Pioneers of High-Performance Buildings

I’m inspired by pioneers in any field, but particularly those who were doing low-energy buildings long before most of us even heard of “Green Building”.

A little background may be in order. I remember in the early seventies when the oil embargo hit, and my parents complained about the price of gas jumping (the price of oil quadrupled from $3 to $12 a barrel!). A concern for energy efficiency and energy conservation grew out of this “crisis”. Energy codes were born or broadened, requiring us to insulate our buildings, and to make them less leaky. There was a lot of trial and error – two steps forward, one step back. Insulated buildings saved energy, and so did tighter envelopes. But the latter also led to the unhealthy build-up of toxins and stale air indoors (can anyone say “Sick Building Syndrome”?)*. In response to this, fresh-air ventilation was introduced. This led to more energy loss as the warm indoor air was exhausted, to be replaced by cold air from outside. In response to this, heat-recovery ventilation was introduced, which has become more efficient over time.

*There were other unforeseen impacts of these “improvements” – for example, tighter buildings no longer allowed the easy passage of water vapor through walls. More about this in a later blog!

The abbreviated history above describes the slow response (really still occurring) within the mainstream building industry, to the energy crisis. But there were those who took a more holistic view of building and energy, and from the start integrated many effective strategies together. One of these innovators (a hero of mine) was William Shurcliff, a well-known physicist with a background in nuclear physics. He issued a press release in 1979 (!), listing the necessary components of super-insulated houses. It reads today, 33 years later, like a checklist of strategies to achieve the Passive House Standard:

1. Truly superb insulation. Not just thick, but clever and thorough. Excellent insulation is provided even at the most difficult places: sills, headers, foundation walls, windows, electric outlet boxes, etc.
“2. Envelope of house is practically airtight. Even on the windiest days the rate of air change is very low.
“3. No provision of extra-large thermal mass. (Down with Trombe walls! Down with water-filled drums and thick concrete floors!)
“4. No provision of extra-large south windows. Use normal number and size of south windows — say 100 square feet.
“5. No conventional furnace. Merely steal a little heat, when and if needed, from the domestic hot water system. Or use a minuscule amount of electrical heating.
“6. No conventional distribution system for such auxiliary heat. Inject the heat at one spot and let it diffuse throughout the house.
“7. No weird shape of house, no weird architecture.
“8. No big added expense. The costs of the extra insulation and extra care in construction are largely offset by the savings realized from not having huge areas of expensive Thermopane [windows], not having huge well-sealed insulating shutters for huge south windows, and not having a furnace or a big heat distribution system.
“9. The passive solar heating is very modest — almost incidental.
“10. Room humidity remains near 50 percent all winter. No need for humidifiers.
“11. In summer the house stays cool automatically. There is no tendency for the south side to become too hot — because the south window area is small and the windows are shaded by eaves.

The developers of the Passivhaus Standard acknowledge their indebtedness to William Shurcliff, and other pioneers experimenting in super-insulated houses (many of whom were from the U.S. and Canada). Shurcliff wrote many books on this and related subjects, including “Solar Heated Buildings of North America”, “Thermal Shutters and Shades”, “Super-Insulated Houses and Double-Envelope Houses”, and “Air-to-Air Heat Exchangers for Houses”. More about Shurcliff, and others including Harold Orr and Eugene Leger, can be found at:

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