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Thermal insulation

The principle

In low-energy buildings in climates with a heating demand the entire building envelope has to be well insulated. The building envelope consists of all the building elements which separate the inside from the outside. Its main purpose is to provide for a comfortable indoor climate – irrespective of the outdoor climate which is determined by the weather.

During cold periods (typically from the middle of October to the end of April in the winter cold climates) the temperature inside the building envelope is usually higher than it is outside. As a result, heat is lost through the envelope and, unless this heat is replaced, the inside of the building cools down adjusting to the outdoor temperature. The inverse applies for hot climates (or during hot periods) with excessive heat entering the building through its envelope. Therefore, it makes sense to restrict the heat flow in any building irrespective of the climate – and this is where thermal protection comes in.

→ Good thermal protection can be achieved for all construction methods and has already been successfully implemented in solid construction, timber construction, prefabricated building elements, formwork element technology, steel construction and all types of mixed constructions.

→ An appropriate level of insulation can also be applied to existing buildings at any given point of time.

An important principle has been derived from experience with new low-energy constructions: “If you do it, do it right!” - Don’t save on the insulation when it comes to thermal protection measures. This principle is taken very seriously in Passive Houses – because quality insulation is a very affordable way of saving energy.

As a matter of fact, it is thermal insulation and not heat storage which is important (see insulation or storage). A high level of insulation has always proven to be effective; to learn more please go to the following page: Thermal protection works.

Heat losses through external walls and roofs account for more than 70% of the total heat losses in existing buildings. Therefore, improving thermal insulation is the most effective way to save energy. At the same time it will help improve thermal comfort and prevent structural damage (see further information about thermal insulation). Financial support such as low-interest loans, as currently available in a number of countries, reduces the initial investment for improved thermal insulation; yet, even without such incentives, the investment will pay off in the long term, as shown by a careful analysis.

The level of insulation in Passive Houses

U-values (thermal transmittance) of external walls, floor slabs and roof areas of Passive Houses range from 0.10 to 0.15 W/(m²K) (for Central European climate; these values may be slightly higher or lower depending on the climate). These values are not only benchmarks for all construction methods but also the most cost-effective values at today's energy prices.

The heat losses during cold periods are thus negligibly small, and the temperature of the interior surfaces is nearly the same as the air temperature, irrespective of the type of heating used. This leads to a very high level of comfort and reliable prevention of building damage due to moisture build up.

In warmer climates or during summer months, good insulation also provides protection against heat. Effective sunshades for the windows and sufficient ventilation are also essential to ensure a maximum level of comfort during hot periods.

Good insulation and airtight construction have proved to be extremely effective in Passive Houses. Another essential principle is “thermal bridge free design”: the insulation is applied without any “weak spots” around the whole building so as to eliminate cold corners as well as excessive heat losses. This method is another essential principle assuring a high level of quality and comfort in Passive Houses while preventing damages due to moisture build up.

Detailed information on Passive House insulation


The heat losses though a standard building component, i.e. external wall, floor, top floor ceiling or roof, are defined by the U-value or overall heat transfer coefficient (formerly k-value) 1). This value indicates the rate of heat transfer through a specific component over a given area if the temperature difference is one degree (1 Kelvin). The measurement unit of the U-value is therefore “W/(m²K)”. The smaller the U-value the better the level of insulation.

To calculate the heat loss through a wall, one must multiply the U-value with the area and temperature difference 2). In Central Europe, the average temperatures measured during severe winter periods are –12 °C outside and 21 °C inside.
To calculate the annual heating losses, one must multiply the U-value with the average temperature difference in the heating period with the duration of the heating period, or in other terms, multiply the U-value by the heating degree hours – which is 78,000 degree hours for an average Central European climate.

Using the example of a small single-family house with an external wall surface of 100 m², the following values were calculated for various U-values:

heat loss rate
annual heating losses
annual costs 3) external wall only
1.00 3,300 7,800 515.00
0.80 2,640 6,200 409.00
0.60 1,980 4,700 310.00
0.40 1,320 3,100 205.00
0.20 660 1,600 106.00
0.15 495 1,200 79.00
0.10 330 800 53.00
The heat loss is a significant factor in the energy balance of a building. Any heat loss must be compensated for by a corresponding heat gain, otherwise the temperature inside the house will drop.

A typical Passive House compact heating system can provide a heating power of about 1,000 W (that's the typical output of a hair dryer). The U-value of a Passive House wall needs to be quite low; otherwise a considerable portion of this power would be used up by the external wall: For typical Central European buildings, U-values of Passive House walls should range between 0.10 and 0.15 W/(m²K); depending on the climate, these figures may be somewhat higher or lower.

What does this imply for the insulating building envelope?

