The Ruby House is 12 times more efficient than the turn-of-the-century Victorian house next-door.

With a degree in anthropology and no inclination to enter academia, Dave Brach faced the momentous question: what to do with his life? Five years working as a framing carpenter, cabinet-maker, and furniture-maker eventually gave him his answer, and Brach began a journey that would lead him to becoming the founder and principal of Brach Design, a Salt Lake City architecture firm known for its focus on passive strategies.

“Everyone is picky about the things they can see—the form and colors and textures and light—but my idea of high-quality design and building includes the things you can’t see as well,” Brach says. “You can’t see the energy leaking into and out of the house, but that’s important.”

After working at several well-known architecture firms in Chicago, San Francisco, and Minneapolis, Brach followed his calling to nature and settled in Utah and began offering homes that are certified by the Passive House Institute US, a nonprofit organization that oversees a certification process so rigorous that it exceeds the requirements of LEED Platinum.

In 2011, Brach Design, which is Utah’s first certified Passive House consultant, completed the Ruby House in the historic district of Salt Lake City. “The owners wanted something that respected the Victorian neighborhood while meeting their vision of a modern home and, of course, saving energy,” Brach says.

Ruby House by Brach Design

Ruby House by Brach Design

A significant portion of the home’s passive design is in its envelope. Twelve inches of insulation under the basement slab prevent heat loss into the ground, and 12-inch-thick Logix ICF foundation walls have an R-value of 23. Brach also added an insulated interior two-by-four wall in the basement to bring the total basement wall R-value to 35. Brach says that windows are the weak point in any home when it comes to energy loss, so he made sure to install triple-paned glass windows with an argon gas fill for insulation.

The benefits of his efforts were clear when Brach did a blower door. “We pressurized the house to see how many air changes we could blow out per hour, and it was 0.3 air changes per hour—half the 0.6 requirement of a passive house,” he says. Because the home’s envelope is so tight, Brach had to design a ventilation system to bring in fresh air. It does double duty in terms of efficiency because heat is taken from the exhausted air and kept inside the house in winter for 93 percent efficient heat recovery.

When tested against the house next door, a turn-of-the-century Victorian, the Ruby House proved itself 12 times more efficient. The heating load—how much heat is needed to keep the house warm on the coldest night of the year—was 110,000 Btus per hour for the Victorian and only 9,000 Btus per hour for the Ruby House.

“It’s the tightest house I’ve ever designed,” Brach says of the home, which, when certified by the Passive House Institute, will be the first certified passive house located within city limits.