Many Cereals, One Cereal Aisle

GW

Graham Wright

The PHIUS+ standard has evolved on a very different path than the PHI standard, and they are in no way equivalent. That’s by design, based on deliberate decisions and building science, with a focus on cost-optimization and climate specificity. Still, confusion remains in some corners of the marketplace, confusion that is worsened by articles like the one that appeared in BuildingGreen a few weeks ago. (You can also read Chris McTaggart’s rebuttal at Building Green.)

Here, to provide a full accounting of how and why the standards are different, is PHIUS Senior Scientist Graham Wright. 

At the Seattle PHIUS annual conference in 2017, one of the keynote speakers, Doug Farr, came to a line in his speech saying “many boxes, one cereal.” The point he was making (as I heard it) was that there are a whole lot of “green” and “sustainable” and “high-performance” building programs, badges, and ratings all competing for attention or mind-share, and that this was not good because it made for a diffuse effort toward solving our sustainability problem. What you have, he said, is like a whole bunch of different cereal boxes on the shelf, but inside it’s “all kind of the same stuff.” It would be better if all these different outfits would get together to advocate with one voice.

While I agree that joining forces sounds like a good idea in general, personally I think he got the rest of it almost exactly backwards. For one of the other keynote speakers, Eric Werling, one of his major points was that the details matter. In terms of cereals, it is not all the same stuff — muesli is different from oatmeal or cornflakes or Cap’n Crunch®. We do not have many boxes — one cereal, rather we have many cereals, one cereal aisle. The bacon and hash browns are in another aisle. For the building industry the name of that aisle is probably “Green Building,” I think that’s the broadest and most recognizable term for what we’re talking about, and could encompass high-performance, sustainable, resilient, natural, living, green, healthy, net-zero, and of course, passive. Things it does not encompass but at most only overlaps with would be for example: secure, co-housing, modernist, Usonian, affordable, vernacular, brutalist, social, connected, low-tech and so on — these are quite different “programmatic” considerations and have their own aisles in the pan-galactic building store.

One of these things...

One of these things…

In the case of cereals the reason there are different kinds is because tastes differ, but also because values differ — if I value yumminess above all I will get Cap’n Crunch, but if I value avoiding the family curse of heart attack above all, I will get the oatmeal. In Green Building even more so, we have different programs because of differences in truly heartfelt values. Both builders and their clients bring different values to their meetings — if I am concerned about not polluting the environment, respecting brother salmon, I will go into natural building; if my children are prone to allergies I will look for healthy-home builders; if I

...is not like the other.

…is not like the other.

hate paying utility bills I will go for net-zero, and so on. So it is useful to have badges and rating systems corresponding to these different values or priorities, for matchmaking between builders and buyers of buildings.

Back to the common ground for a moment. It has dawned on many people I think that these different aspects of green building are connected, by a general crisis of climate and sustainability with industrial civilization, that we do have common ground in making the point that we must stop using fossil fuels and putting CO2 and other pollutants into the environment and doing so much mining, if we expect to also keep getting things like fish and wood and well water out of it at the same time, and that we might be able to form a chorus of voices calling for this.

I know of three such separate “common voice” efforts (heh) arising in the last couple of years:

PHIUS has joined Shift Zero, which has come together around the Architecture 2030 definition of zero net carbon buildings. Washington State already has one of the strictest state building energy codes, more stringent than IECC 2015, according to ACEEE, but at the initial Shift Zero summit meeting, the item “Roadmap to a Net Zero Building Code” was chosen as a major focus. This is relevant to us for two reasons: 1) We believe passive building should be on that road! The PHIUS vision statement is to “make high-performance passive building commonplace,” which it would be if it was Screen Shot 2019-08-27 at 1.46.00 PMcode. Also, 2) although it’s not spelled out in the short mission statement on the web site, the long version in the business plan speaks of the climate crisis and how passive building can both mitigate and adapt to climate change. We concur that as a society overall we must get to Zero, not just net-zero but Absolute Zero in terms of emissions, or 100% renewable energy to put it the other way. (The PHIUS Technical Committee has already taken this definition of Zero Net Carbon into consideration for our PHIUS+ 2018 standard update.)

Moreover, we are pursuing an ANSI-approved passive building standard, via the ASHRAE Standard Project Committee 227P. Participation in Shift Zero should allow us to both contribute to and be informed by a Shift Zero effort on Washington State code.

