Abstract The concepts of the energy saving equivalent (ESE) and energy saving index (ESI) are presented in this paper to evaluate the performance of new materials and components in passive buildings. The ESE represents the hypothetical energy that should be input to maintain a passive room at the same thermal state as that when a particular material or component is adopted. The ESI is the ratio of a particular material or component's energy saving equivalent to the corresponding value of the ideal material or component that can maintain the room at an ideal thermal state in passive mode. The former can be used to estimate the effect of the adoption of a certain building component or material on the building's thermal state from an energy standpoint, while the latter can be used to characterize the performance of the actual building component or material from a common standpoint and be used to evaluate the performance of components or materials in different climatic regions or under different operating situations. In this study, the ESI was used to evaluate the performance of a thermochromic window, represented by a single vanadium dioxide (VO2) glazing, in passive residential buildings in three climatic regions of China (cold zone, hot summer and cold winter zone, and hot summer and warm winter zone).