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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

So, You Want to Build a House? Part 2

Barb and Greg Whitchurch               

Now that you’ve passed the quiz on Part 1 published in the June-July issue of Green Energy Times  (, let’s just dive right into Part 2.

Credentials: There are now so many designers and builders who’ve built to the performance standards mentioned in Part 1 that there’s no reason to waste time talking to those who haven’t, or who are hesitant to start. These updated standards are practical solutions. If someone starts throwing return-on-investment (ROI), or payback figures at you, ask them to show you where your health, comfort or safety figure into their equations. Resale? Repair and maintenance?  Resilience in weather events? All these figures into today’s home design standards.

Back in 2013, we needed to add on a cottage for Greg’s elderly parents. The builder we chose ( happened to have one guy who was just finishing up his exam for PHIUS certification; yet that was enough to get us all on the right track. So, in the end, a bunch of newbies turned out a multiple-award-winning, PHIUS+ Certified, Net-Zero Passive House (PH) on our first try. We worried a LOT, but it wasn’t rocket science ( (For cash and tax incentives, see pages 14-15 in any issue of G.E.T.)

Strategies For Getting Everything You Wished For: Perhaps you’ll turn the basement into an office a little later. You could do without the deck or the garage for a little bit. Get the granite counter tops after a year of accumulated savings on your energy bills.

We know of many folks who’ve initially settled for painted plywood floors in some rooms, polished wooden countertops, an unfinished spare bathroom or such, knowing that their minuscule energy bills would allow them to address those wants even better in the near future.

Do It Yourselfers! If you can build a “high efficiency” house, you can build a PH. It’s not technically more difficult. Like creating a fine meal: just a little more expense on a few items, plus more time and care with the prep, will see you through to an exceptional result. And if the value of your home is a concern for borrowing or resale, then you’ll want verification along the way, as well as certification at the end. So, sign up with PHIUS, Efficiency Vermont, or PHI for their consultation and certification services.

Cautions: The profit made by the builder is anchored to his or her ability to pay as little as possible for materials, and to spend as little time as possible getting the project to completion. Cutting corners where the homeowner can’t see them, and not fixing mistakes, are far more common than you think, and only later discovered when remodeling. Verification is the solution.

A Passive House in Vermont, ‘way back in 2012.’  (PHIUS)

Some Perspective on Standards: Like so many other pursuits, homebuilding has evolved as an accumulation of gradual improvements over time. The “super-insulation” of 20 years ago is now considered inadequate. Healthful indoor air is only newly on the table. Safety from storing and burning explosives for heating and cooking is still a bone of contention (

But we’ve finally experienced an epiphany in the building industry. Like medicine and agriculture, building design has embraced science and engineering. We are no longer stuck with individuals’ making piecemeal improvements on their past work. We have Building Science now.

Certified standards based on building science use engineering guides and modelling software to provide a checklist of methods and tests that ensure that you get what you want. Yet, it’s still common to run across architects and contractors who dismiss these advances as “newfangled” fads. ( Don’t believe a word of that. Consider another architect.

Why are more and more countries and municipalities adopting the Passive House standard?  Well, partly for its resilience in extreme weather.  And partly because verification is an integral part of its process, thereby relieving governments of many of their building code oversight duties. In Massachusetts alone, the towns of Somerville, Newton and Cambridge have adopted PH as part of their building codes (

If your home can stand up to extreme weather events and, when the grid is down, run for days off solar, backup batteries, or your electric car, you’re less likely to be one of the climate refugees sleeping in the local gymnasium.

The Whitchurches drive EVs and use induction cooking in their Middlesex, Vermont passive house.


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