Lessons for Schools in Energy-Efficient “Passive Houses”

January 26, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

Sometimes you read something that seems entirely commonsense while at the same time being completely new. In this article, the author wrote about the concept of a “passive house” that saves energy by requiring almost no heating:

Architects in many countries, in attempts to meet new energy efficiency standards like the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design standard in the United States, are designing homes with better insulation and high-efficiency appliances, as well as tapping into alternative sources of power, like solar panels and wind turbines.

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.

And of course what’s good for the home is good for schools too, because “…schools in Frankfurt are built with the technique.”

This is the first I’ve read about this technique and it does pique my curiosity. I wonder what the benefits of this method over LEED design might be? And I wonder how this method might affect indoor air quality? How do you accomplish this type of design while taking into account the unique design of schools, which include gymnasiums, lunchrooms, science classrooms and commercial kitchens?

It’s exciting to see so much innovation in this area.  And of course all our recommendations for healthy design – including adequate nursing space, hand washing facilities, healthy food prep areas and other facility characteristics that support health and wellness – would all still apply.

To learn more about healthy school design, check out HSC’s Resource Guide for Healthy, High-Performing Schools.