This

What do we mean when we say equity in housing? Is it providing a place for all unhoused populations to live? Is it creating enough resources so that everyone has housing security, no matter their class, race, or age? What about high quality housing?

Finch Cambridge, an affordable housing project that won Best Overall Project in Phius' 2020 Design Competion.

Finch Cambridge, an affordable housing project that won Best Overall Project in Phius’ 2020 Design Competion.

Homes and apartments built to the Phius standard are airtight, energy efficient, super insulated, and low maintenance. They are comfortable, quiet, and provide a quality of life. These dwellings provide hard-to-find clean, high quality air, because the ventilation brings in fresh, filtered air and exhausts the stale air, something the coronavirus pandemic has shown is essential to mitigate spread of the virus. Better indoor air quality produces better health outcomes for people with chronic conditions like asthma.

Does your definition of housing equity include the quality of housing? It does for Phius.

Comfortable, well-built, and sustainable homes do not have to be for only the upper class. This is a policy issue. The cities and states of our country owe it to low-income citizens to provide them with a home that keeps them safe, does not strain their finances, and improves their quality of life. Affordable multifamily passive housing has proven time and again that it can be achieved at the same cost as a less sustainable or less reliable home. Single-family homes are being delivered at costs that range from 5 to 10 percent more than conventional buildings. Everyone should live in housing that is reliable and resilient.

Affordable housing, how do we define that? Usually it means housing built for lower-income individuals and families, those on a tight budget. It should also mean housing that is affordable to maintain and to heat or cool. It is not affordable if the occupants have to make a choice between paying for food and paying their utility bills. Multifamily buildings built to the Phius standard use 40-60% less energy than a comparable building built to code, resulting in similar reductions to utility bills.

Homes built to the Phius standard are resilient and reliable. In 2021, the state of Texas froze when its power grid failed. The information from the passive houses we have from Texas show that the temperatures in the building never came close to freezing. Families would have been able to stay in their home and no pipes would have burst, saving hundreds if not thousands of dollars in repairs and replacement.

Imagine living in a home that maintains its temperature no matter the season outside; that weathers severe temperature swings, and costs you less money to live in. Did you feel your stress levels lower just a bit? Don’t your children deserve to live like that? Doesn’t everyone’s child deserve that? How about your parents too?

The infrastructure can be created. This country can do it for its people.

How do we do this? Reach out to your city council, to the people who represent you on the most local level, to educate them about the benefits of passive building to the community.

Many states, like Massachusetts and New York, already have incentives for energy efficient homes. In Pennsylvania, 7 Phius certified projects, representing over 350 units of affordable housing, have been built and shown to be cost-effective. Incentives in Massachusetts have led to the construction of 8 Phius low-income projects with almost 550 units. These projects have come in at between 1.5% and 2.8% above building code. Massachusetts, building on this success, just passed a progressive energy bill that will push it’s already progressive buildings sector forward.

The change is possible and we all deserve it, including those who never even seem to get a piece of the pie.

Policy Update: The Massachusetts Stretch

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Isaac Elnecave, a member of the PHIUS certification team, has written this update on the Massachusetts stretch cove, the latest installment of his policy updates.

Over the last 8 years, Massachusetts has made significant progress towards making the passive house (PHIUS+) standard an integral part of its building energy code. This effort points the way to the end goal of creating a cost-effective net-zero energy code.

Besides its statewide base energy code, which is an amended version of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) model code, the Board of Building Regulations and Standards (BBRS) in Massachusetts has, since 2009, promulgated a “stretch” energy code. The base energy code governs the minimum energy saving requirements in buildings throughout the state. The requirements include: the amount of insulation required in ceilings, walls and foundations; window performance; the level of air tightness; ventilation requirements; the efficacy of lighting and the efficiency of HVAC equipment. It is often described as the worst possible building (from an energy perspective) that can legally be built.

A stretch energy code incorporates similar measures and design approaches but mandates energy efficiency requirements that result in higher performance buildings than those meeting the base energy code. While the base energy code is the default requirement across all towns and cities in the Commonwealth, the stretch energy code must be affirmatively adopted by local municipalities that want to enforce it (at which point, it supplements and overrides the base energy code in that jurisdiction). Importantly, unlike New York State, because the BBRS approves the stretch code, municipalities that adopt it cannot amend it.

In both the Base and Stretch codes in Massachusetts, there is a section for alternative compliance strategies, which specifically includes passive house in both the low-rise residential energy code chapter and the commercial energy code chapter. Under the requirements of its current edition, and in fact since 2012, in any jurisdiction that adopts the stretch code in Massachusetts, a PHIUS+ certified passive house automatically meets code. The current code amendments specify that the annual heating demand for PHIUS certified home or commercial building must be less than 10 kbtu/ft2/year; a value easily met by all certified PHIUS buildings.

The latest edition of the Massachusetts stretch code has just been adopted but has not yet been promulgated* — the expected promulgation date is February 8, 2020 with an effective date of Aug 8, 2020. There will be two significant changes. First, PHIUS itself has updated its standard to PHIUS + 2018 from PHIUS + 2015. Second, with this new edition, a residential or commercial building will be code compliant when it passes the pre-certification stage (much like saying a typical house is given code approval once the plans have been approved.) The updated energy code, based on the IECC 2018, shifts the passive house compliance option from the 10 kBtu/ft2/year metric to an option to seek PHIUS precertification prior to pulling a permit. A project must demonstrate that it has been submitted for final certification by PHIUS to receive the certificate of occupancy. Because PHIUS maintains a rigorous review process through the end of construction, this approach ensures a high quality of construction.

Passive house certification requirements are significantly more stringent than even the other alternative paths in the stretch code (the most commonly used path in the Massachusetts residential stretch code allows for an Energy Rating Index score of 55, which is well above the score typically achieved by a certified passive house).

Massachusetts provides an excellent example of how to use incentives to spur the development of high-performance buildings. Mass Save®, the statewide energy efficiency program in Massachusetts, launched a mid- to high-rise passive house incentive program in the summer of 2019. In the first 6 months over 40 projects with over 3,000 passive house units in development have signed up for the program.  As more projects are built meeting PHIUS standards either through the stretch code or through Mass Save, the universe of designers and builders who become proficient in the construction of high-performance builders grows. This proficiency will result in greater confidence among construction professionals and lower costs with respect to high performance buildings.

As the PHIUS standard includes a pathway to net-zero construction, including it in the stretch and base energy code provides a path for future improvements. In Massachusetts, stretch code development will now focus on a ‘net-zero’ code to run alongside an amended IECC 2021 base code. Having the passive house pathway in the energy codes has introduced designers and builders to the tools and techniques necessary for building cost-effective net-zero single-family and multi-family dwelling. PHIUS looks forward to working with Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, BBRS and other key stakeholders in making a net-zero code a reality.

Massachusetts in one of three states and one municipality that have incorporated the PHIUS standard in the energy code. New York was discussed in a previous blog (Policy Update: New York State, Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, January 16, 2020). I’ll discuss efforts in Washington State and the city of Denver in a future post.

* Adoption means voting and signing by government official. Promulgation (it specifically means the decree that puts a law into effect), in practice, refers to when the agency in charge of enforcing the law signs off on the rules and regulations relating to the law.


A Climate Action Turning Point!

That's friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

That’s friend of PHIUS and visionary NYC architect Chris Benedict (l) with Katrin Klingenberg.

On October 29th I was fortunate to attend the NYSERDA low carbon and zero energy Buildings of Excellence Awards at the Building Energy Exchange in New York City. What a terrific time for projects that are about to and that have employed PHIUS+ passive building standards as baseline to get to zero energy ready! I counted at least 10 PHIUS+ project teams in NYSERDA’s three categories, Early Design Stage, Substantial Completion and Completed, that were awarded up to 1 million dollars for their projects!The awards were announced on the 7th anniversary of super storm Sandy, not a coincidence, as a reminder for urgent climate action. Seven years later, NYC is leading by action and is putting itself firmly on the path of global leadership in building energy and resilience. Thank you to an amazingly dedicated NYSERDA team for making this happen!

