Rebecca Guymon and Joe Turner are the owners of Breezeway House – the first certified Passive House in Utah and in the western United States.  They’re unique because only a handful of these ultra-insulated, airtight, low-energy homes exist in the United States.  So I asked Turner to share his experience building and living in a Passive House and he was kind enough to respond.  This is mandatory reading for anyone interested in owning a Passive House.

Q: Can you tell me about how you first decided to build a Passive House?

Rebecca and I originally bought the house on the lot with the thought of doing some extensive remodeling to it. We spent 10 years in the house doing small things to it always expecting to update the bathrooms and extend the house out into the back lot. We came into some money and we hired Dave Brach of Brach Design to do some remodeling designs for us.

After the designs were done, we talked to some contractors about increasing insulation, updating the windows, putting up new siding, moving interior walls, when they all said that it was going to be more cost effective to tear the house down and start over. So we worked with Dave and setup a list of adjectives that we were interested in namely: comfort, open, modern, clean, and eye towards green.

We didn’t set out to build a Passive House but rather a more green house. Dave was at the time getting his certificate from the Passive House Institute and started talking us into the idea. But it really meshed well with our original concept. And all the ideas from the Passive House design just made sense. Southern facing windows, low thermal bridging, good insulation, southern facing windows, etc. So it was an evolutionary process.

Q: Did you encounter anything in terms of financing that might have been different than, for example, with a non-green or conventional new home?

Yes, financing was terrible. We went through three different banks. All started with, “oh, this is excellent,” “we’re excited about the project,” “the numbers look great,” etc. But at the end of the day the assessments of the final product weren’t coming in at the values that we needed. We finally went with a local credit union and a reduced financial plan.

There were two problems with our house.  First, we were overbuilding financially for the neighborhood. We have some expensive homes in the area but finding comparable properties in the same price range was tough.  Second, we didn’t get credit for some of the green things.  Everything extra in the insulation, windows, etc, all had to come out of pocket. It was a really rough process. We got through it from our tenacity, and our excellent credit scores.

We were told time and time again that without our credit scores, we would have already been turned away. If I had to do it again I would expect to put down about 35% of the total home cost just to get around the headaches. 20% standard plus 15% in green building stuff that you don’t get credit for. The rebates from the government really helped out with the solar panels.

Q: Similarly, did you need to find a specialized or knowledgeable appraiser?  Or was this not an issue?

The bank forced an appraiser on us, and he was terrible. When he was at the house, he looked at the finishes and complained about them. He even told the contractor that building green homes was the stupidest idea he’d heard in years and expected the contractor to be out of business after this home. He constantly missed meetings or would say something and then do something else. It was a nightmare.

Q: What was construction like?  Would you have any advice for others building a Passive House?

The construction went really smoothly, though we were about 15 days late on the primary construction. The general contractor, Fisher Custom Building, Inc., really did an excellent job. The design of the house was pretty basic, nothing too fancy or confusing, so that really helped. There were a couple of non-standard things such as the double framing and such. The best advice that we took is we waited to find someone that seemed generally interested in doing something different, rather than forcing a low bid to do something they weren’t excited about.

I would highly recommend talking to several contractors. We went to the house daily. That really helped, although I think weekly or at important points would also be good. We would see things and ask about them, and were able to get them changed when it was easy (not when the drywall was up for example).

We spent a lot of time going over the design. We received a 3D model from Brach Design, and Rebecca and I spent hours looking at it on the computer, deciding where our furniture would go, how we would use it, where we wanted the lighting, etc. I was really surprised how much time we personally spent making decisions and reviewing stuff from the house. But everyone said that it was one of the best projects they had worked on because we had done our homework and were able to give clear direction that didn’t change.

The other thing that worked really well for us was that it took about a year to get the design done. So by the time construction started, almost everything (except some fixtures) had been selected. This really makes things go well. A couple of the things that we didn’t select up front did hurt down the line. For example, door handles. We never really talked about them and now we have dead bolts where we didn’t want them.

Q: The home is complete and you take the keys.  Was it easy to figure out how to use the mechanical and ventilation systems?

