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Passive House Schism Leaves U.S. in Limbo

September 13, 2011

By Paula Melton and Tristan Roberts
This article originally appeared on [BuildingGreen.com]

The Bagley Nature Center in Duluth, Minnesota, was designed by Salmella Architect for Passive House certification.
Photo Paul Crosby

The Bagley Nature Center in Duluth, Minnesota, was designed by Salmella Architect for Passive House certification.


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The international Passive House Institute (PHI) has severed its ties with the Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS), as PHI’s Wolfgang Feist accuses the U.S. body of compromising the Passive House standard. PHIUS, for its part, labels Feist’s open letter an act of sabotaging the Passive House standard, and is working to mollify certified Passive House designers and projects whose credentials may be caught up in the dispute. The Passive House standard has since been admired for its simplicity, but the relationships behind it are clearly more complex.

Not everyone, was taken off guard by the new developments. “It’s been like watching a train wreck coming,” says Jamie Wolf, principal of Wolfworks and a PHIUS-certified designer. He explains that given the “swirling background of allegiances and betrayals” that has characterized PHIUS for a year or more, “it was not a question of if, but when, something like this was going to come to pass.”

Project certification

The PHI states that PHIUS can no longer certify buildings to the international Passive House Standard. This leaves the U.S. without a dedicated certifying body recognized by PHI—though some international certifiers are already operating in the U.S. Feist promises that new certifiers will be trained to meet the demand, and with the many green building programs in the U.S., it seems likely he will have several candidates to choose from.

However, in an open letter responding to Feist, PHIUS cofounder and executive director Katrin Klingenberg says the idea is absurd. “We are working as pioneers in regards to certification in North America,” she writes. “We have learned the ropes and have mastered the climate-specific pitfalls, because we have hit most of them by now.” Projects looking for the blessing of Europe will need to separately pursue PHI certification—“a ludicrous situation” according to PHIUS.

One of the most striking accusations by Feist in his open letter is that of “certification of Passive House buildings without the requisite documentation.” In its response, PHIUS blames Feist for inaccurately portraying “difficulties with one project certified by PHIUS as a rationale for withdrawing its license to certify projects.” Klingenberg’s letter offers more details about these “difficulties,” which appear to involve non-European windows, ventilation questions, and a thermal break that was not built as designed.

Both Feist and PHIUS are trying to take the high road, appealing to the virtues of the overriding standard in their statements, and touting the grassroots movement behind Passive House. “Legitimacy is performance,” PHIUS says in its statement. “Legitimacy doesn’t live in Darmstadt [the home base of PHI in Germany]”. Because of the wide-ranging climates in the U.S., from subarctic to subtropical, “North America presents unique challenges,” and PHIUS calls on the international Passive House movement to adapt. “Evolution necessarily will vary from region to region in accordance with unique local conditions, customs, and markets,” continues the statement. “It has to.”

Designer certification

It looks like Passive House designers will also have to choose between two different certification systems, although PHIUS has signaled that it will try to streamline the process of getting both credentials. “We’re trying to determine the path forward,” says one Passive House consultant, who wished to remain anonymous. “It looks like PHI has never considered consultants certified by PHIUS as being legit, yet this is the first we’ve known about it,” he continues, noting that about 150 people are in this situation.

“It's critical to determine which of these organizations has acted in bad faith,” the consultant says, adding that it was still not clear whether “PHIUS told consultants they were being certified when they knew PHI was not acknowledging this certification” or whether PHI “was accepting PHIUS’s consultant certifications until this blow-up in their relations” and is now making U.S. consultants “pawns in this power struggle.”

Klingenberg’s letter to Feist makes a claim for the latter, saying PHI had agreed to recognize 170 PHIUS-certified consultants and to allow use of PHIUS and PHI logos together. PHIUS has been administering its own North American version of the certification exam (along with its own parallel certification) for some time, with PHI long accepting the two exams’ “side-by-side existence,” according to the U.S. body’s accounts. PHIUS says that PHI decided to lay down a new law earlier this year: Only the Certified European Passive House course and exam would be acceptable if designers were to have their certification recognized by PHI. According to Klingenberg’s letter, PHI also wanted to decertify the 170 or so professionals. According to PHIUS, it attempted to comply for the sake of solidarity but later gave up due to logistical problems and increasingly “burdensome” requirements that resulted in PHIUS being blamed for not preparing people to pass the European test.

For designers who already have the PHI-recognized European certification, PHIUS said it will offer a “shortened version” of its own exam, but it’s not clear what, if anything, PHI will do to make dual certification easier for designers to achieve. As our anonymous source points out, “PHI wants U.S. in the fold, so they need to tread carefully. How they treat these early-adopter consultants, who have been the main force behind the spread of Passive House in the U.S., will be critical.”

Planning software

Feist’s letter accuses PHIUS of copyright infringement relative to the Passive House Planning Package, or PHPP, the modeling software used to design a Passive House. Many have speculated that this infringement consists of PHIUS converting from metric to imperial units within the tool, but Klingenberg isn’t sure. “I’d be curious to hear what the exact contention is,” she writes in her letter to Feist, adding that the English-language version of the software was written with PHI’s permission and cooperation and that PHI condoned the distribution for more than two years. PHIUS will no longer be permitted to sell the package, but the software will still be available internationally in English.

False divisions?

In his letter explaining the break, Feist calls attention to “false divisions within the Passive House community,” but the divisions seem genuine enough.

Wolf claims that many in the American Passive House community have been put off by Klingenberg’s “opaque interpretations of her relationship and responsibilities to the governing body,” but clarifies that it was more a matter of personalities than substance. “We’re all behind what she wants to do,” he says. “But she hasn’t always been the best communicator or collaborator.” Wolf cites non-compete requirements for highly qualified people who could be training consultants for PHIUS but would then not be allowed to also teach for Passive House Academy, a competitor still recognized by PHI.

Klingenberg places the blame for that situation with Feist. “PHI has insisted in competition, rather than cooperation, between training entities,” Klingenberg counters. “We need to protect our material as best we can, as we license the curriculum to others.” She suggests that many people have seen her reacting strongly to what she views as PHI’s aggression and then held her responsible for creating conflict. “Most people only see the surface of what happens in the background,” she says. Despite her strong words, Klingenberg hopes PHI will “reinstate the service contracts [and] eliminate the introduced competition”—but says that “mutual respect of achievements” will be necessary in order for that to happen.

Looking ahead

Wolf believes that the Passive House community is strong enough to rebound after this setback. “This thing is bigger than a person,” he states. “The resilience of the community is what I have faith in.”

Whether those outside the movement will feel similar faith is unclear. “The beauty of the standard is that is clear-cut,” says the statement from PHIUS. However, if that “beauty” becomes too rigid—either within the standard itself or in the way designers and buildings are certified—Passive House is likely to lose some of its charm for the many designers, builders, and building owners yet to be converted.

Copyright 2011 by BuildingGreen Inc.

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