Insulating materials

material thermal conductivity
thickness required for U=0.13 W/(m²K)
reinforced concrete 2.3 17.30
solid brick 0.80 6.02
perforated brick 0.40 3.01
softwood 0.13 0.98
porous brick, porous concrete 0.11 0.83
straw 0.055 0.41
typical insulation material 0.040 0.30
high-quality conventional insulation material 0.025 0.19
nanoporous super-insulating material normal pressure 0.015 0.11
vacuum insulation material (silica) 0.008 0.06
vacuum insulation material (high vacuum) 0.002 0.015

Such low U-values can only be achieved with very well-insulating materials. The following table shows how thick an external building element, consisting only of the material specified, should be in order to achieve a typical Passive House U-value of 0.13 W/(m²K).

Examples of super-insulated external wall superstructures suitable for Passive Houses

The table graphically demonstrates that:

  • Building envelope areas with reasonable component thicknesses are only possible if the insulating effect is mostly achieved with good insulating material.
  • All materials listed in the lower part of the table are ideal for this. Combined structures with other building materials are possible, and in some cases necessary: e.g. a concrete wall insulated on the outside, or a monolithic wall consisting of porous concrete and mineral foam insulation panels. The lower the thermal conductivity of the insulation material used is, the thinner the superstructures will be.

→ Even a straw-bale wall of 50 cm or more would be suitable for the Passive House.
→ Typical conventional insulation materials (mineral wool, polystyrene, cellulose) require layers of about 30 cm.
→ The thickness can even be reduced to 20 cm with common polyurethane foam insulation materials.
→ State of the art vacuum insulation materials allow for very slender, yet highly insulated, building elements.
→ “Semi-translucent envelopes“ are another, somewhat different approach which has also proven to provide efficient insulation for buildings.
It directs a certain share of the global radiation inside the insulated construction thereby
reducing the temperature differences and achieving a lower equivalent U-value.

What about affordability?

It is a widely held view that the level of insulation required in Passive Houses is not affordable. Let's figure it out!!

Have another look at the table right at the top of this article. The fourth column lists the total annual costs for covering the heat losses through the external wall. (Please note that the following calculation is based on figures typical for Germany. The results should therefore serve as an example and may vary depending on the specific climatic conditions and energy prices of the region in question.)

Natural gas, heating oil, district heat, or electricity is used for heating – in Germany, the current or future costs for heating is rather unlikely to drop below 6.6 Eurocents per kWh 4). In fact, average energy prices were even higher over the last few years. The annual heating costs just for offsetting the heat losses through the external wall (100 m²) can be calculated as shown in the last column. Here is a section of the table again:

heat loss rate
annual heating losses
annual costs external wall only
1.250 4,125 9,750 644.00
0.125 412 975 64.00

The values for a typical wall of an old building, which is not even poorly insulated, are given in the first row. The occupants will spend about € 644 each year just to compensate for the heat losses through 100 m² of this wall. Applying insulation according to the Passive House standard, heat losses will decrease by a factor of 10; the annual costs for the energy loss through the external wall are reduced to less than 64 €/year. This means:

€ 580 savings in heating costs every year!

What should be done in order to achieve these savings?

Our suggestion:

  • Wait until it's time to repaint the external wall or repair the plaster – it won't be too long unless you’ve already just done it. The scaffolding and for painting the facade will end up costing you around € 2,500, an investment you will have to make anyways.
  • Next, you should ask your bank for a mortgage loan which you can pay off in instalments of 580€/yr including interest and repayment, over a period of 20 years. The size of the loan will be around € 8,300 at the current interest rate of approx. 3.5 % . (Please note again that this calculation is based on figures typical for Germany; interest rates may vary in other countries). Add to this the 2500 € spent on the scaffolding and repainting and you will end up with a total investment of around € 10,800 - a rather small investment considering the vast savings in heating costs in the future. For new constructions, top quality insulation is even more affordable.

Do you think this is just a zero-sum situation? Will you end up spending all the money you saved on energy costs on trade services instead? No, you won’t, because:

  1. Future energy costs are likely to be even higher than the ones used in this model.
  2. The thermal protection measures will “last” at least 40 years, even if the facade has to be repainted after 15-25 years - just as an uninsulated wall would have to be repainted. After the 20 year loan period has expired, the insulation will still be serving its purpose - saving energy - completely free of cost. This is what would be called the “golden end” in Wall Street terms.
  3. All the other advantages associated with improved thermal protection come “for free”: no cold corners, no mould growth behind furniture, a pleasant indoor climate without any cold radiation or cold air pockets near the floor.
  4. …And if your building is a new construction or refurbished comprehensively you will be one step closer to the Passive House Standard which guarantees permanent thermal comfort.
  5. And last but not least: Government support such as low-interest loans are currently available in Germany as well as an increasing number of other countries and haven’t even been factored into the calculation above. Adding these subsidised loans makes the investment in Passive House quality insulation even more affordable.


