Passive House Certification of Edgewaterhaus: PHI or PHIUS+?

We’re ready to submit Edgewaterhaus for Passive House Certification.

Which begs the question: should we even bother with certification, particularly after the fracturing of the Passive House movement last August?  That’s when the Passive House Institute (PHI), the international organization headquartered in Germany, and it’s Passive House Institute United States (PHIUS) affiliate started lobbing invective laced verbal grenades across the pond to each other.  That culminated in PHI “divorcing” PHIUS, i.e., revoked it’s ability to certify buildings under the PHI banner.  (See my August 27 2010 blog entitled “PHI vs. PHIUS…..And the Winner is…”).

As an aside to the leadership of PHI and PHIUS, I offer the insight of Rodney King seeking to quell the 1992 Los Angeles riots: ”People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”

I read that many building owners try to save a few bucks by forgoing certification.  However, I think there’s value in “officially” meeting a recognized standard.  You can run a 26.4 mile course in record time, but it’s much more credible when you cross the finish line at a sanctioned marathon event.  I think certification also adds focus during construction, and future resale value to the building.

So we will seek certification, but with whom: the internationally recognized PHI that developed  the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) energy performance software and passive house standards, or PHIUS’ fledgling “PHIUS+” certification?

We’d really like to stay with the “hometown” PHIUS team.  So what’s PHIUS been up to since the August split?

  • Green Building Advisor Richard Defendorf reported that PHIUS announced a ban in December on the use of spray foam insulation that uses hydrofluorocarbon blowing agents with high global warming potential.  With certain exceptions, that means closed cell spray foams cannot be used for PHIUS+ certification, but open cell spray foams (which use water as the blowing agent) are allowed.  PHIUS wants to promote insulation materials that have a low embodied energy.  What’s that mean?  Steel is a good example of a high embodied energy material; mining the iron ore is very energy intrusive, as is smelting the ore and transporting the steel to it’s destination.  Another is granite slabs mined in Europe and shipped to the U.S. for use as countertops.  Examples of low embodied energy material are natural stone taken from a nearby quarry, or timber harvested and reused on the site.  We’ve just done that with the pine trees on Edgewaterhaus that we cut down, logged, and locally milled into timbers and boards for interior finishes on the three season room.  I think the ban is a good move by PHIUS.  An open cell formulation will be fine for the minimum spray foam insulation Edgewaterhaus requires for the band board where the floor joists meet the foundation.
  • Prolific GBA writer Martin Holladay reported that PHIUS filed a trademark application in January with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office of the Department of Commerce for exclusive use of the term “Certified Passive House Consultant, or phrase CPHC.”  When PHIUS was a subsidiary of PHI, both used the “CPHC” moniker.  Now PHIUS wants exclusive use of the term “CPHC” in the U.S., even though “CPHC” is reportedly used around the world by other PHI national affiliates.  In a legal flanking maneuver, PHIUS also sent notice to the Passive House Academy (PHA) to stop its use of CPHC.  PHA, with offices in Ireland and New York, is one of the few remaining organizations in North America that can still certify a building under the PHI standard.  PHIUS is a 501(c)3 charitable non-profit organization whose mission is “….to promote implementation of Passive House Building Energy standard…..”.  I cringe at the thought of a charitable organization like PHIUS calling out the lawyers to defend turf.  ’Cause that’s just what this is: a continuation of PHI vs PHIUS infighting.  How do lawyers help the PHIUS stated goal of advancing the Passive Housing Building Energy standard?
  • PHIUS also announced in January a new strategic partnership with RESNET, the non-profit organization that developed the HERS index.  This index rates the energy performance of homes based on a zero to 100 scale, with 100 being a new home built to current US building standards, and zero representing a home that requires zero energy on an annual basis.   RESNET has the impressive support of the U.S. government as well as the mortgage and financial industry.  There are many RESNET energy auditors, but there are no RESNET contractors and builders in the northeast.  PHIUS had to come up with some new approach to replace PHI certification, so on the surface, the lash-up with RESNET would seem to make sense.  The joint press release states that the RESNET/PHIUS agreement “synchronizes standards, modeling, and quality assurance and quality control for low energy homes and buildings.”

That all sounds good.  But for me, the wheels started coming off the wagon when I looked closer.  According to the press release, PHIUS would: become an affiliate of RESNET; adopt the HERS index; “adopt standards and procedures that harmonize with RESNET….”; and work with RESNET to adopt a uniform calculation of carbon savings.  In return, RESNET would……….ah, apparently do nothing.   There is no mention of what if anything RESNET will do differently.  That does not come across to me like a partnership of equals.

So I looked more closely at the new PHIUS+ procedures, which now adds a quality assurance/quality control component to the passive house certification.  In short, you (1) upload the architectural plans to PHIUS, who (2) analyzes the energy performance using the PHPP software.  If the project meets the (3) PHPP modeling standards, you submit the project to a (4) RESNET approved rater, who similarly reviews the plans and conducts some unspecified number of onsite visits during construction, to include performing the final blower door test to affirm whether the building achieves the maximum allowed 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 pascal.   With a favorable RESNET  report, PHIUS will (5) issue the PHUIS+ certificate along with a RESNET approved HERS score.

