Passive Houses Use 90% Less Energy —Really?

Yes, really.  You think the oil, coal, natural gas and HVAC companies want you to know about this. NOT.  The Passive House movement is in its infancy in the US but it’s already a young adult in Europe.  It’s called “passive” because heating or cooling these homes relies completely on natural resources.  In other words there are no active systems involved in the 90% reduction in energy use!  How is this possible I’m sure you want to know.  Why didn’t I know about this might be another question.

A passive house uses orientation, super insulation, advanced window technology, air tightness, and shading to achieve standards that are set by the Passiv Haus Institute. These standards eliminate the need for a conventional HVAC system or for solar panels and geothermal systems.  Although some homes have an option for solar systems.  An energy recovery ventilation system provides a constant, balanced fresh air supply, a uniquely terrific indoor air quality, AND reduces energy use and carbon emissions, according to the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS)

Do passive houses cost more to build?  Yep.  David Peabody, a Washington metro area architect and passionate promoter of sustainable architecture and passive houses is building a passive house in Bethesda, Maryland.  He found that the increased cost for the home he’s building is about 8%.  For a 90% reduction in monthly energy bills I’d say it’s worth it.  A certified passive house uses less than 1.4 kWh per square foot in heating and cooling energy and uses less than 11kWh per square foot for all energy!  By the way,  existing homes can be retrofitted to meet many passive home standards.

Barbara Landau and her family are building a second home in Vermont.  A Passive House–in Vermont–with no furnace.  When several insurance companies asked what kind of heating system the house would have and were told NONE, they declined to insure the house, thinking the pipes would freeze.  They won’t.  This excellent NY Times article chronicles their story.

The passive house movement was started when conversations between two German professors at the Institute of Housing and the Environment led to the first passive houses being built in Germany in 1990. To date it is estimated that 15 to 20 thousand passive buildings have been built worldwide, mostly in Germany and Scandinavian countries.  The US numbers are far, far fewer.  Remember, the movement here is still a nursing baby, but one that is being nurtured by it’s German parent.

This map represents the Passive projects currently underway in the United States today.  The squares have been certified, the circles pre-certified and the triangles are in the planning stages.  Green represents single family homes, red  education, blue multi-family and gold are retrofits.

Buildings use more than 40 percent of all the energy consumed in the United States.  If builders were to embrace the passive building concept, both the cost of building and the use of nonrenewable energy sources would decline.


Marketable, Cost Effective, Eco-Friendly Home Improvements

In a volatile and wholly unpredictable real estate market, in order for a home to sell in the fastest time and for the most money it is imperative that the home shows well and is priced correctly.  Nothing new here, right?  We’ve all watched enough HGTV to know this.  Anyone with an ounce of real estate savvy understands this concept…maybe…maybe not.  How much money should you spend, and on what, to get your home ready for the market? Of course that depends on what deferred maintenance and cosmetic updates you might want or need to make.

So let me use a real life example to give you some ideas.  A few months back I listed a 1965 split level home that was solid and in good shape and that had  some upgrades in the ten years since I sold it to the owner.  However it definitely needed some freshening up to put it on the market.  A kitchen addition with an eat in area and butler’s pantry had been added when I sold the house.  But the floor was the same inexpensive vinyl that the owner had talked about replacing when I sold it to her, but never did.  The carpet in two of the bedrooms, although good quality, was stained beyond cleaning and the entire house needed to be painted.

Instead of just saying, “freshly painted, new carpet and flooring”, we wanted to add a more marketable wow factor and use sustainable products.  We wanted potential buyers to feel that the seller cared about their well-being once they moved into the home.  So we didn’t just paint the house with cheap generic off-white paint or put in the cheapest new carpet and kitchen flooring. All of these would have had toxic implications because of the dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that would no doubt be found in them.  Here’s what we used instead.

Low VOC paint: Just a few years ago buying low VOC paint meant purchasing it from a specialty store or from an online seller.  This of course, meant the paint cost substantially more.  Today, Benjamin Moore, Behr, Sherwin Williams for example  all sell low or no VOC paints.  A couple of years ago Sherwin Williams low VOC paint was about $9 more per gallon than traditional paint.  Now–it’s about the same or maybe even a few cents lower.  So why not use paint that has absolutely no paint smell and that doesn’t expose potential buyers and their families to toxins?  Sherwin Williams and Home Depot’s Yolo brand sell for about $35 per gallon–about the same as any good quality regular paint.

