How to Design a Passive House in the Red River Valley

There are some places that take a long journey to reach, and there are places that have always been there waiting to be discovered. This is a sense of how I felt last week when Lucas Sustainable was hired to design our first Passive House. 

For the past several weeks, a wonderful property owner and I have been talking to assess our fit as a team, and consider the prospect of this kind of undertaking.

For a high-performance design project such as this one, communication should be open and transparent from the very beginning, especially when it concerns a new project situated on such a beautiful piece of land nestled in the rich, verdant Red River Valley. 

Even though the nearest certified passive house projects are in Austin, TX (280 miles, south) and Lawrence, KS (460 mi, north), I feel that the all the winds may be in our favor. 

The property owners have life-long family ties to the area, as well as an intimate relationship with land management and ranching. In my opinion, living lightly on the land takes a person with deep love of the land itself, and some true grit. They have both, which is a real plus. 

Visit the PHIUS Certified Project Database to see if there are any Passive Houses near you.

Map of valley of Red River in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas between meridian 96°30′ and 98° west longitude: From topographic maps of the U.S. Geological Survey, map, 1920; Austin, Texas. ( accessed May 28, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Hardin-Simmons University Library.

The Design Team

As the project architect and a Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC®) the notion of designing a passive house is not a concept to be approached lightly.  Passive house design cannot be approached in the same way as a typical home design. Besides keeping an eye on the functional arrangement of space and aesthetics of the design, the design team must also factor in a very rigorous standard for energy performance.

Beginning early in the design process, an integrated design team will develop from a small team of professionals. Over the course of the work, everyone involved must pay attention to detail and working together reveals potential issues and synergies before missed.

A home that requires very little energy is our primary goal. In form the home should be able to exist intact for one hundred years without power or habitation. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. During “schematic design,” we will be working on the project's design and a corresponding "Sustainability Plan", where we identify any sustainable objectives (e.g. Passive House Certification, rainwater reuse, etc.), and how we plan to achieve these objectives. We will be covering the sustainability plan in detail later.

Most of our team has not been selected, but here are the types of experts we may need to involve during the project.

  • Owner
  • Architect/ CPHC 
  • PHIUS+ Passive House Rater 
  • Contractor (if selected)
  • Structural Engineer
  • Mechanical Engineer

My professional listing on the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) website is how I was initially found by the owner. Thank you PHIUS for providing a hub for those interested in today’s most energy efficient rating system! 

What is a CPHC®?

First launched in 2008, PHIUS established the Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC®) credential to distinguish accomplished passive house professionals in the marketplace. CPHC training was the first – and is still the only – passive building training program tailored to North America’s unique climate variations, market conditions, and building components. PHIUS-trained CPHCs are leading adoption of passive house by designing and building quality-assured passive projects — single family, multifamily and commercial — across North America’s varied climate zones.
— PHIUS Website |

Phase 1: Predesign

We are truly excited to begin the design work, but there is a little Predesign work to handle first. Predesign is a distinct phase in the project used to learn the logistics and collect key information. In truth, it feels like having to wait and read all the instructions first, but in this case absolutely necessary. Before ever considering particular features or getting an image in mind, predesign establishes our frame of reference and allows the design team a more pliable, open-minded approach.

Predesign tasks include:

  • Code Review - review requirements and procedures for permit with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) 
  • Program - listing of spaces and approximate sizes, per the owner's requirements
  • Preliminary Budget - develop a rough cost per square foot.
  • Site Analysis - contract a digital site survey and soil analysis. Soil analysis for structural engineer and septic system design.
  • Schedule - consider the best and worst possible timeframes, and prepare the owner for them. 

Currently, the owner and I are working to finalize the Program (list & size of spaces), Preliminary Budget, and Site Analysis. Since the project does not fall inside any City limits, there are no specific codes to apply. Contacting the County revealed that we will only need to get a 911 address and a permit for the driveway culvert in the right-of-way..  

View South from proposed home site

Rural Does Not Mean No Building Code! 

Due to its rural setting the building does not have the typical permitting reviews and building inspections. This is a great situation to involve an architect. An architect provides a large amount of oversight while working to uphold your health, safety, and welfare. 

Even without the typical code requirements, as the project Architect, I plan to look closely to the area’s adopted building codes for the design of this project. For a new home I like to refer to the currently adopted International Residential Building Code (IRC). As the project Architect, I assume responsibility for the design of the home, and I like the fact that we will have leeway for any unique circumstances, and maybe a little creative freedom, too! As well as functional goals and aesthetics, an architect must strive to help their clients in securing the best Return on Investment (ROI) within the given constraints.

If you stay close in this series, and share insights and ideas, you will be helping me do just that. There is absolutely no pressure, but open discussion and helpful criticism, is welcome here.  

Your Invitation

Green Heart Town exists allow sustainable design to become more practical and accessible to everyone - in our homes, neighborhoods, and downtowns. It may seem a little technical from time to time, but we will continue looking back at sustainable principles and vernacular traditions at each step of the way.

Following future updates on the Red River Passive House will give you insight into both passive house design, and what it is like to work with an architect. I hope that it may inspire you to live in a "net-positive" manner, believing that each daily decision has the chance to make the world a little better for the next generation. 

Subscribe to the Blog & Learn More

Subscribe to the blog at the bottom of the page. Then, you will see the Red River Passive House design progress from the first row. I will use the normal Green Heart Town spot on Thursdays to post in-depth articles (like this one), but I also send shorter, more direct updates on Mondays.

Subscribe and Learn:

  • Feel a property owner’s pride for their community, and see why this frame of reference is foundational in true sustainable design.
  • Understand the value an architect brings to a custom residential design.
  • Become educated in the basics of passive house design, especially for this unique part of the world.
  • Give back! I will call on your collective insight and ask for feedback after the posts. Learn with us, and see your thoughts take shape.

Thank you!