"Oregon steps up on passive house standards"
by Lee van der Voo
Sustainable Business Oregon
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Supporters of the passive house trend achieved a landmark in Oregon this month when a committee charged with drafting the state's building code adopted a standard recognizing passive house construction.
The Oregon Reach Code Committee, a group that develops Oregon’s building code three years in advance of its implementation, adopted an amendment allowing certified passive houses to meet the state's energy compliance standard for commercial buildings. They say a similar move related to residential construction is on the horizon.
The Passive House Building Energy Standard, which cuts traditional energy use by as much as 90 percent, is the world's most rigorous standard for energy efficiency. It's the yardstick for certifying passive houses. Its proponents say it has been widely practiced in Europe, where it is being phased in as minimum building code, but it is relatively new in the United States, making Oregon’s move historic.
"I think it's the first time that the passive house standard has been recognized properly by any kind of code in the United States," said Sam Hagerman, president of the Passive House Alliance, a national group focused on advancing the standard. He is also co-owner and president of Hammer and Hand, a Portland-based remodeling contractor and homebuilder.
"The fact that we're just recognizing it as an option within an option doesn't commit anybody to anything. It's just a way of recognizing a really high-performance building standard without requiring it," Hagerman said.
When Oregon's Reach Code is formally adopted by the State's Building Codes Division later this year, the Passive House Building Energy Standard will be part of the new optional code. That will allow builders of certified passive houses to leapfrog state investigations for energy compliance of buildings by showing their certificate. Allowing the standard into law also paves the way for these energy efficient buildings to capitalize on green-building incentives in Oregon.
"If Oregon's truly going to lead the nation, this is how we can do it," said Dylan Lamar, an architectural designer and energy consultant at Green Hammer, a design and construction firm based in Portland.
That point was hit home, Lamar said, when a group of passive house designers lobbied the Oregon Reach Code Committee earlier this month. The committee adopted the passive house standard unanimously that day.
Joe Esmonde, a business agent for the IBEW 48, which represents about 3,700 electricians in the Portland Metro area, serves on the Oregon Reach Code Committee. He said the committee would offer a strong recommendation for including the Passive House Building Energy Standard in state code and that he personally would help fight for it.
"It makes good sense. The economics are 6 percent to 10 percent above the cost of new construction and, in the scheme of things, your house is going to last 20 or 30 years," he said.
That allows passive house owners to pay for the cost premium of the home in seven to 10 years and, in addition to offering cost-savings for homeowners, also decreases demands on the state's energy systems.
In a political climate increasingly fond of energy savings, it seems unlikely Esmonde will have to fight hard to keep the Passive House Building Energy Standard in state code.
It garnered strong support for inclusion, endorsed by 14 nonprofit organizations and 29 businesses, including the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon, Oregon Environmental Council, Climate Solutions, Rocky Mountain Institute and the VOIS (Voice for Oregon Innovation & Sustainability) business alliance.
The Oregon Global Warming Commission also sent a letter of support, aligning the passive house standard with the aims of its Roadmap to 2020 report, which called for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Only four passive homes have been constructed in Oregon to date. But a Salem home built by Blake Bilyeu demonstrated the possibilities of passive houses and provided data critical to the recent adoption of the Passive House Building Energy Standard by the Oregon Reach Code Committee.
"It showed that passive houses are approachable to the average builder," said Bilyeu. "It was a project that was built by real people on a real budget. It was not a boutique project. It was a project that could certainly be replicable.