The week before the event, I keynoted the Boston Passive House Massachusetts Symposium to talk about the evolution of the PHIUS+ certification suite for passive buildings, and why they provide such great value on the path to ZERO. Here as well, political action was taken to combat climate change: MassSave staff announced significant incentives for low carbon and zero energy buildings and significant additional incentives if project teams go for passive building certification for their hi-rise residential projects. Certification requests from Mass have increased manifold as a result. Massachusetts in not far behind NY State in political will, turns out.

And just a few weeks before the Boston event, it was gratifying to find that at the Getting to Zero Forum in Oakland, California, passive building was simply understood as the logical starting point on the path to ZERO, no questions asked. During one of the plenaries the ASHRAE speaker proudly introduced the new ASHRAE standards committee: 227p Passive Building Design Standard. That was great news and evidence that ASHRAE is moving on the topic.

During the lunch plenary on day one the National Renewable Energy Laboratory featured PHIUS board member Mary Rogero’s students presenting their Solar Decathlon winning PHIUS+ Source Zero energy school design. For the closing plenary, California’s Commissioner Andrew McAllister presented on his recently completed and only recently occupied zero energy passive house in Berkeley and the benefit of energy independence. He had electricity while PG&E had shut off power supply to prevent fires, a consequence of climate change, to most of Berkeley including the entire Berkeley Campus. He was followed by Greg Hale, from NYSERDA, who spoke about applying the Energiesprong passive plus zero energy retrofit approach that he is spearheading in NYS and other zero carbon measures taken by the city.

And while most of the building action seems to be happening on the East Coast, quietly behind the scenes advocates have been working hard to get passive building into codes all over the country. When PHIUS was first established our lofty mission was to make passive building code by 2020. As ambitious a goal that was then in 2007, we have made significant progress toward it, and have paved the path for national success. NY State has included passive building as an alternative compliance path into the next stretch code and Washington State is on a similar path. Massachusetts has included an alternative compliance path for passive buildings and verification tools (no double modeling required) and Washington, D.C. also has included an alternate compliance path for passive buildings in their about to be launched ZERO Energy Code.

Most significant of all those developments is the establishment of the ASHRAE 227p standards committee. If successful they’ll created a passive building design standard that takes the best pathways from all existing programs and develop an even better, easily adopted design standard globally. That committee has now started its so very important work. The ball is rolling! Stay tuned for more!

Exciting times, indeed!





Countering a policymaker’s concern regarding passive house

We recently heard from a PHIUS constituent who had these comments about an experience with a policy maker who was skeptical about passive building:

In recent discussions about building performance compliance options for our city’s Stretch/Green Code, a committee member raised a concern about a provision for passive house design in commercial projects. He thought that current modeling software isn’t reliable enough for reasonable accuracy and cited it as a “fatal flaw.”

Monitored energy use is tracking closely to WUFI Passive models.

Click on the image for a pdf report: Monitored energy use is tracking closely to WUFI Passive models!

Knowing that there are large and small commercial passive house projects being successfully built, I hope you can speak to his concern. The more specifically this can be addressed – the good and the bad – the better.  We are strong believers in passive house design but need to confidently understand how reliable the available technology is before adding it to our building codes.

Essentially, then, the question many policy makers have is this:

Is Passive House Certification too Risky for Code?

Short answer No.

PHIUS+ Certification is based on the same science, data, and energy programs that building codes are built on. However…

Our community is indeed successfully designing and certifying residential and commercial buildings to the PHIUS+ Passive House Standards.

We have two terrific resource sites for both applications and with great examples. Here are the links to them:


WUFI Passive, the design/certification and energy modeling software, has proven to be accurate in predicting energy use. We have the largest pool of certified projects in North America and actual measured data is available for many of those projects.

