Certified Passive House vs The Pretty Good House — Part IV

Part IV: Two Strategies, One Objective

I am guessing that I have telegraphed my conclusion in the preceding blogs.  So what follows should come as no surprise.  Both Passive House and the Pretty Good House play an important part in making work and living spaces more energy efficient.  So much like the Democratic party has made room for both its Elizabeths and Bernies, the sustainable building community ought to do the same with PH and PGH.  The two standards not only serve a common goal, they also, in different ways, benefit from the other’s existence.

Passive House has caught on in the commercial market where certifications like LEED and Passive House create value and building cache.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has done more than any other state to support and promote Passive House Certification at the commercial scale.[1]  In this context, Passive House can function to keep large-scale, complex building projects on task in pursuing energy efficiency.  It also becomes a gatekeeper for builders and developers who want to take advantage of Federal and State incentives for developing projects.

PGH, on the other hand, is well suited for the custom and semi-custom residential market, where skipping certification can have a large impact on cost.  This market already requires a high degree of trust between client and builder, so certification is less important. Most reputable custom builders will say that trust between client and builder is an essential ingredient of any custom-building project.[2]  The PGH standard can benefit from and build on that trust. In this context, the rigors of the PHIUS standard can feel a bit redundant.

The PGH principles have the power to refine and consolidate the better building practices of conscientious builders who value improvements in energy efficiency as much as the craft of building.  While the value of its principles is unquestioned, the marketing value of its name continues to be of some controversy.  The custom home market, even when it skirts the rigor of Passive House, is not inexpensive.  Clients there are likely to bristle at the idea of owning merely a Pretty Good House.  What the standard embodies in intellectual honesty, it likely lacks in marketing savvy and punch.  Builders and architects may smile knowingly when they hear the Pretty Good House moniker; they are in on the joke, but the name is likely to confuse or even turn off the average consumer.

The author and clients: it’s always been a matter of trust—and trustworthiness

Finally, much like the fiery Bernie and the methodical Elizabeth need each other, these two programs need each other.  PHIUS with its exacting standards backed by rigorous analytics and evidence-based evolution can offer a wealth of useful information to the PGH community, as it fosters and promotes learning in that community.  Many builders who buy into the PGH approach, including this one, nevertheless have completed PHIUS certification training programs because they know they can gain valuable building science knowledge as well as insights of practical application.  It is not an overstatement to say that the PHIUS program has made the PGH movement possible.  Their relationship is a lot like the rebelling teen (PGH) and the rebelled-against parent (PHIUS): the practiced virtues of the elders are passed on to the youth and become the foundation of all that is good in the rebellion of the youth against the elders.

And PHIUS can benefit from the broad appeal and wider dissemination of PGH.  Fruitful analysis relies on large sample numbers, and there will always be more PGH-like houses than Passive Houses.  These PGH can provide a mountain of data to the building science community that the “elitist” and expensive Passive House will never be able to match, especially for single family homes.

A closing note on carbon.  It is to the credit of both programs that they are rightly updating their standards and recommendations in acknowledgement of the trend to better balance operational carbon savings with reductions in the embodied carbon of building materials and processes.  In the final analysis, that willingness to learn and change is perhaps the strongest evidence that both these programs will long find followers within the building industry.

[1] https://phmass.org/ma-takes-the-lead-on-passive-house

[2] Trust is a disposition with a high positive asymmetry.  That is to say, a little effort to increase trust can yield big returns, while a reluctance to trust not only makes life a bit miserable and stressful, it also limits returns.  See https://fs.blog/brain-food/march-6-2022.  For an analysis of the benefits of trust in creative business enterprises from the perspective of neuro-science see: https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust.