Teaching the Way: the Shining Mountain Waldorf School Students Put Passive House to the Test

This is the story of a lucky, very timely coincidence.

Back in February 2018, as part of our curriculum development for North American Passive House training, Emu Systems added a hands-on workshop to the  Certified Passive House Tradesperson course.

After collecting feedback from participants in our 2018 Colorado and Montana courses, we upgraded 2019 workshop to use what we call the Emu Passive Pods – fully enclosed capsules designed according to the requirements of the international Passive House standard for US Climate Zone 5. Each side of a Pod is includes built-in exercises addressing different aspects of a high quality building thermal envelope in conjunction with the classroom units. Workshop participants thus have a chance to put in practice what they learn during the course.

More importantly, the new Pods were designed to serve a second purpose in an extended life cycle: to provide education and to raise awareness in our local community, reaching out to people outside the training room. As we were busy sawing and nailing lumber at the workshop of The Cabinet Face (to whom we are incredibly thankful for shop space!), we were planning to reach out to local, like-minded schools and institutions to check their interest in participating to our outreach program. 

Image 01: Participants of the February 2019 Passive Pod Workshop + CPHT Course assembling the Pods in Arvada, CO.

So, while we planned on implementing this outreach program idea, we hadn’t told anyone yet. Then we received this serendipitous message:

“Hello, my name is Cat Russell of the Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder. Our 9th grade program includes a 4-week program on thermal physics. We’ll be covering heat transfer, thermal insulation and thermal mass, phase change materials and other aspects of building physics. Ideally, we’re looking at building dog house-sized boxes for the students to analyze. Someone mentioned you may have something like that for your builder training, and I was wondering if we could talk”. (…or something like that.)

I guess the stars of thermal physics all of a sudden had aligned over Colorado. (Yeah, we are like that sometimes).

Image 02: Pods on the Shining Mountain Waldorf School Campus (SMWS) in Boulder, CO. The blue Passive Pods, and the black Code Pod (note: the black membrane wrapping the Code Pod is perfectly suitable for Passive buildings).

We provided two “Passive Pods” built according to the international Passive House standard, as well as one “Code Pod”, built according to the 2015 Energy Code. The Code Pod was meant to provide the students with a performance baseline, and to compare the results of the Passive Pods with code requirements currently in place in cities like Denver. 

Image 03: SMWS students working on the Pods during their 4-week intensive course on thermodynamics.

Under the guidance of Dr Russell, the SMWS students worked on thermal physics for four intensive weeks, conducting experiments on the Pods and other tools and materials, such as solar ovens and coconut oil as phase-change material.

In their experiments with the Pods, the students had a chance to apply different settings and monitor the resulting outcomes via temperature and relative humidity sensors installed inside and outside the Pods. These settings included orientation towards/away from the Sun, different types of phase-change materials, as well as active heating via a space heater.

As one student said:

“The hands-on project helped us become more aware of the thermal properties of our houses and the impact on the environment.” 

Image 04: The Pods were exposed to the Colorado late winter weather throughout the duration of the project. The internal and external conditions were monitored by the students as part of their course.

In the context of the American Net Zero and Passive House buildings, the studies conducted by the SMWS students were extremely impressive for their scientific consistency and educational clarity. Following by just a few weeks the results of the Passive Podlympics, the students were able to monitor the response of the Pods to the changes occurring in the internal and external conditions. The more constant environment provided by the Passive building envelope proved the higher thermal resiliency of highly insulated, airtight built buildings.

Image 05: A graph compiled by the students showing internal and external temperatures over one typical day. The results show the two Passive Pods (red and yellow lines) to be substantially more constant than the Code Pod.

“It was a great privilege to work with these models and professionals and have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the solution of a pressing global problem.” 

– Shining Mountain Student

At the end of the 4-week program, the work of the students was presented to the public in a Poster Presentation session. Local professionals and members of the community had a chance to assist to presentation by the students, and to ask them questions about the work and experiments they conducted.

Image 06: One of the students presenting the results of their analysis during the Poster Presentation at the end of the intensive course.

“Time flew. The activities were interesting and varied, and we were working together toward a common goal of sharing our work with people who cared about our results.”

– Shining Mountain Student

A big thank you from Emu to Cat and the Shining Mountain school for helping us find a second life for our Passive Pods.

Here’s to a future generation of construction professionals who will build like the climate depends on it!

Come see the student Poster Presentations at the next Colorado Passive House Happy Hour – Tuesday, May 21st.

If you missed their first Poster Presentation, you’ll have a chance to meet Dr Russell and some SMWS students at the upcoming Colorado Passive House Happy Hour on May 21st in Arvada, where their work will be on display. 

The February 2019 Passive Pod Workshop was made possible by the contribution of the following Product Partners:

  • Siga
  • 475
  • Partel
  • Johns Manville
  • Alpen
  • ThermalBuck
  • Zehnder
  • UltimateAir
  • SensorPush
  • savNRG

The 4-week program was supported by a grant from the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation www.fsifoundation.com and poster printing is provided by Allegra Boulder.

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