Self-Designed Project: Passive House Topics

An adjunct lecturer associated with the Spitzer School of Architecture would be happy to serve as capstone project advisor for a team that wishes to self-design a capstone project that will investigate an important current issue in Passive House construction. A Passive House features optimized exterior envelopes (super insulated, airtight, thermal bridge-free, triple pane windows) coupled with energy efficient mechanical systems and appliances. Verified data shows that they can use up to 80% less energy for heating and cooling than conventional buildings.  Some examples of topic areas that could become the basis for a capstone project appear below. A team wishing to self-design a project involving one of these (or other) topics would be asked to flesh out the basic parameters of the project by the end of the Fall 2019 semester, in consultation with the potential faculty advisor:

Passive House + Net Zero

Some leading questions to investigate might be: If we assume strict “Net Zero Energy” requirements for buildings (as California, for example, will be requiring starting in 2020), what might be the effects of Passive House construction on stability of the electrical grid (ramp rate, load factor, etc.)? For true Net Zero predictability, what sort of modeling defaults should we be using for DHW (Domestic Hot Water) /occupant, and miscellaneous electric load (MEL)? How would they differ from Passive House load defaults? Can we develop a “'stressful” weather data file modification tool for predicting future “bad weather” and yearly heating and cooling loads (as opposed to the average weather data that Passive House Planning Package—the design software for Passive Houses—uses), in order to build  safety factors into the model?  What safety factors are needed for true Net Zero feasibility?

Passive House Retrofit Case-Studies

Passive House retrofitting presents special challenges and could use more resources, e.g., detailed case studies that help to show what works and what doesn’t when passive construction principles are applied to existing structures. Vendors such as 475 High Performance Building Supply have done good work, for example with the Intello air barrier membrane for the wood construction world.  But more details are needed, e.g., for Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems (EIFS). A capstone project team could select relevant case studies, collect actual details (actual performance data for actual products), and develop a set of data-based standards and recommendations regarding the performance of the components/systems in question.

Comparison of Energy Modelling Tools

According to the Passive House Institute,,  “The Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) is the key design tool used when planning a Passive House, and as such, serves as the basis of verification for the Passive House Standard.”  Passive House projects are designed with the PHPP software to produce optimized exterior envelopes that are coupled with energy efficient mechanical systems and appliances.  An interesting question is how PHPP modeling compares with other energy modelling tools, such as eQuest or EnergyPlus—which are used with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. A team could select an in-service LEED-certified building for which there is a good record of energy use data. The next step would be to model this data on several platforms (PHPP, eQuest, EnergyPlus), comparatively analyze differences and similarities in data entry, and see which energy modelling tool comes closest to replicating the actual energy performance of the building.