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Passivhaus Institut and Passive House Institute U.S. Sever Ties

In the middle of August, the U.S. passive house community was nonplussed to learn of a decision by the Passivhaus Institute (PHI) of Darmstadt, Germany, to terminate its relationship with its U.S. subsidiary, the Urbana, Illinois–based Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS). The split was made public in an open letter from PHI founder Wolfgang Feist, which cited several "breaches of contract and good faith" on the part of the U.S. organization, including unauthorized changes to PHI's proprietary energy modeling software and improper certification of passive house buildings. PHIUS executive director Katrin Klinkenborg responded swiftly with an open letter of her own, asserting that the charges amounted to "public defamation and character assault," and that any violations of existing contracts were the fault of the German organization, not PHIUS.

Charges and countercharges have continued to fly back and forth since, primarily in the form of letters from the aggrieved heads of the two groups. Left in limbo for the time being are PHIUS-certified passive house consultants and builders with projects pending or already under construction, who must now decide whether to remain loyal to PHIUS - even though its project certifications will apparently no longer be recognized internationally - or seek new working relationships with PHI-approved organizations outside the U.S. As for energy-efficiency advocates as a whole, they're mostly scratching their heads in confusion. However the controversy is resolved, it seems likely to slow the momentum that passive house has gained in the U.S. over the past several years - an outcome both PHI and PHIUS would presumably have preferred to avoid (see "Passive House Seeks Broader Appeal," JLC Report, 2/11).

Blake Bilyeu, a Salem, Ore., builder and passive house consultant, completed a PHIUS-certified house last year. "We'll find out whether it will shake some of the consumer confidence in certification," he says of the organizational rift. "It's a huge disservice to the movement. But the system and the method are still valuable to us."

Advocates who have been supportive of the passive house movement's goals but critical of its inflexible standards speculate that, in the long run, the PHI-PHIUS split may not be such a bad thing if it prompts a reassessment of priorities. "There are very smart people involved with passive house who are doing good work," says energy consultant Michael Blasnik, who has been active in building-science research for more than 20 years. "They're right to emphasize the importance of thermal bridging, and they have some excellent energy construction details. But the precision they're after doesn't exist in the real world. Why spend thousands of dollars doing energy modeling for super-tight buildings with phenomenal R-values? You know before you start that you'll have an incredibly efficient home. Too much mystique and dogma diverts people into minor issues that don't matter much." - J.V.

Offcuts

A recent story in the New York Times outlined a Montana man's quixotic effort to build a 2,280-square-foot, three-bedroom house entirely from U.S.-made products and materials. Bozeman builder Anders Lewendal contends that only about 75 percent of the materials used in the average American home are made in the United States, and he estimates that committing to all-American content increases a home's construction cost by 2 to 3 percent. Lewendal admits that in his case he will likely fall short of perfection, since even U.S.-assembled appliances may include foreign-made parts, and the recycled crushed glass beneath the garage slab could contain imported beer bottles.

The summer of 2011 drew to a close with a spate of outdoor deck collapses, including one in Alexandria, Minn., that injured 16. "The nails from the side of the house broke apart because they had so much weight on them," a neighbor told KSAX-TV. A similar accident in DeKalb County, Ga., sent four people to a local trauma center after they "slid down the deck, landing up against the house," according to a firefighter at the scene. And in the town of Walpole, Mass., three party-goers were hospitalized after a deck failed as those present gathered around a birthday cake. "There were about 15 to 20 people on top of the deck who slid down, toward the foundation," a witness told WBZ-TV.

A federal district court has dismissed a lawsuit charging the U.S. Green Building Council with false advertising in connection with its LEED certification program. The suit had been filed late last year by New York energy consultant Henry Gifford, who argued that his business had been injured by the USGBC's claim that LEED-certified buildings save energy. In dismissing the case, the judge ruled that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate any legal interest that the suit would protect. The case was dismissed "with prejudice," meaning that the claim cannot be brought again, though Gifford may still choose to appeal the decision.

Two recent stories in the news illustrate the kind of problems that can result from poorly placed solar electric panels. According to the website Cincinnati.com, Newport, Ky., homeowners Becky and Perry Bush are threatening to sue a neighbor over a 10-foot-by-16-foot ground-mounted PV assembly that they claim blocks the view from their $900,000 home. And in Hermosa Beach, Calif., a much-praised net-zero home has angered neighbors who charge that its 27 view-obstructing PV modules are costing them big money. "They've knocked hundreds of thousands of dollars off my property value," one disgruntled resident told the website Dailybreeze.com