Where we have measured data,we have found that on average we achieve modeled vs. measured results of +-7%, which is the best I have heard of in the energy modeling industry.

That said, there is much confusion out there regarding two passive house certifications. PHIUS Senior Scientist detailed the substantive differences between PHIUS+ and the European approach. In short, ours is a climate-specific passive building standard developed under a DOE grant for North America that has proven to produce very accurate predictions (here is a link to the NREL publication:

The German Passivhaus Institute uses a different standard, not derived from North American climates but instead from only one central European climate (one set of standards for all climates in the world). They also use a different modeling tool, a spreadsheet called PHPP. They have to my knowledge very few projects certified to date in the commercial and large MF residential sector in North America and have not published any modeled vs. measured data.

We initially used their tool for our projects and found a significant difference in modeled vs. measured performance. Overheating in summer was also a problem. In our experience, the performance was off by 25-30% pretty consistently from what was predicted by PHPP. That’s why we switched to a different, more accurate methodology and modeling tool.

So, to the policy maker who raised the concern, I would agree that the PHPP and German standard do have a problem in North America. I do not expect that policy makers take my word for it, either. We encourage code and other officials to vet the standards and design tools carefully before including them. And to all of the PHIUS community who are fighting the good passive building fight, we will be happy to provide you data that proves the performance of the PHIUS+ standard and the WUFI-Passive modeling tool.



PHIUS+ 2018 Webinar Q&A

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PHIUS Senior Scientist Graham Wright and Certification Manager Lisa White answer questions that were submitted during and after the live PHIUS+ 2018 Webinar on November 8, 2018.

You can view a recording of the webinar at the site.

*Note: Some questions have been edited for publication

Q: Has PHIUS started to look at overall GWP in the materials used to make these high performance buildings? To save the balance of the climate, reducing our emissions in the next 20 years is critical. Lots of XPS and spray foam make a low energy building but don’t do anything to help our climate goals.

A: The short answer is yes. We do have a GWP impact calculator for insulation. Its use is not required for project certification but we encourage it when we see large areas of XPS or SPF proposed. Our product certification program for construction systems has a requirement for a sustainability or health certification; there are several options recognized.

Q: Can you explain the exuberance concept?

A: We remain enthusiastic about the “tiny heating system” / “tiny heating bill” idea.

Q: Thanks for including Quebec Province! I believe in 2015+, all of North America was calculated according to a blanket value for cleanliness of the grid. Is 2018 adapted to different grids, and how do you deal with Quebec’s very cheap and clean hydroelectricity? Renewables are a tough sell here. Zero government incentives and at 7 cents/kWh, our energy costs would have to more than treble in order to make PV make financial sense.

A: In the standard-setting study itself we used the same factor all the time, but because the buildings were (almost) all electric, it canceled out. The PV generation is multiplied by the same factor as the usage, so source net zero is achieved with the same size PV array as for site net zero.

The philosophy is that CO2 emissions anywhere affect everyone everywhere. We all share one atmosphere, so by a principle of solidarity we should really use the world average source energy factor for electricity. That is, people with clean grids do not get to play “we’ve got ours” and use more energy. Even if your local grid is clean we want to drive additional action such as REC purchases that fund new clean energy projects. In certification we do allow the use of national averages, so we actually just request solidarity at the national level. Canada has a cleaner grid than the US overall, and thus Canadian projects will not have to take as many measures for net source energy reduction. The source energy factor for electricity in Canada is 1.96, whereas it is 2.8 for the US.

The electricity cost does affect some of the space conditioning criteria because higher energy prices justify more conservation measures and thus tighter targets. We calculate this with state-by-state averages, so Quebec projects will have less stringent targets than neighbors in Maine and Vermont.


Q: The word “townhouse” usually means a single-family building, but you seem to be using it differently.

A: The individual dwelling units are “single-family, attached”. That is, they share walls but not floor/ceiling. Speaking loosely, the whole row of attached units is the Townhouse, and the study building is 8 or 16 attached units.

