Scalable educational facilities: the passive house design solution
By Paul C. Hutton, FAIA, LEED Fellow, Principal and Director of Regenerative Design at Cuningham
High-performance, energy-efficient school facilities can play a fundamental role in uplifting students, staff and the entire community in the long term.
That said, complex environmental control systems are often implemented to meet building performance targets related to energy efficiency and utility costs. These systems must be diligently maintained, otherwise they risk reduced energy performance and increased utility costs.
This maintenance requires a significant additional investment of money and time, which most school districts (especially rural and small) do not have.
The good news is that the solution for some installations – depending on the size, location and available resources – could arise from the strategic implementation of a concept born almost 50 years ago: the passive house.
The strategic application of these design principles could be the key to achieving highly efficient, but easier to operate, buildings that are “future-proof” to be successful – without the extra budget.
This could be a game-changer for schools located across the country, especially in more rural areas without immediate access to resources. Beyond that, it could improve more conventional approaches to large-scale sustainability and help facilitate the move towards regenerative design.
What is the Passive House?
The Passive House design framework is really a set of principles that can be applied to all types of buildings. Ultimately, it seeks to balance heat gain and loss to maintain optimum comfort levels through an energy efficient process.
According to Passive House Institute US, Inc. (PHIUS), this is achieved through the implementation of the five principles of building science below:
- Uses continuous insulation throughout its envelope without any thermal bridge.
- The building envelope is extremely tight, preventing the infiltration of outside air and the loss of conditioned air.
- Uses high performance windows (double or triple glazed windows, depending on climate and type of building) and doors. Solar gain is managed to harness the sun’s energy for heating purposes during the heating season and to minimize overheating during the cooling season.
- Uses some form of balanced heat and humidity recovery ventilation.
- Uses a minimal space conditioning system.
The roots of the Passive House framework actually started in North America in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo, which tripled oil prices and plunged the United States – and much of the Western world – into an energy crisis.
This prompted architects and engineers to seek innovative solutions to improve the energy consumption of the built environment, including superinsulation and solar architecture. In 1982, the American physicist William Shurcliff coined the term “passive house” to describe these methods.
As interest in the principles and conservation of energy as a whole began to wane in the United States in the 1980s, Germany forged ahead. German physicist Wolfgang Feist improved the efficiency of passive house design and eventually founded the Passivhaus Institute (PHI).
Today, the principles of the passive house continue to show promise as a key player on the path to achieving net zero and net positive energy goals.
In the passive house setting, the cost increases of an improved envelope are hopefully offset by the resulting simplified HVAC system cost reductions.
The passive house as a solution for educational establishments
Education stakeholders increasingly understand the importance of green and efficient facilities that will serve students and communities for decades to come. This has been a key factor that has influenced the architectural and design work of our school facilities in recent years.
In some cases, designs have had to adapt and evolve to meet new prescribed standards. The first instincts of some project teams might be to implement environmental control systems that are often too complex to maintain and impossible to operate in the long term.
In reality, many school districts, especially in small communities outside of urban centers, do not have the budgets or access to the resources to maintain high levels of performance for these systems over the long term.
For this reason, when discussing the energy efficient design of school facilities, project teams should ask themselves: