It's possible with a passive house

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTOS: VERN UYETAKE - The Kuglers positioned their passive house on the lot to take advantage of the southern exposure.

West Linn residents Mitzi and Rob Kugler paid $20 last year to heat their home. That’s right: They paid a whopping 5 cents per day for heat.

How did they manage that? The Kuglers live in a passive house, a super-insulated and super-energy-efficient structure. They oversaw the construction of the home themselves and have invited the public to tour their house Sunday as part of Passive House Day to learn about passive house construction.

When the Kuglers began thinking of building their house about eight years ago, they knew they wanted to build it as green as possible.

“We wanted to build a ‘green’ house, but we didn’t realize how ‘green’ we could go,” said Mitzi Kugler.

She began researching green building options and learned about passive houses, the origin of which can be traced back to the 1970s, when the concepts of superinsulation and passive solar management techniques were first being explored in the United States.

According to the Passive House Alliance of the United States, European scientists in the 1990s refined and augmented these concepts to develop the passive house standards and design techniques, which were tailored to the Central European climate zone.

German-born architect Katrin Klingenberg, who studied with Wolfgang Feist, a German passive house pioneer, believed passive houses could work in the United States. She built America’s first passive house in 2003 in Urbana, Ill.

Based on that success, she collaborated with construction manager Mike Kernagis to build several affordable passive houses in partnership with the city of Urbana. Their experience convinced them that the passive house was ready to go national, and in 2007 they founded the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS).

Notice the wide eaves and where the shadow hits on the wall. During summer when the sun is higher in the sky, the eaves protect the house from the heat. In winter, the suns light and heat will pass through the windows into the home.

In 2011, more than 100 projects, including the Kuglers’, were completed. More than 20,000 projects have been completed worldwide to date, and PHIUS has trained and certified hundreds of building professionals in the techniques.

According to the local chapter, Passive House Northwest, the passive house is the world’s leading standard for energy-efficient construction. It combines building enclosure efficiency and passive solar strategies in a system for designing and building cost-effective, comfortable, energy-efficient buildings. The major components include:

Super-insulated envelope;

Ultra-high-performance windows;

Airtight construction;

Eliminating or reducing thermal bridging;

Heat-recovery ventilation; and

Using passive heat sources — solar of course, but also equipment, lighting and occupants.

Its effectiveness has been demonstrated in projects in every climate zone around the world, ranging from single-family homes to large commercial and institutional structures.

The Kuglers positioned their house on the lot so they could take full advantage of the southern exposure for generating solar energy with solar panels and bringing light and heat into the house. French doors and windows placed high on the wall help bring heat in during the winter. The eaves shield the windows from the hot summer sun, helping keep the house cool.

“We looked at where the sun would hit on the heat-gaining wall,” she said. “And where the eave line would hit. The windows are high and keep sun out of the house during hot weather. In winter, when the sun is low, it hits the windows and keeps the home at a comfortable 70 degrees. Even on gray days it’s bright.”

Walls are typically twice as thick as in standard construction to accommodate the extra insulation. Mitzi Kugler said their insulation has a value of R-85; most homes have a value of R-45.

Kugler explained that the roof acts like a big umbrella for the house; the bigger it is, the more it can shield the walls of the house from sun, wind and rain. Likewise, she said, extending the eaves of the roof helped protect the siding from the elements.

“Eaves on regular houses are about 6 inches, just wide enough to accommodate the gutter,” she said. “They don’t protect the walls from rain pelting onto them.”

This will reduce the lifespan of the siding and can lead to dry rot, mold and other issues, she said.

Kugler said building the home to passive house standards increased the cost by about 5 percent, but she said they have already recouped that expense with reduced heating bills.

The Kugler home will be open from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. It is located at 4970 Bonnet Drive in West Linn. Access is also available from 4855 Summit St.

Two other properties are also participating in Passive House Day.

Maria and Tad Everhart welcome people to tour their home located at 539 SE 59th Court in Portland by appointment Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 503-239-8961 or 503-704-7156 for Friday appointments.

You can see a passive house under construction from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at 6921 NE Morris St., Portland. Alexander Boetzel, vice president of Green Hammer, will be at the construction site to answer questions.

Kugler also shares passive house information on her blog at

Mitzi Kugler can keep track of how much solar power her solar panels are generating.

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