Q: Is the mandatory minimum for window upgrades done because it wouldn’t be cost effective otherwise?

A: Yes. Window costs have come down but this still had to be forced in most cases. The starting points were still “in the money” though. There were a few times when the optimizer bought them on its own, but it took a long heating season and high energy price to motivate it. 


Q: Is this modeled EUI directly from WUFI Passive in the “Modeled vs. Measured” slide?

A: Yes, the WUFI Passive energy model used for certification.

Q: Do the new non-residential commissioning requirements apply to the common areas of residential buildings or only to all non-residential buildings?

A: TBD. Our current definition (for source energy target purposes) hinges on whether the spaces serve outside clients / customers or just the residents.


Q: Are you considering using the last 5 years of climate data vs ASHRAE to deal with global weirdness?

A: No, but we are working on future climate data for 2090 as an informational resource.


Q: Any comments on using low-iron glass (easily found in EU / just starting to appear in US)? Does the visible transmittance increase relative to ordinary US glass (which has a green tint to natural light)?

A: Alpen for a while had a low-iron glass option in their certified products, but they discontinued it.


Q: Instead of ignoring PV in competing with efficiency measures, why not look at PV with storage for the costs? This may not take care of seasonal differences, but it would take care of daily or weekly changes.

A: We may have have explored it if that was an option in BEopt, but it isn’t yet. Our current thinking is that what batteries do for you depends, in normal operation, on what the time-of-use rate structure looks like, and they are also good for you in outage situations. We are working on a calculation protocol for outages and waiting for utilities or other researchers to converge on time-of-use rate structure(s).


Q: Is there an ASHRAE 55 comfort analysis or PMV for PHIUS+?

A: The new window comfort calculator is based on relatively recent research on Predicted Percentage Dissatisfied specifically for draft at the ankle – it doesn’t just hark back to the PMV/PPD that was determined in 1970.

I (Graham) also wrote a paper for the 2016 conference looking at the radiant temperature effect of windows on comfort.

In certification we mostly take the same kind of simple view as in building code, e.g., “thou shalt maintain a dry bulb temperature set point of X and Y”. Sophisticated comfort analyses are more appropriate for workplace and nonresidential cases where clothing and metabolic profiles of occupants can be pinned down (as required by ASHRAE 55), and one might not have to worry so much about frail or sensitive occupants.


Comment: Adaptation is why I pursued CPHC in the first place!

Graham Wright: Thanks! Lisa presented on passive survivability at the Boston conference, and we will have more to say about this in the future.

Q: How does the new standard accommodate variable occupancy patterns/equipment usage in non-residential buildings?

A: With respect to the performance targets, as a first step, we will allow two different occupancies to be used to determine the annual demand targets vs. peak loads. Also, we can develop custom criteria for unusual situations (additional fee applies).

With respect to energy modeling protocol, it is already required to enter patterns for occupancy, ventilation and lighting, but this is mostly about getting the annual total energy right for source energy limit purposes.


Q: Please define HDD65, IGA, CDD50, TCD, IGCL and DDHR.

A: HDD65 = Heating degree-days, base 65 F;

IGA = Solar Irradiance, global, annual;

CDD50 = Cooling degree-days, base 50 F;

TCD = Temperature, cooling design day;

IGCL = Irradiance, global, cooling load design condition;

DDHR = Dehumidification design humidity ratio.


Q: If a project is considering registering under either 2015 or 2018, can we register under 2015 then change to 2018 (as circumstances change) without an additional registration fee?

A: Yes, you can always pursue a newer version of the standard. You are not able to pursue older versions if the contract date is later than the last day to submit under that older standard. In order to register for PHIUS+ 2015, the contract must be submitted before April 1, 2019.


Q: Are there updates to WUFI to accommodate the 2018+ standard? And when will it be available?

A: Yes, the next version of WUFI Passive will be released by the end of 2018. We will notify all of PHIUS’ mailing list.