I found it interesting that PHIUS can still use the PHI developed PHPP software.   I wondered if PHIUS had modified any of the PHPP data fields,  acceptable values, or interpretations since the rift with PHI.  In an email exchange with PHIUS, I was assured that the PHIUS results “should match very closely” with that of PHI.  Hmmmn, so six months after the internecine warfare, there are no acknowledged changes!

What struck me most was the apparent absence of consolidation, synchronization, or process melding between PHIUS and RESNET.  Other than the need to have a reputable 3rd party perform the final blower door test, the RESNET portion appears to be simply a duplicate effort.  Instead of paying for and following a Passive House certification process, you must now also pay and follow a RESNET certification process, whether or not the latter provides any additional benefit.  And since Passive House is touted as being 90 percent more energy efficient than a home built to current U.S. code, that should confer a defacto HERS Score of 10.  I wonder about the additional time and process RESNET will add to the construction timeline.  And I wonder what non-sequiter devils lie in the process details between these two organizations.  Perhaps that will all be worked out over time.  We still plan to seek LEED Platinum certification, but RESNET certification was not on our scope.  For us, the “+” aspect of PHIUS certification does not seem to offer any obvious benefits, and certainly adds time, duplication of effort, and cost.

Most recently, PHIUS announced an initiative to relax the passive house standard for cold climates.   As reported in Environmental Building News, the proposal being developed would better balance cost vs benefit for the additional depth of insulation needed to attain the passive house standard in cold climates.  I have mixed views on this.  Perhaps this might address my pet rock that PHI now credits use of solar thermal systems but not solar voltaic systems.  On the other hand, that means that homes would be graded on a climate curve.  Do you want your school children graded on a local curve, only to face the reality of international competition for talent, jobs, and pay in a global economy?  I’ve always accepted the reality that meeting the passive house in Maine will be more challenging and expensive than doing so in California.

After considering all this, we decided to submit for PHI certification using the Passive House Academy.  Certification cost is a not inexpensive $2,200.  Surprisingly, PHA must independently reenter all the PHPP data, rather than simply double check our PHPP entries.  It’s not like this is the design for a nuclear reactor, where 100 percent corroboration of data entries makes sense!

This entry was posted in Green Building, LEED, Net Zero, Passive House, Passive House Certification and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Passive House Certification of Edgewaterhaus: PHI or PHIUS+?

  1. Roger Lin says:

    Great analysis! I am coming to very similar conclusions too.

  2. Thanks for this review.

    Just to set the record straight on a few items.

    Firstly, the Passive House Academy is now incorporated in the US as a Non-Profit and we are going through the 501C3 Application process right now. We will also have a permanently staffed office in Brooklyn before end of March, serving our many training and building Certification Clients.

    Secondly, regarding the issue of us re-entering the project into PHPP, this is perfectly standard procedure and does not add to the cost of Certification. We have three people in our Certification Department and they are highly skilled and proficient at entering projects swiftly and accurately into the software. It is just as quick to enter the project from scratch, as it is to check someone else’s file, cell by cell. Another reason for re-entry is that the PHPP version we use is an update from that typically used by our US Clients. We prefer to use the very latest version of PHPP. Given that our projects are cross-checked in terms of quality assurance by the German PHI, we need to present them with the latest version (which is not available in IP).

    I hope that helps.

    Greetings from San Antonio where the Academy along with others is delivering a major 3-day training event for the US Army Corps of Engineers. The 170 attendees are from all over the US.

  3. Pingback: brute force collaborative » On Peti- & Certifica- tions

  4. Thanks for this. We’re pondering the PHI vs. PHIUS certification question for a project that has just (March 23rd) gone in for its building permit in Seattle.

  5. Pingback: A Plague On Both Their Passive Houses | Real Estate tips - simple real estate money making tips! Sell your house today!

  6. Roger,
    I appreciate you putting this rather difficult topic on the table, especially with lots of confusing (and inaccurate) information out there especially in the legal realm.

    On the certification topic: it only then makes sense, as you point out, if it actually is “worth” the money and not just a paper tiger. It should be a stringent process of quality assurance processes. This rigorous quality assurance happens in PHIUS+ in design and in the actual implementation phase.

    PHIUS learned through the experience on a project in Canada, where the actual performance results deviated from what had been predicted and verified on paper, how critical to success on-site verification is. In that Canadian case, the certification criteria used at that time were incomplete. We eventually identified the problem as a lack of focus on actual rigorous onsite quality assurance and site control protocols as well as mandatory verification of climate specific factors like actual solar availability.

    The partnership with RESNET is far from duplicating what already exists. The result of this partnership is quite amazing and exciting: an advanced on-site testing protocol especially put together for quality assurance of superinsulated buildings. The current HERS scores do not accurately represent passive houses and with performance based incentives on the horizon and the HERS rating being the key to those with LEED and government programs it was imperative to find a solution and create accurate ratings. Together we did.