Existing Passive Houses illustrate that thicker layers of insulation required for conventional insulation materials can easily be realised:

  • Most constructions provide plenty of space for insulation. If there is no space or adding space would involve additional cost, one can resort to better quality insulation materials.
  • Thicker layers of insulation are easy to handle; applying them required hardly more effort than that needed for thinner layers, provided that it is applied properly. Of course, increased levels of insulation will cost more - however, insulation materials are relatively inexpensive.
  • Passive-House-suitable components for building envelopes are available for all types of constructions. This has already been demonstrated in all kinds of Passive Houses: brickwork constructions (cavity-wall, wall with a compound insulation system or curtain-wall facade), pre-fabricated building elements consisting of lightweight concrete, prefabricated concrete building elements, timber constructions (classical or lightweight construction beams), formwork element techniques, metal structure building elements and semi-translucent wall superstructures.
  • Measurements in completed Passive Houses have shown that the insulation effect of “thick insulation layers” exactly meets the expectations. The actual heat losses were just as small as calculated and the houses stayed warm with the minimum heat input stated. This is proven by thermal images (see below) which reveal clearly elevated temperatures at the interior surfaces of the building. Highly insulating components, as used in Passive Houses, have significant advantages over standard building envelopes which are usually poorly or moderately insulated.

Due to the low heat losses, interior surface stay at the same pleasant temperature year round – even without heating surfaces in the components. As a result, the difference between the radiation temperatures from various directions in the room is small, which is a prerequisite for excellent comfort. The high interior surface temperatures also help prevent condensation on the surface of the components. With normal usage, damage due to moisture build up in external building components can be practically excluded in the Passive House. This has also been proven in practice.

Thermography (infrared image) of the base point of a Passive House taken at the inside of an external wall. Average surface temperature approx. 20°C Minimum temperature at the edge 19°C

In warmer climates or during summer months the interior surface temperature is also close to the indoor air temperature which means that it is lower than that of poorly insulated components which allow heat to be transported from the outside towards the inside. Highly insulated constructions have a high temperature amplitude attenuation reducing the temperature fluctuation of external building components, even with very small masses (e.g. double plaster board). This effect is so great that it provides for optimal “summer behaviour” of the component. What is even more important though is the long time constant of the building due to the good insulation, which allows for the full utilisation of the thermally connected inner building mass. As a result, a Passive House in Central Europe can be cooled by night-ventilation and will stay pleasantly cool throughout the day, provided that solar radiation is limited to a reasonable extent. The “summer case” should be just as well-planned as the winter situation: the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) is an excellent tool for this purpose.

To a certain extent, highly insulated components mitigate any remaining thermal bridges compared with moderately insulated components – this is particularly important in refurbishments. Although people tend to believe it must be the other way round, this has been proven to be true in numerous cases and can be explained quite simply: In highly insulated buildings the supporting structures and the inner component layer are protected by thick layers of insulation and stay evenly warm in continuous areas. As a result, they aren’t even affected by minor thermal bridges. In poorly insulated constructions on the other hand, great parts of the structure are already cold. Additional thermal bridges quickly cause temperatures to fall below the dew point. Nevertheless, thermal bridges do cause additional heat losses in Passive Houses too. That is why, in spite of the large error margin, we recommend that thermal bridges be reduced to a minimum when designing a Passive House.

See also


Sometimes the stationary calculation (U-value calculation) of the heat conduction is criticised. This issue is discussed in detail on the page on "insulation or heat storage?". At this point we shall only point out that the U-value actually has proven to be a significant parameter for heat losses with existing Passive Houses working perfectly well based on these calculations. In terms of heating, they require as little as 10 percent of the energy used by typical central European buildings: about 1.5 litres of heating oil per square metre and year compared with 15 or more litres per square metre of living space used by standard buildings. Such low consumption values in the cold Central European climate are only possible with a high level of insulation.
heat flow = area x U-value x temperature difference. This equation does not only apply when the temperature difference is constant, as initially assumed to allow for a clear and simple determination of the boundary conditions when defining the U-value. In fact, this equation is always strictly applicable for the average values for heat flow and temperature difference if the final state of the component under consideration is no different from its initial state (similar temperature distribution in the component) - e.g. between the beginning of October and the same time period of the following year. Yet, even if the temperatures are not exactly the same, the relationship still applies in good approximation for the average values if it is determined over a longer period. For the components commonly used for Central European buildings, this is usually accomplished for averaging time periods of more than one month.
The results are based on an example calculation for 78kKh climate assuming a gross heating energy price of 6.6 €Cent/kWh. A more detailed explanation of the economics can be found here. These are moderate energy prices - yet, even at moderate prices there are numerous attractive alternatives to the use of fossil fuels. Improved thermal insulation is a very important alternative.
The present model is based on an example calculation for Germany assuming a gross heating price of 6.6 €Cent/kWh. A more detailed explanation of the economics can be found here. The Passive House Institute does not reckon with any significant additional increase in energy prices in the future. Yet, even at today's prices there are numerous attractive alternatives to the use of expensive fossil fuels. Improved thermal insulation is a very important alternative.
planning/thermal_protection/integrated_thermal_protection.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/11 15:28 by nsukhija