The most popularly used sustainable building standard in the United States is the USGBC’s LEED certification.  Its role in the construction industry has become well respected by professionals and offers designers, engineers, construction managers and contractors some consistency in developing aspects of a changing industry.  In other words, these professionals are driven to become familiar with new sustainable construction methods and techniques that are required in order to achieve goals on the LEED scorecard.

Considering today’s building standards for sustainable construction are tomorrow’s building codes, it is important to analyze LEED standards and compare them to other sustainable construction certifications.  The United States’ infrastructure is actually behind other nations, especially in Europe, on a level of sustainability.  For this reason critics question the United States Green Building Council as a source to adopt building codes and regulations from.  In order to assess the standards, I like to compare LEED to the Passive House Standard that was developed in Germany, seventeen years ago as “Passivhaus”.  The passive house concept was adopted from Germany by the Passive House Institute U.S.  While other green home certifications exist in the States, I examine the Passive House because it is directly adopted from Europe and can be applied to all types of building construction, not just homes.

The Passive House concept is simple and arguably easier to comprehend then ideas presented by LEED.  Passive House aims to minimize the use of energy systems in a home by using heavily insulated walls and an airtight building envelope.  Using heat recovery ventilators, the building will have more comfortable, healthy air quality and consistent indoor air temperatures.

Passive House construction creates up to 90% more efficient heating energy and cuts over all energy up to 70%.  LEED projects usually provide increased efficiencies up to 30%.  This is a compelling argument claiming that Passive House is better.

Why is LEED still prevailing?

LEED projects cover a variety of categories that encourage a building’s occupants to live a sustainable lifestyle.  While the energy efficiency standards are not as demanding, the scorecards evaluate the sustainable amenities of a building and its site to not only be energy efficient, but make it easy for inhabitants to be environmentally responsible.  This is more appealing to a designer whose job is to create a place that responds to the occupant’s needs.  In addition, a project with a LEED certified label might be what our nation needs right now.  Their projects showcase alternative energy sources and feature new exciting technologies that help encourage a sustainable lifestyle as a fad.  From an engineering perspective, a LEED certification is great for sustainable communities that aim to provide a complete sustainable lifestyle for those who choose to live there.  As far is creating immediate response to lower our nation’s dependency on fossil fuels, the Passive House Standard seems more attractive because it is based on performance research and statistics.

Which is more likely to influence building codes?

The complexity of LEED is its biggest fault to become accepted by the building sector as a means of regulating new construction by code.  Passive House is simple and to the point.  The Passive House Standard also changes according to geographical location, much like existing codes do.  Because its goal is simple and focused, when a Passive House is completed if performs to achieve efficiency far beyond a LEED project.  However, the Passive House Institute of the United States still has some work to do since its adoption from Germany.  It is likely that aspects of each standard would be implemented into code over time, but the construction of the building including the skin, skeletal and building systems should be based on the Passive House Standard.

What is stopping Passive House?

Passive House in the U.S. faces some challenges since its climate is different from Germany.  Germany faces a more mild swing of the seasons, while the US gets hotter in the summer and colder in the winter.  Because temperatures rarely reach 70 degrees in Germany the energy reduction is focused on limiting heating sources.  Another difficulty is finding domestic products that are low energy and compliant with Passive House design.  All of these products are in Europe which would make it more than difficult for our government to adopt it as a building code.  Hopefully, these products will be produced in the United States over the next couple of years.