    We at PHIUS are very proud of the recent achievements with PHIUS+, the positive feedback and the uptake in PHIUS+ submissions continues its trend of significant growth from the previous years. That’s a great sign and we think that the program is a major step in the right direction also to assure that the passive house community will not experience significant building failures and will remain known for its excellent quality of building.

    Homeowners and builders alike clearly recognize the actual value of such certification programs. Those with rigorous focus on quality assurance on site are the best option available today to assure one’s investment and that the project will last and actually perform as predicted.

    • Roger says:

      Katrin, thank you for your comments, and Kudos to you and PHIUS for being engaged on PH certification issues at the grass roots level on the web. It’s certainly a hot topic based on the number of “hits” I’ve had on this bog and other discussions I’ve had. I can see opportunities to fudge on such subjective PHPP aspects as shading factors. But the schism with PHI and subsequent lash-up with RESNET seems a heavy-handed solution to what appears to have been a single point failure. Perhaps it would be helpful to lay out in greater detail on the PHIUS web site precisely how the merging of separate PHIUS and RESNET processes consolidated the analysis to avoid duplication, and the specific details of this “advanced on-site testing protocol.” PHPP is an exceptionally detailed analysis which befits an equally meticulous explanation of the new QA aspects.

  7. Jeff Stern says:

    Roger / Rob,

    Curious what direction you each ended up going for certification (if at all). I am just now facing a similar decision point. Turns out that for PHIUS+, the cost of the rater (a separate contract from PHIUS) is roughly $4k in addition to the $1282 going to PHIUS. This is a deal breaker for me, so I’m more seriously considering PHI via PHA ($2200) or even forgetting about certification altogether.

    I understand the intent with PHIUS+, but as the Owner, Architect, Contractor, CPHC on the project I don’t feel the need for a third-party to verify my own work and certainly to the tune of $4k…

    I would appreciate any and all thoughts.

    • Roger says:

      Jeff, sorry for the delayed reply.

      We decided to go the PHI via PHA route. While I would have preferred to stay with the PHIUS home team, I remain puzzled and disappointed with the implosion of the passive house leadership in the US. I also saw PHIUS + as more much more process and cost, as you observed, and no benefit to us. Check out some of my other blogs on this topic for additional thoughts.

      I think certification is important for the 3rd party rigor and validation it forces into the process, along with the “diploma” you receive upon graduation. After we achieved PHA “Design Stage Assurance,” we still had some AHD room below the standard, and chose to reduce 4″ of subslab insulation to save cost. PHA reran the numbers at no additional cost and we were still comfortably below the target.

  8. Jon Shafer says:

    It is very interesting to see both the efforts of PHA and PHI offering a similar implementation of a model. However, I have to admit that it is a model at best. I have been on a variety LEED/Energy Star/”Green Home” projects over the past several years and found that onsite errors are a common occurrence even with the most experience of builders. Wrong water heaters installed, air leaks that are trying to be sealed at the last minute with 10 year caulk, furnaces installed with factoring settings – blowing way more air than is needed, etc. etc. People make mistakes – me too!

    There all always exceptions to this rule, especially if you are the builder, architect, and owner. However, it is unfortunate that HERS RESNET raters are charging large fees to achieve a PHIUS+ certification. These large fees discourage advancement in the building industry especially in affordable housing. I know with the down turn of the economy, many builders are struggling to sell anything, let alone a Passive Home.

    Another point, if PHA or PHI is going to set a standard in the US, the standard can’t rely solely on good faith of all builders to build exactly to the model. For example: LEED for homes uses a Green Rater and a HERS rater, Energy Star uses a HERS rater, NAHB uses their own Rater. Note, all standards have 3rd party verification. It can be thought of like a USDA inspector at a meat factory or a smog technician in a mechanic shop. Does it work like the model? If not, why?

    I believe that both PHI and PHA are faced with a HUGE learning curve, and I am glad to see it being discussed on this blog. Personally (although I am somewhat biased as a HERS rater), I am excited to see PHIUS partnering with RESNET. Unfortunately, our political system is driven by politicians who probably no nothing about kbtus/sf. However, they may understand a simple scale from o to 100. And they may understand that if we start building with passive house techniques, we can prolong our resources from 100 years to 200 years+. With the 3rd party verification almost like a “guaranteed stamp,” we can also develop incentive programs with local governments.

    I will be rating my first passive home through PHIUS+ program. A slab inspection, pre-drywall blower door test, final blower door test during final inspection, balancing of the HRV system, thermal imaging to make sure all bridging is eliminated, and a few other inspections is all it takes. Like someone said, it is not rocket science. I estimate my fees would be around $1500.00, a far cry from $4000.00. And if the builder and rater have been on a few projects together, I bet the fees would be less.

    Even if your not building exactly to the model, I am glad to see builders and architects both engaging in the learning the science of a Passive House. The techniques and building science knowledge is priceless to our industry. So thank you both!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>