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The Rochester PassivHaus Comforts All of the Senses While Monitoring Energy and Air Quality

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Feb 19, 2021

While Matthew Bowers was in the US Navy for six years, working as a nuclear engineer, heat transfer systems and fluid mechanics were his jam. So, after leaving the Navy, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering to work on HVAC systems. While in school, he learned about homes that were so energy efficient they didn't need furnaces. "I thought, 'What am I designing HVAC systems for then?'" Bowers says. "That was my 'aha moment."

He began doing energy audits and high-performance consulting. "No one was embracing all of the Passive House strategies" that result in peak energy performance, he says. "The ventilation wasn't efficient enough, or the air-tightness wasn't sufficient, or they didn't want to purchase the Passive House European windows. There was always something that wasn't working right for the clients."

When Bowers and his family began to house hunt, they found a rural lot near Honeoye Falls, New York (near Rochester). The lot had perfect passive-solar orientation, "and all the stars aligned," he says. They decided to build. "We took advantage of my industry knowledge to fully design our own Passive House, with the understanding that we'd document the process and open it up for tours when it was finished."

Rochester Passiv Haus Framed
Rochester Passiv Haus Framed. Photo Credit: Matt Bowers

Following PassivHaus Protocol 

Bowers trained with PassivHaus Institute in Germany—he is now founder and president of Rochester Passive House Consulting—before that group broke with PHIUS (Passive House Institute US). So, he adhered to the German protocol in building his home. "PHIUS was still accepting PHI modeling at that time," he says. The certification process, however, was a bit "unstable," he adds. "Because of my experience with the certifier, that pushed me further to become a certifier myself."

Bowers began the home-building process with a floor plan that he modeled in PHPP (Passive House Planning Package), an Excel spreadsheet developed by the PassivHaus Institute. "After each iteration, I updated the model to optimize things like wall thickness, window area, and overhangs," he says. After figuring out the home's final square footage and volume, Bowers "optimized the wall thickness to meet the PassivHaus standard.

Rochester Passiv Haus Blown-In Cellulose Insulation
Rochester Passiv Haus Blown-In Cellulose Insulation. Photo Credit: Matt Bowers

How Was the Rochester PassivHaus Optimized for Efficiency?

The house was built using 16" double-wall construction with 2 x 2x4 walls spaced seven inches apart."  The 16-inch double-wall assembly is insulated with dense-packed cellulose, achieving an R-55. The interior load-bearing 2x4 wall is a service cavity. The carefully sealed ZIP system on the exterior side of the interior wall is the air barrier layer. A 1.5-inch rain-screen gap and a weather-resistant barrier layer on the double-wall assembly's exterior side prevent moisture from entering the wall.

Rochester Passiv Haus Air Sealing
Rochester Passiv Haus Air Sealing. Photo Credit: Matt Bowers

"We optimized our overhangs on the south side of the house, oriented the house a majority of the glass faces south, and incorporated substantial shading and smaller windows for the glass facing west, so we incorporated a lot of passive solar techniques," he says. The family chose Zola Windows for the home.

2020 Rochester Passiv Haus Utility Usage
2020 Rochester Passiv Haus Utility Usage. Photo Credit: Matt Bowers

Bowers, his wife, and their children moved into their 2,900-square-foot, farmhouse-style home in 2016. "We spend about $210 a year to heat the house," he adds. "Our average electric bill is about $88 a month. We retain the heat through a lot of insulation and super air-tightness."

Rochester Passiv Haus Blower Door Test
Rochester Passiv Haus Blower Door Test. Photo Credit: Matt Bowers

PassivHaus Energy Efficiency 

The family doesn't use or need solar to power the all-electric house. PassivHaus construction ensures super energy efficiency. Also, because "we open up the house to tours, we don't want people to think our low utility bills are because of solar power," Bowers says.

Bowers engages in extensive energy monitoring "as it's a major selling point when I'm reaching out to new clients." He regularly fields questions about the utility bills, as well as how much his upfront costs were.

