The Power of Insulation


Pretty fascinating story out of Germany for The New York Times by Elisabeth Rosenthal looking at super-insulated “passive houses.”

Architects in many countries, in attempts to meet new energy efficiency standards like the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design standard in the United States, are designing homes with better insulation and high-efficiency appliances, as well as tapping into alternative sources of power, like solar panels and wind turbines.

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

It’s a reminder that, as ever, the most abundant source of clean energy is conservation. Now obviously there are a lot of buildings around already, so it wouldn’t be feasible to rapidly replace them all with these kind of super-insulated structures. But there’s a lot we can do in terms of greening our affordable housing stock and one of the best uses of stimulus money is to finance modest insulation-boosting retrofits for people’s houses all across the country. It’s the sort of thing where the upfront costs and the hassle may deter people from doing it, but where the long-run reduction in resource consumption has benefits that go beyond the environmental. Having recently moved from some extremely drafty accommodations to some well-insulated ones, I can say that the change is dramatic even without taking the insulation to these “passive house” levels.