Sam Rashkin
Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan Sam Rashkin

In his keynote speech at the 6th annual North American Passive House Conference in Silver Spring, Md., Sam Rashkin reflected on his experience growing the Energy Star program in the United States, and how this program’s success can help guide the growth of Passive House from the current status of an early adaptor’s program to widespread market assimilation. Rashkin contrasted what motivates the early adopter, or “enthusiastic, sustainability geeks,” versus the mainstream buyer, saying no crossover characteristics exist between “energy geeks” and average consumers.

He asked the Passive House group, rhetorically, “How do you plan to get past the market schism, or cliff that hits you in the face right after the initial surge of enthusiasm? You don’t want to end up like SIPs and geothermal, stuck at 2% of the market or less.” To clarify the problem of bringing a new standard to market, such as Passive House or Energy Star, he compared the effort to the challenges faced by software developers trying to introduce a new, disruptive technology into a mature segment. The typical strategy involves carving out a small niche, doing it very well?better than anyone else?owning the segment, and then moving into another. “This is precisely what we did with Energy Star, gaining credibility in a few geographic areas and focusing obsessively on specific segments, such as utility-supported energy-efficiency programs and factory housing, and, only then after gaining credibility with builders in these segments, we gradually and effectively continued expanding.”

Rashkin also contrasted the incremental nature of the Energy Star program, which provides a gentle, inclined plain toward a zero-energy home, versus the highly idealized, all-or-nothing approach taken by Passive House. Rashkin went on to describe his current work at the DOE, including the Builders Challenge program. He compared the specifications of Energy Star Version 3 and Builders Challenge with Passive House standards, and suggested ways the programs can work together toward similar goals. He suggested making Builders Challenge a prerequisite for Passive House certification, so that the gentle, inclined plain becomes a three-step process, starting with Energy Star, moving through Builders Challenge, and arriving at Passive House. The latter could benefit from the advanced work and market penetration of the former, well-established programs.

Rashkin also talked at length about selling the benefits of super-high-performance housing since the environmental and energy gains needed to accomplish the goal of a carbon-neutral construction industry by 2030 will come only with broad market assimilation of the highest, building science-based quality standards and the best available technology. By working cooperatively, Energy Star, Builders Challenge, and Passive House as a graduated, three-step program could more effectively increase outreach in U.S. housing industry. He wrapped up the program speaking about the esthetic challenges of Passive House, showing a few illustrations, emphasizing that design and location still trump all other considerations in real estate. Rashkin argued that unless high-performance builders learn to differentiate their best products in the same way automakers differentiate high-performance cars as sexier and more esthetically desirable, it will be difficult to convince the classic U.S. consumer to buy the more expensive, high-performance house with just a HERS score and a certification plaque.