What the Passive House building energy standard can teach the World Bank

The Passive House standard sets stringent performance goals, but then allows flexibility in the means to reach those goals, placing the responsibility for problem-solving in the hands of on-the-ground practitioners.

For the past few weeks we at Hammer & Hand have been working with a group of local building science experts and advocates in an effort to get the Passive House building energy standard adopted as an alternative, performance-based compliance path in Oregon’s new Reach Code.  (The Reach Code is an aspirational, optional building code meant to “market-test” energy efficient ideas for possible inclusion in future base building code … “reaching” for better code … get it?)

Not being a building scientist myself, this work has given me a unique chance to really delve into Passive House and gain a deeper understanding for the standard and what makes it special.  And when I compare the performance-based Passive House standard with more prescriptive green building standards, I keep thinking of the World Bank in the 80s.

As a college student (back in the day) I got pretty immersed in the study of sustainable development in the developing world, and one of the popular themes that ran through class discussions and journal articles in those days was the big, unintended and negative consequences that came from the World Bank’s large development projects.  Think big dam projects that generate lots of electricity but that destroy vital farmland and multiply the threat of famine.  Good intentions, but decidedly mixed results.  Where did the World Bank go wrong?  It disregarded local conditions and the local knowledge that should inform any development intervention.

What does this have to with Passive House?  As a performance-based building standard that allows tremendous flexibility, Passive House honors local conditions and the knowledge of the “local” designer and builder creating any given project.  The Passive House standard hands practitioners a powerful piece of modeling software (PHPP, or the Passive House Planning Package), sets a couple of simple, aggressive building energy performance targets, and then lets the designer and builder figure out the best way to achieve those metrics.

Passive House doesn’t presume to know the best way to solve any given problem.  It doesn’t “prescribe” a solution from on high.  In that way, it’s like the community-informed, locally-driven sustainable development projects (think micro-lending) that replaced the centrally-planned mega projects of the World Bank.  And while prescriptive green building standards don’t cause famine, they can lead to unintended consequences and mixed results – mediocre energy performance, for instance.

If my analogy seems belabored, then a simpler parallel is this: the difference between prescriptive building standards and performance-based building standards is like the contrast between command-and-control regulation versus market-based approaches to environmental regulation.  Passive House is like “cap and trade” in that it’s up to individual agents to solve problems – as long as the performance benchmark is met, it’s all good.  We don’t need to centrally dictate solutions.

I’m not arguing that there isn’t a place for prescriptive approaches to green building (or for command-and-control approaches to environmental regulation), but the performance-based alternative sure is compelling.


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