When Bill Jobes learned about the ultra-high-efficiency building concept known as passive house, “it was love at first sight.”
Jobes, CEO of Jobes Builders, has worked in home construction in the Charlottesville area since 1977, when he started apprenticing with Shelter Associates. He’s always been inspired by efficient home design, he said, and not just because it’s environmentally friendly. It’s something of a point of pride: If you can find a way to build a better mousetrap, why not do it?
“Really what we’re talking about is good building practices,” he said. “So much of construction has diminished to the least common denominator. It does sort of suggest a pedaling backward in quality and value.”
Many who share the attitude within the industry have rallied around the passive house movement. The standard was developed in Germany in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when a group of architects set out to build ultra-efficient housing stock that would cut energy use by 80 to 90 percent, requiring little to no “artificial” heating or cooling. The concept has finally crossed the Atlantic, and when Jobes caught wind of it two years ago, he saw it as the embodiment of everything he’d been wanting to do. “Theoretically, you could heat your house with a hair dryer,” he said. He knew he wanted to give it a try.
Jobes found a kindred spirit in Charlottesville resident Fred Greenewalt, who agreed to invest and become the owner of the first Virginia house built to the strict, official standards of the Passive House Institute. The Lankford House, located at 229 Lankford Ave. in the city’s Ridge Street neighborhood, has extra thick walls, superinsulation, double-glazed windows, and employs passive solar heating.
The key, though, is that it’s airtight. Traditionally built houses are full of air leaks, he said, and there’s a focused effort in passive building to eliminate them. That strikes some unfamiliar with the concept as strange, Jobes said.
“People freak about it, saying, ‘I don’t want to live in a balloon,’” Jobes said. But fresh air does come in—it’s just carefully controlled. An energy recovery ventilation system, or ERV, exhausts stale air from the kitchen and bathrooms and brings filtered air into sleeping and living areas, he said, creating a circular flow.
The result is a house that renders a lot of other green technology essentially irrelevant, said Jobes. Solar, geothermal heat—those are just Band-Aids for imperfect design.
But then there’s the question of selling it. Right now, building to the passive standard can drive costs up, in part because there’s not yet a critical mass of people willing to do it, Jobes said. And if you want the official Passive House Institute designation, that costs a few thousand dollars extra. That could be why the Lankford house is still on the market almost a year after it was built, despite the fact that at 2,600 square feet, it’s got an energy bill of only $50 per month.
But Jobes thinks we’re approaching a tipping point where energy costs will drive more people toward the passive movement, even if the label doesn’t move them—especially in Charlottesville, where energy experts as well as architects and builders, are buying into the idea that it’s possible to reduce energy use almost to nil. It’s sort of like the organic food movement, he said. At a certain point, do we really need a special certification to get us on board with high-performance house design?
“I do think that even if people aren’t beating down the door, there’s a heightened awareness about this,” he said. “And the more people are aware, the more open to a passive house people will be.”