Submitted by Andrea on June 26, 2011

Several months ago our energy guru Marc wrote on his blog about the payback on energy-efficient construction. He said that whenever he gives a workshop, someone invariably "stands up and makes an impassioned speech about how all this is well and good but what's the payback?"

Marc responds to this in three ways, which I recommend you go read for yourself, but I'm going to quote the part that rings truest for me:

[My] second response is to poll the building and design professionals assembled to see how many in the past year or two had a (residential) project in which they installed a 10 kW automatic generator, or they did a kitchen that cost over $100,000. Usually most of the hands in the room slowly go up.

How rigorous was the payback analysis on each of those purchases? My observation is that people spend money on what makes them feel good, and [...] what makes me feels good [...] is seeing my ecological footprint shrink. Why does that expenditure draw so much more scrutiny than the money spent on the magazine kitchen or the BMW?

Exactly — I couldn't have said it better myself (which is why I quoted him directly). Ted and I admit that this house is going to be extravagantly energy-efficient, but we're deliberately building this way because it's more important to us than a gleaming high-end kitchen, walk-in closets, or the kind of grandiose master bathroom my sister Debby calls a "shrine to hygiene."

Not that there's anything wrong with those features; I'm not criticizing people who choose those features over energy-efficiency. Hey, some of my best friends have oversized jacuzzi tubs! But I've noticed that after they move in, and particularly after the first cold winter or hot summer, they suddenly wish they'd paid more attention to insulation or the glazing direction.

Frankly, after the first few months in our house I'll probably wish I'd made the bedrooms bigger or left more room in the budget for fancy cabinets or counters, but hopefully I can console myself by watching the electric meter run backwards or by listening to the gentle whirr of our high-efficiency heat recovery ventilator.

As for the financial aspect of "payback," the only way this house will earn back its cost is if energy prices continue to rise. But frankly, I hope we never get payback on this house. I'd much rather they discover a cheap and clean form of fuel that makes Ted's and my energy hacks look about as useful as a 1950's backyard bomb shelter. I will be sad indeed if things become so dire that only a house like ours will be liveable.

So we're not building with payback in mind. We're just trying to be the change we want to see in the world, blah blah blah, and hopefully not get too deep into debt as we do it.

On a related note, I'm now soliciting ads on this blog. I don't have any high expectations, but I figure there's no reason not to try, particularly since I'm already a web designer and can tart the site up for free. I promise this won't turn into some hideous affiliate marketing site that's been rendered unreadable by too many ads and useless pop-ups.

On the contrary, I think my profit motive will make the site more informative. I'd like to evolve this site beyond mere bloghood into becoming a comprehensive resource for people who want either to build their own Passivhaus or remodel their existing home (with the gleaming kitchen and shrine to hygiene) into something more energy-efficient. An underused walk-in closet would be a great place to stash an HRV...

Submitted by Bernie (not verified) on June 28, 2011


Good luck on walking the fine line that gets created when you take ads.

I have found your blog to be a very smart resource for me as I am planning a small passive (or near passive) house in Litchfield County, CT. Your observations as well as your list of resources have been very helpful.

Thanks Bernie! The next thing I want to add is a detailed guide to Passivhaus windows and doors available in North America. I'm hoping to do it in the next couple of weeks, once I get a break from the hectic pace of our own project.


Look forward to your window and door guide, should be handy.
In my line of work (certified energy advisor) I often push solar as an upgrade for domestic hot water. When, as is nearly always the case, I am asked "what's the payback?" I usually reply "probably better than the payback on your truck!" If you think about it, there is almost nothing that you get payback for, so why do people expect a good payback on something that will actually save them energy dollars?

depending on the HRV/ERV you select - you might hear it operate. there are ways around that, though.

another thing to think about in parallel to 'payback/ROI' is that the CO2 emissions caused by operating your house will be severely reduced than had you gone with just a code-minimum house. to some (like myself) that also means a great deal...

Ah, good point about the HRV noise issue. I guess the closet would have to be large enough for a silencer, and then you could put a second layer of drywall on with a resilient channel or some Green Glue, and of course you'd need to move the access panel/door to a hallway rather than a bedroom...

Help, what's happened to me? I was a French Literature major, for heaven's sake! ;-)

Back to your main point... yes, carbon reduction is huge, and of course that's the big motivator. Not our own, perhaps, since the carbon reduction between a Passivhaus and an almost-passive house is not large. And Ted and I are not complete carbon saints. He flies to his office in California every couple of months, and we fly to visit family a few times a year. We're very fond of Vermont skiing, which is local but otherwise fairly carbon-stupid. Do we get points for being vegetarian? I think so!

I digress. This is what happens when I reply to comments while still recovering from the flu. Anyway, if we can help spread the word and hopefully inspire some deep-energy retrofits, then going from almost-passive to Passiv is a big win, and we can feel a little more smug while driving our Prius to Pico this winter.