The Passive House Movement

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted the fact that Americans are catching on to the passive house movement, a concept inaugurated in Germany in 1991, albeit a bit slower than our European counterparts.

Generally speaking, a passive house is one that relies less on energy consuming systems for warmth and comfort, and instead tries to incorporate these systems into the home’s design. Heat, for example, comes from the sun, and extra installation works hard to keep it in.

However, the idea of the passive home originated long before it was called as such by the environmental movement. Here in Korea, a country known for its preference for using technology to solve just about any problem, passive design has been a staple of architectural design for centuries.

A home’s envelope is the barrier it provides to the elements. In drafty modern day homes, the lack of a tightly sealed envelope can contribute to roughly 70 percent of electricity costs and nearly 40 percent of its overall energy use. Today, America’s passive-certified builders are using walls up to three times as thick as your standard residential structure.

In South Korea’s northern provinces, homes typically utilized a building style which required both Udegi, a thick outer wall, and Chukdam, an inner hallway to surround the living area. This double-envelope system provided a buffer between the living space and the harsh elements outside. The inner walls suffered far less convective heat loss because they were thoroughly shielded from the winter winds.

The traditional Korean home also sought to capitalize on the warmth provided by the sun when the weather turned cold, but to mitigate its warming effects during the summer months. To this end, the roof in these homes was designed with the sun’s changing position throughout the year in mind.

Today’s passive home builders spare no expense in making sure the home is oriented toward the southern sun for maximum comfort during the colder months. The extra effort seems justified when residents in New England, for example, are spending an average of $1000 on heat in a typical winter season.

The idea here is not that the architecture of old is superior to that of now. (After all, it might be difficult to anchor your 50” plasma TV into walls made of soil and volcanic stones.) But the more intentional the original design is, the greater the benefits in terms of long term savings.

Share your thoughts on how modern home construction can be adapted to conserve more energy.


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