Yes and no. I know how to set the thermostat. But if something goes wrong, I have to call someone to fix it. I’m still waiting for some documentation on how the whole thing is supposed to go and what maintenance I have to do. But for the most part it’s fire and forget. We do have the OASys, which is an indirect evaporative cooler, that is a little tricky, but we just read the manual on maintenance.  In terms of maintenance, it’s easier than a traditional swamp cooler.

I think if I had to do it over again, I might consider going with a more traditional heating and cooling system rather than the custom one we got because maintaining them is so specialized.  I should also mention that we don’t have wall thermostats. Our thermostat is a web page that we hit from our phones.

Q: Many people want to know what it feels like living in a Passive House. Is it any different than living in a conventional new home, or, in other words, can you tell me about things like temperature, comfort, humidity, daylighting, noise levels, etc?

It’s awesome. It’s definitely different than a traditional house. There are no drafts, there are no cold corners. The house heats and cools very slowly. In our old home (post war boom house with single pain windows) you would feel cold right before the furnace kicked on and hot after it turned off for a little, but the days of 4 degree swings in our home are over. That doesn’t happen in this house. It takes the home four hours to add or loose a degree.

We have concrete floors, without radiant, that we can walk on barefoot even in the dead of winter because they don’t leak their heat into the ground because of the thermal barriers.

When we moved in to the home last December, Rebecca and I weren’t really that familiar with Passive House. And living in Utah in the winter when it gets really cold outside, you can tell. The walls of the home are colder and sitting in front of a window is colder. So I got used to always having some feeling of how cold it was outside.  Well the first super cold day we were in our Passive House, I was comfortable and still in the mode of yeah I kinda know how cold it is outside.  So Rebecca and I figured we should head out to dinner. And since I was comfortable I figured, eh I don’t need a coat. Well boy was I surprised when I walked out into 10 degree weather with nothing but a t-shirt on. It really demonstrated just how comfortable the home was and how protected from the elements we are now.

Q: I notice you’ve had some seriously low utility bills.  Can I ask what’s been your lowest and average utility bill so far?  How much does solar and solar thermal play into these numbers?

We’re looking at somewhere in the $20-$30 range for our electric bill on a monthly average. Our low was $15. Our high was $42 so far. We haven’t quite done a full solar year so computing an accurate average is a little premature.  In other words we don’t have the heating data for January and February so we don’t know how the average is going to work out. The solar year in Utah is April to April, so we’re close. We have no gas, so this is our entire power consumption.

I do not have a breakdown of what percentage of our energy consumption comes from power that we generate. I hope to have those numbers soon but for now I do not. The web site does have power generation statistics. But this does *not* take into account the solar thermal energy production. We guess that we’re saving about $90 a month on average with the home between the energy production and low energy use of the home. Looking at somewhere in the 20-year range for payback for what we paid above doing a home without the items.

Q: Now that you have some experience with the design, build, and occupancy of a Passive House, do you have any thoughts about the prospects of ultra-insulated, ultra-tight, low-energy homes for the future?

It’s a no brainer in my mind. Even if you don’t have green motivations. It’s basically 25% more to have the most comfortable house possible. MOST of the 25% we spent extra on the home comes from the windows. I think 50% of what we would have done above and beyond a traditional home went into the windows. My hope is that as demand and supply for these windows rise the prices will come down.

The only downside I see to us doing what we’ve done is that we have a non-traditional heating and cooling system. So getting repairs on that system will be tricky. If these ideas ever become more mainstream, I think that will change. That being said, the home, even in super cold weather, can work with out the heating system and still be very comfortable. So I can wait comfortably for up to a week with out a furnace if it takes that long to get repaired.

By the way, we really only spent about 15% more from what we were expecting to get to the Passive House standard. And almost all of that was in the windows. I would totally do it again, and I highly recommend to anyone building a new home to at least consider the Passive House tenets, even if not going the full way to certification.

Take a short video tour of the Breezeway House on YouTube.

Photos: Amanda Nelson Photography & Design 2010.