The Phius Difference: Custom Energy Design Targets for Heating and Cooling — The Key to Zero

Katrin Klingenberg -- Co-Founder & Executive Director, Phius (Passive House Institute US)

Katrin Klingenberg — Co-Founder & Executive Director, Phius (Passive House Institute US)

The Klingenblog’s namesake, Katrin Klingenberg, wrote this week’s blog, examining custom energy design targets and how Phius’ approach to them sets the organization apart in the quest for Zero.

Designing zero energy and zero carbon buildings today can be cost effective if guided by the appropriate targets for investment in efficiency first. These targets are cost-optimized limits on heating and cooling loads.

The limits on heating and cooling loads are set to guide the design to a cost-optimal investment in passive conservation strategies: insulation (the appropriate amount, properly installed), dedicated continuous air, water, and vapor control layers, mitigation and avoidance of thermal bridging, high-performance windows (with appropriately tuned solar gain) and dedicated balanced ventilation with filtration and energy recovery. These principles ensure building resilience, health, comfort, safety and durability.

The cost optimization to set the targets focused on achieving the highest source energy savings (relative to a code baseline) for the least total cost (including the up-front cost of energy-saving measures, and ongoing operational costs). It factors in the cost of materials and the cost of energy supply in each particular region to calculate the sweet-spot. At some point, up-front conservation measures don’t pencil, and that’s when any additional investment should shift to active conservation strategies or active renewable energy generation systems.  These climate-optimized, project-specific targets for thermal performance define the cost-effective sweet spot on the path to zero.

The thermal performance targets are known in the industry as “Annual Heating Demand” and “Annual Cooling Demand.” They are expressed in kBTU per square foot per year or — in the metric world — in kWh per square meter per year. They are, in concept, similar to the Energy Use Intensity (EUI), but refer to the delivered heating and cooling energy required by the building. These annual space conditioning demands can only be met with passive measures and dial in the thermal performance of the building. Once those are met, a conservation-first focused total energy budget is set to guide investment in active measures. This limit is also project-specific, and can be expressed in the EUI we are all familiar with — the amount of energy used by a building per unit of floor area per year, including space conditioning and all other energy uses. That EUI can be converted into an emissions equivalent as needed to determine offsets needed to achieve zero carbon. Voila! It’s that easy!

Phius is the only building certification program that has developed such design and certification targets. They are available on the Phius website in an easy-to-use calculator. Choose climate, enter building square footage and occupancy, and you get your optimized design parameters! They are also built into the easy-to-use design and certification tool, WUFI(R)  Passive.

Before supercomputing, managing such a complex, dynamic system of variables to generate custom targets as a designer was impossible. The task of energy optimization was handled by specialized engineering firms doing the modeling — a costly and external process. Small budget projects such as single-family and small multifamily projects could not take advantage of it. Even larger projects often took the prescriptive path to eliminate the cost of custom optimization. 

Today, the reliable and detailed accounting of emissions in the building sector is necessary on a per-building basis. Many cities have passed climate action plans with extremely specific emissions reduction targets to meet over the next few decades. The Phius standard now provides an easy-to-apply, cost-effective design, and certification methodology alongside accurate accounting of carbon emissions for any building in the building sector.

With some training, architects can now easily perform these calculations themselves and build it into their design workflows right from the beginning, making sure their design is on track from start to finish.

The framework for the Phius standard today was conceived in 2015, updated in 2018, and refined again in 2021. Many municipalities have leaned on and incentivized the Phius framework to meet their climate action plans. At the forefront was New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in the State of NY. They designed a proof-of-concept program early on called Buildings of Excellence. The agency now offers cost and performance data for representative groups of completed projects using varying techniques for low energy design and accounting.

C3RRO, a third-party consulting firm under the leadership of Florian Antretter, has graphed the NYSERDA cost and measured performance data for various approaches and graciously made it available to Phius for publication. The results are proving the concept. 


As envisioned, the Phius Standard, design, and certification methodology has led to projects that not only perform the best, but are also constructed at minimal additional upfront cost. (PHI projects that use a single target for heating and cooling limits in all climates also perform reasonably well but are more expensive to build).

The new comprehensive guidebook explaining the Phius Standard design and certification methodology is now available here.

We are well on our way to (Phius) ZERO emissions!