Our aim here is not to “get PHIUS written into WA code”, nor to “get an ANSI stamp” on PHIUS+ 2015 or even 2018, but to develop something that is both rigorous and more flexible, and of more enduring value. Our current standard is mostly performance-based, that is, based on modeled energy use. This requires modeling protocol, modeling software, and training in using it, for both project planners and verification/enforcement caseworkers. The vision for the ANSI/ASHRAE passive standard is that it would use a combination of prescriptive, performance, and outcome-based compliance paths to support the whole range of project scales – from small projects in backwater jurisdictions with few planning or enforcement resources to large projects in capitols that could take on custom cost-optimization studies. The value of PHIUS+ lies not only or even mainly in the current criteria but rather in the principles and methods underlying them, such as the priority on passive measures and conservation, the constrained cost-optimization for the heating and cooling criteria or the fair-share and national-solidarity principles for total energy use.

The “A” in both ASHRAE and ANSI stands for American. The ANSI mission statement is U.S. focused and the web page has a U.S. flag image. But the ASHRAE mission states pointedly that while they started out in U.S. they now have worldwide membership and global services, advancing sustainable technology for the built environment.

An ASHRAE passive building standard then, ought to be serviceable globally (at least in those parts of the globe that have building professionals.)

In my opinion PHIUS brings a track record of experience and care to this effort, as well as integrity, and humility.

As most of you will know, we started out practicing an “International standard” from PHI in Germany, applying it in the U.S. Our first major adaptation was in 2012 with the addition of greatly expanded quality assurance requirements from U.S. DOE programs. We found that the U.S. building industry simply needed a lot more guardrails on quality. This was in essence a cultural adaptation, as was our early support for the inch-pound unit system. Our second major change was a climateadaptation, in 2015 with the elaboration of the climate-specific criteria for heating and cooling.

To make a long story short, we found that the PHI heating and cooling criteria became disconnected from the principle of economic feasibility that supposedly underlay them, when applied to most climates in the U.S. and Canada, and we set out to redeem that promise. That disconnect affected both the heating and the cooling criteria in different ways, and was apparent in the data of PHI’s own climate parametric study of 20111. As a result of that study, PHI indeed adjusted their cooling criteria, adding to the (not climate specific) fixed base cooling demand a substantial and variable allowance for dehumidification (fair enough, there are not many passive measures that do this.) But the heating criteria still only made sense in one climate, and this was never fixed. Most of the U.S. being heating-dominated we thought that important and so went to work on it in 2013-14.

To make the story just a bit longer, what I would call the first-generation passive builders were splinter group off of the “passive solar” or “solar home” movement in the 1970s. Their differentiation was less mass-and-glass, less gain, more insulation, build light and tight. They tended to speak of “superinsulation” to differentiate themselves from the passive solar people, but passive building really is a better word for it; it’s not just about insulation. The canonical work summing up the first-generation ideas is The Superinsulated Home Book. Their concept of what counted as such a home was a little vague – they speak of reducing the heat losses until the building really starts to “act different” – but the definitional ideas included both low annual heating bills and low peak heating loads, that is, very small heating system capacity required, even to the point where a dedicated furnace was no longer needed; “just steal a little heat from the water heater.” This aspect I think forms the appeal to the heart of the “passive-house flavor” of green building cereal — the “self-heating building,” the “furnace-free house.”

The Superinsulated Home Book

The Superinsulated Home Book was published in the early 1980s, just as the bottom fell out of the solar movement stateside. The torch passed to Europe, and when PHI wrote their definition of a passive house, they focused on that low peak heat load concept and drew a line in the sand on how low it should be — basically, the point where the ventilation and heat distribution systems could be combined. This was reasonable and it does give a target number for design heat load, about 10 W per m2 of floor area, that would apply everywhere, at least in any heating-dominated climate. But when it came to writing certification criteria, an alternate compliance path was added by which one could meet a corresponding annual heating demand. Corresponding that is, in the climate of central Europe. This is the notorious 15 kWh/m2 or 4.75 kBtu/ft2, per year. If a building was designed to meet a peak of 10 W/m2 in central Europe, this is the resulting heating demand.

The problem, I say the glaring problem, is that that alternate criterion doesn’t correspond to the peak load definition in other climates. Again, this is according to PHI’s own study from 20111-2012. They took a study building, moved it around to a lot of different climates, adjusted the upgrades to meet the 10 W/m2 peak heat load definition, and plotted the resulting annual heat demand. It varied a lot, generally increasing as the annual average temperature got lower, but there was a lot of scatter, because annual temperature and peak load design temperature aren’t necessarily that closely related, it depends a lot on how close you are to the ocean.