Marmoleum Flooring: Marmoleum is one of the best flooring choices you can make.  You may remember your grandmother’s linoleum. Marmoleum is linoleum 2.0.  It’s a completely natural flooring material made from linseed oil from the flax seed, wood pulp and resin and other natural products.  It’s anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and has is non-allergenic.  It cleans easily, resists stains and burns and comes in beautiful colors and patterns.  And it’s much cheaper than, say ceramic tile.  Ceramic tile can cost between $5 and $15 per square foot plus $6-8 per square foot installation.  Marmoleum costs between $5.50 and $7.50 per square foot and around $2.50 per square foot for installation.

P.E.T Recycled Carpet: This carpet is made from the millions of plastic bottles that the world uses.  It’s naturally stain resistant and doesn’t off gas. It’s unbelievably durable and long-lasting.  And, it’s plush and beautiful. A medium grade regular carpet costs about $2.75 per square foot.  P.E.T costs $3.25.  Installation for either is $6 per yard.

The cost to use these materials is not much more, or is equal too using non-sustainable products. But the marketing potential is huge.  Even when buyers aren’t totally knowledgeable about these products, they are intrigued and appreciative.  The house in this example had a contract within 2 weeks.  There were minimal negotiations or counter offers and the seller will net exactly what she expected. Here are some photos from the house.

What’s in a Floor?

If you’re planning to make some flooring changes in your home you can do it using sustainable, earth friendly and IAQ* safe products.  I’d say hardwood floors are  the main level flooring choice these days.  Certainly the majority of my clients want hardwood floors in the homes they buy or want to install them.  They’re not just beautiful and easy to keep clean, but hardwood floors greatly reduce allergens if they’re not finished or stained with toxic chemicals. If anyone in your home has asthma or other allergies, hardwood floors will go a long way towards improving their quality of life.

Many buyers want to know when they purchase an older home that is carpeted, whether there are hardwoods underneath. Recently I listed an older townhouse for sale and the seller was going to replace the carpet that had been there since she purchased it.  When the carpet was pulled up absolutely beautiful hardwood floors were revealed that didn’t even need to be refinished. That was great.  But what if the floors need to be stripped, sanded and refinished?

If the floors need to be refinished, find a company that uses low or no-VOC finishing products. These finishes will not leave highly toxic fumes circulating in your home for months. Osmo is one brand of floor finishes and stains that Universal Floors, a DC metro area hardwood flooring company uses.  CCI  Wood Floor Specialists is a small Virginia company whose owner, Jimmy Stallings, only uses VOC compliant products when he finishes floors. The Green Home Guide has a lot of information on hardwood floor finishes.

If you are installing hardwood floors you should look for FSC certified wood floors. The Forest Stewardship Council is an organization that promotes responsible forest stewardship to reduce the worldwide destruction of CO2 life giving forests.  Look for this symbol.

Reclaimed wood is another way to install beautiful hardwood floors with minimal environmental impact.  This is the ultimate repurposing. Its previous life may have been in a North Carolina tobacco barn or railroad trestles in the midwest.  This wood is generally more expensive because reclaiming and milling it adds to the labor costs. It can have really unique qualities and looks that for some, may be worth the cost. As always, be careful on sourcing reclaimed wood to make sure the company is not greenwashing.

Illegal, unsustainable and unmanaged wood (tree) harvesting is destroying large quantities of the world’s forests in places were the ecological balance of nature is being seriously compromised such as Indonesia and the Amazon.  China, which makes most of the wood products used in the United States, is scouring the world buying up wood because deforestation in China is a huge problem. The World Wildlife Fund reports on the global impact of deforestation.

*Indoor Air Quality



Gayle Fleming


My purpose is to serve my clients and advocate for their highest and best good, so they attain their real estate goals.

Beware—The Air You Breathe (At Home) May Be Hazardous To Your Health Part II

I know indoor air quality isn’t a sexy “green” topic.  It isn’t as interesting as eco-friendly kitchen countertops or solar power.  In fact it’s kind of a scary topic because, well, there seem to be so many unknown variables.  But every day, in our homes, we live with dangerous chemicals that we have complete control over and can choose to minimize and even eliminate from our homes.  So I hope you will take a few minutes to read this blog and then take stock of your home.

This year—last month in fact, for the first time ever the President’s Cancer Panel reported that the country is not doing enough to emphasize the risk posed to all Americans by their constant exposure to chemical carcinogens.  Here’s s little of what they had to say in the report.

Environmental exposures that increase the national cancer burden do not represent a new front in the ongoing war on cancer. However, the grievous harm from this group of carcinogens has not been addressed adequately by the National Cancer Program. The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures.


Volatile Organic Compounds  (VOCs) represent a myriad of dangerous chemicals emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids.  Some of the products we use daily that contain VOCs are household products including: paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; dry-cleaned clothing.  The EPA website has a section on how to minimize risk such as using products only according to manufacturer’s instructions and using good ventilation with products such as paints and strippers.


