Avoiding the most common passive house trap

The biggest trap when buying a passive house is marketing

When I first considered building a passive house I did the easiest thing I could do and most people would actually do: contact some construction companies to get offers. Now I am living in Austria and that gave me the first reality check: the prices per m2 for a passive house are starting somewhere at 2000 eur/m2 with averages at cca 2500 eur/m2.

Quite shocked I went to Blaue Lagune in Vienna (a showroom of about 50 houses) only to find out that the cheapest non-passive house construction in Austria would start somewhere at 1200 – 1300 eur/m2. I was instantly out of budget with all my plans.

And also to find an interesting marketing gimmick: some companies were trying to sell houses by associating them with the word “passive”, but only have one or two elements which correspond to the passive house standard. Usually, that was walls or windows. The problem here is, however, a bit deeper: for example, if you buy/build a house which is super insulated – to meet all the standards and you don’t have any ventilation unit, you will end up having a very bad experience since the air is not going to circulate through walls and you will end up with a huge deficit of fresh air. The quality of living and comfort, in this case, would be lower than in an older, conventional building!

Since I was born in Romania and still have friends and family there I thought the next logical step would be to check the prices of construction companies from Romania which has a lower labor cost = cheaper construction. To my amusement, almost every company I talked to was able to build a passive house. The trouble came in only when I started to ask how do they measure what they deliver and the word “blower door test” was a neologism for them ūüôā

Bottom line lessons: 

  • A passive house needs to have all the elements, otherwise, it’s just a box of insulation material, potentially even harming your health due to the lack of fresh air
  • If you pick a company to build the house for you, make sure to include in the contract several blower door tests + thermography if possible and make them liable in case they don’t meet the criteria
  • Ideally, pick a company which can offer you a certified passive house – you don’t get the certificate if the facts are not there and the standards are not met

So here I am in a strange situation: on one hand having some quite reputable companies in Austria but needing to slice down the size of the house to the half in order to meet my budget or to risk with a company from Romania.

Needless to say at the time of writing this I am still not  100% decided but I am exploring a third option: get the material and self-build the house with the help of some construction professionals who I know are good. I will wait and evaluate the offers I get and get back with details.

In the meantime, I will post some articles about how to pick the right land plot to buy for your house and what are the elements of a passive house.

Passive house designed by an amateur. Is that even possible?

Passive house

Can someone with no formal education or experience design a fully working passive house?

That was the question which bothered me for quite a while. I know myself and I also know that I am rather a risk taker, sometimes at limits with naivety. And then came the famous claim from one of my biggest heroes, Elon Musk: ”¬†When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” There we go, that was the fuel needed for my passive house rocket.

There is a quite emerging industry of passive, ecological, net zero, zero energy house, call it how you want experts that try to create a perception that it’s ultra complicated to build a passive house. And in some cases, they are right, fair enough. After talking to some of them I realized¬†that a big percentage of my budget would actually go¬†into their direction. However, after spending time analyzing all the facts I came to the personal conclusion that it is worthy to try it on my own.

I have a degree in computer science and am working my whole professional life as a manager, so really the only connection between me and architecture is the fact that I admire some creations of starchitects like Daniel Libeskind, Bjarke Ingels, Frank Lloyd Wright and the list could go on.  But the idea of passive house and living with very low if not zero costs, the overall impact this would have on the environment for the next at least 30 years got me.

I am now so much convinced I can do it that I am ready to bet my money on it and actually start the project. My mission with this blog is to show other people that you can do it also on your own while saving costs big time. I hope that in this way I will somehow contribute to a better world.

I plan to post something every week or so (including photos and videos from the building site) so stay tuned, the adventure is about to begin!