Nevertheless, the PHI heating criteria remained the same two numbers for everywhere, either 10 W/m2 peak, corresponding to their definition, or 15 kW/m2.yr, which mostly doesn’t. Why? I have always darkly suspected that it is because in continental interior climates, the design temperatures for peak heating load are quite low, making the 10 W/m2 much the more difficult of the two numbers to meet. I think they could tell that it would be impractical for single-family dwellings, even attached like a townhouse end unit, to meet the ostensible definition, and so left the 15 kWh/m2 alternate in there as a close-enough cheat. I say it drives bad design, over-glazing, because solar gains do more to lower the annual heat demand than the peak load. (We showed evidence of this in our PHIUS+ 2015 development report published by NREL.)

Therefore, as I mentioned above, after a few years of applying PHI’s standard in the U.S., and noticing this lack of integrity with the heating criteria, we embarked on a reconsideration of the whole thing, in 2013-14. To my recollection, it just so happened that PHIUS and PHI both officially made standards announcements on the same day, March 15, 2015. PHIUS did make changes to all 3 “pillars” or marquee-level criteria — space conditioning, primary energy, and air-tightness. But, as evidenced by what got elaborated, it was clear that PHI had spent most of 2014 working on primary energy, the big change was the new and more nuanced Primary Energy Renewable (PER) metric, while PHIUS had spent most of that time working on new and more nuanced heating and cooling criteria. To go ahead and put a fine point on it, PHIUS took more care in 2014 with the core concept — the passive measures and how far to push them to drive down the heating and cooling loads.

(I must say it was irksome to get comments like, “sounds like PHIUS+ 2015 is just about bolting on some PV.’ when all we had done was put PV on the same footing as solar hot water, while PHI had spent the whole year working on renewable energy.)

Therefore, I think it is fair to say as a general matter, PHIUS has learned the importance of both “cultural” factors and climate factors to the development of passive building standards, and will bring this to an ANSI/ASHRAE standard development project. The approach to climate I think we have a fairly good handle on, and the multiple compliance options mentioned above should be able to accommodate various “building delivery processes”.

Lately it seems, we hear a lot of glossing over the differences between PHI and PHIUS. “It’s all good” kind of talk, “the differences are for nerds” and the like. At some level, this is fair enough. Yes we heart the furnace-free house, yes we like the EN/ISO 13790 monthly method for annual heating and cooling calculation and the EN 12831 for peak heating load, no we are not trying to be “lite” in general; honestly we get as much “we’re going with PHI because it’s easier” as the other way around.

But at some level the details do matter. In particular when it comes to talking about building energy code, mandatory, enforcement, permits approved or denied, people are going to want to know quite specifically what are the rules, yes?

Let’s think about the most simple and straightforward proposal I’ve heard for a building energy code: enacted in a skit by Henry Gifford and Chris Benedict of New York City, they propose the code consists of just a criterion on the design heating system capacity, that is, a peak heat load. Even with just that, you can see it would take some pages to spell out: by what method or methods of calculation? Do the methods vary for residential versus nonresidential buildings? Are solar gains or thermal mass to be credited with reducing peak loads? By what method are the design temperatures to be determined? Shall these be historical or forward-looking at climate change? Who is qualified to perform the load calculations and to review them? Does the criterion apply zone-by-zone or to the building as a whole? What if I have multiple buildings served by a central system?

So yes, at some level it is fair to say, PHI and PHIUS that is blueberry muesli, all good. But when it comes to the Food and Drug Administration, and to many customers, it is going to matter what is in those blueberries exactly. Are those real blueberries or fake f@#$% blueberries? Are the real blueberries GMO Roundup-ready blueberries or organic blueberries?

At PHIUS I think we have demonstrated some care and forethought in adapting our program and standards in the direction of suitability for incentives and codification in North America, while remaining faithful to the heart of the passive building concept. We will bring this experience and intention to the development of a more widely/globally applicable ANSI/ASHRAE Passive Building Design Standard With Path to Zero Emission or 100% Renewable Energy Society or the like.

ASHRAE requires a fairly public and transparent process and we seek the participation of the best building energy experts anywhere who find this vision agreeable — including PHI, with just one proviso: that 15 kWh/m2 everywhere is not going to make it, that is fake blueberry and we cannot have it in this muesli. If you can let that one thing go at last, the possibilities for fruitful collaboration open up. As those conveners I mentioned in Bonn, Seattle, and Portland have been suggesting, let us get the oars in the water and try to row in a more coordinated way at the goal of a Zero emission / 100% renewable built environment.

1 Schneiders, J.; Feist, F.; Schulz, T.; Krick, B.; Rongen, L.; Wirtz, R. (2012). Passive Houses for Different Climate Zones. Passive House Institute and University of Innsbruck.