I’d like to offer some other suggestions.  When you paint use only very low or no VOC paints.  A few years back you had to go out of your way to find these paints.  But now all of the major traditional brands sell low and no VOC paints.  Aside from the health and safety issues, you will be pleasantly surprised that there is virtually no paint smell immediately after the painting is finished.

Cut back on all the chemical household cleaners that are dangerous and expensive.  I use vinegar and baking soda to clean EVERYTHING. Here’s my previous blog called Cleaning on the Cheap.

Perchloroethylene is one of the most dangerous VOCs there is and we wear it around on our bodies all the time.  This is a chemical used by dry cleaning companies and has known carcinogenic implications.  Recent studies show that people breathe this chemical when clothes are stored at home and when they wear them.  If you must wear dry cleaned clothes, use Green Earth Cleaners affiliates.  They use a non-petroleum based cleaning product that has no chemicals that are harmful to you or the environment.

A holistic approach to living a greener life involves your health, the health of your home and the health of the planet.



Gayle Fleming


My purpose is to serve my clients and advocate for their highest and best good, so they attain their real estate goals.

Beware–The Air You Breathe At Home Could Be Hazardous To Your Health

You may assume that air pollution is what is going on outside your home–smog, gas fumes, pollen, etc.  A number of years back we heard about “sick building” syndrome where some employees got sick working in large windowless, ventilation poor office buildings.  But you probably don’t think of air pollution as something that’s found in your home. The truth is, that you are in far more danger from what you breathe inside your home than outside or at your workplace. Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is not something most people think about when they are buying, selling or living in a home.  The health consequences of not being mindful of the quality of the air that family members breathe inside the home are becoming more and more important.


May is Asthma Awareness Month.  More than 20 Million people are affected by Asthma in the US.  Rates have risen steadily over the last 30 years, particularly among children aged five to fourteen.  And believe it or not, many of the environmental triggers are inside your home. Indoor air pollution sources release gases or particles into the air and are the primary sources of IAQ problems. Asthma can be triggered by things like mold on your shower curtain and dust mites in pillows and blankets and even children’s stuffed animals!


Another indoor pollutant that many of us that most people aren’t aware of and that can greatly exaserbate asthma and other allergies is formaldehyde.  Sources of formaldehyde in the home include building materials, smoking, and household products.  There are concerns, but inconclusive evidence that formaldehyde may cause cancer.  The EPA points out that:

In homes, the most significant sources of formaldehyde are likely to be pressed wood products made using adhesives that contain urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins. Pressed wood products made for indoor use include: particleboard (used as sub-flooring and shelving and in cabinetry and furniture); hardwood plywood paneling (used for decorative wall covering and used in cabinets and furniture); and medium density fiberboard (used for drawer fronts, cabinets, and furniture tops). Medium density fiberboard contains a higher resin-to-wood ratio than any other UF pressed wood product and is generally recognized as being the highest formaldehyde-emitting pressed wood product.


How Radon Gets Into Homes

One of the most dangerous pollutants–one that can’t be seen, smelled or tasted, is radon gas. A little known fact is that radon gas causes approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year.  As a Realtor, I am appalled by the number of agents who do not advise their buyers on the importance of having a radon test at the time of the home inspection.  Some time ago a woman from India who taught Yoga in her basement for years, was diagnosed with lung cancer and eventually died. When she was diagnosed she was mortified and ashamed.  She had never smoked and had been a healthy vegetarian all of her life.  I have always believed that radon gas was responsible.

Radon is a naturally occuring gas formed from the breakdown of uranium found in nearly all soils.  It is estimated that nearly 1 in 15 U.S. homes has elevated levels of radon. Radon can AND SHOUD be mitigated if the levels reach or exceed the current EPA recommended levels of 4 pCi/L. Have your home tested if it hasn’t been.  And test every couple of years.  Here is a link to the EPA’s Home Buyer and Home Seller Guide on radon. The graphic t shows how radon gets into homes:  1. Cracks in solid floors 2. construction Joints 3. Gaps in suspended floors 4. Gaps around service pipes 5. Cavities inside walls 6. Water supply.

In April of this year, the Presidential Cancer Panel called for better action on Radon.  The 2008-2009 Annual Report of the President’s Cancer Panel, entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We can Do Now”  has been released and highlights the risks from radon and states that “the cancer risk attributable to residential radon exposure has been clearly demonstrated and must be better addressed.”

Indoor air quality is such an important topic that I will continue it in my next blog.  Meanwhile check out the interactive  IAQ Tour of a house to see the dangers that lurk in your home.



Gayle Fleming


My purpose is to serve my clients and advocate for their highest and best good, so they attain their real estate goals.