"We spent about $32,000 more on our PassivHaus house than a code-built house would cost, but we have the same mortgage payment," Bowers says. "I figured that out by modeling how much we'd spend on propane, which a traditional home would have needed to use given our location," he explains, "then did the same model for our PassivHaus, and figured out how it would translate into savings over a 30-year mortgage."

Rochester Passiv Haus Ventilation
Rochester Passiv Haus Ventilation

An ERV (energy recovery ventilation system) exchanges the air in the house once every three hours. Inside the house, the family used no- and low-VOC paints and finishes, hardwood cabinets, and resilient flooring "because of the four kids and a dog," Bowers says. The family has ENERGY STAR appliances and a heat-pump clothes dryer.

Rochester Passiv Haus Mini Split
Rochester Passiv Haus Mini Split. Photo Credit: Matt Bowers

How Does the Rochester PassivHaus Monitor Energy Use?

Bowers monitors both energy use and indoor air quality. "We have current transformers (CTs) installed on the first- and second-floor mini-split heat pumps to help me determine exactly how much energy (and money) I use to heat and cool the house." In addition, a current transformer on the heat-pump water heater measures the energy used to heat hot water.

A CT on the ventilation system "quantifies the cost of fresh air," Bowers says. "Surprisingly, we spend more money on new filters than we do in electric to run the machine." Because he considers the heat-pump dryer and induction/convection stove "energy hogs," Bowers measures their use, as well.

"On top of these devices," he continues, "I am monitoring the indoor air quality in the house, which helps me to identify how cooking, parties, even vacuuming impact our air quality. It's also a good reminder to change the filters in the ERV when air quality starts to dip for longer periods."

Rochester Passiv Haus Particulate Matter Monitoring vs State Levels
Rochester Passiv Haus Particulate Matter Monitoring Compared to State Levels. Image Credit: Matt Bowers

He measures temperature, humidity, total VOCs, particulate matter smaller than 10 microns (PM10) and 2.5 microns (PM2.5) with a RESET Air Certified Tongdy Unit. He also has a UHOO IAQ monitor, which is less expensive than the Tongdy, "but doesn't have any published accuracies or calibration requirements, so I'm not exactly sure how accurate it is." As such, "it's good to have the control monitor with the Tongdy."

Lessons Learned

Bowers says that during construction, installation of the ventilation system necessitated drilling many 3.5-inch holes in the joists between the first and second floors. "If would have known, I would have done an open-web truss instead," he says.

While the family enjoys the cooling provided by the two wall-mounted mini-splits, Bowers wishes he would have come up with a way to improve the cooling distribution upstairs. In the winter, we don't need to turn on the second-floor heat pump. But cooling the upstairs in the summer is a challenge as the mini-split is un-ducted."

He suggests that homeowners intending to build a Passive House should collaborate with their architect and Passive House consultant from the get-go. The Bowers family worked with Grater Architects, a firm with LEED-accredited professionals, "and because of partnership, it was pretty easy to coordinate changes and how those changes affected performance.

During the design process, "window sizes, overhangs, and window locations change constantly," he adds, "with serious consequences in the performance of a home. So, it's beneficial to have the designer or architect understand how changes can affect the energy model."

While Bowers finds the engineering in PassivHaus construction "fascinating." He's also glad the home's construction and operation result in minimal environmental impact.

"But, the biggest selling point for us is comfort."
Rochester Passiv Haus Kitchen
Rochester Passiv Haus Kitchen

How Did PassivHaus Certification Increase Comfort?

"Comfort, as we've learned after living in the house, is more than thermal temperature. Every room has a window for natural light. The ventilation and odor control are fantastic: We can burn popcorn in the microwave and an hour later doesn't smell it. Our neighbors own a landscaping business, and we never hear the trucks. Living in a PassivHaus takes into account and comforts all of the senses."

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2022-01-19T03:54:13+0000
Camille LeFevre

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Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.