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Passive House: Sell It to Me!

Source: deposit photos

Looking for a new home? What if I told you that a Passive House could reduce your annual heating bills by 90% with no additional cost on construction? Would you take it?

Passive House isn’t a brand. It’s a building standard that’s open to all and has proved itself in practice as being energy efficient, comfortable, economic and environmentally friendly all at the same time. The London housing crisis has highlighted real limitations with traditional market-driven housing models. Our rapid population growth means London has a huge energy challenge on its hands and a growing need to adapt current energy systems for more sustainable ones. Could the Passive House Standard help ease the UK’s major social and environmental issues?

Passive House design means no draughts, no cold radiant, comfortable summers, fresh air (always!), whole house warmth and no fuel poverty. This is achieved through the following key features;

  • Heat recovery ventilation
  • Airtightness
  • Thermal bridge Free
  • High level of Insulation
  • Passive House Windows
  • Optimisation of solar gains

With the UK challenging itself to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050, the Passive House Building Standard could be the gateway to meeting these requirements. The assumption that Passive House is usually associated with bespoke single dwellings is far from the case. Europe has more than 25,000 certified Passive House buildings to date including homes, schools and office buildings, such as a 354 unit residential development in Innusbruck, Austria and even a 4000 sqm Tesco supermarket in Tramore, Ireland.

This is all well in good but why build to non-statutory requirements?

Along with the UK Government, Europe has implemented a number of directives designed to move the EU towards a more energy efficient and sustainable future. For example, the Dublin City Council has passed a motion that says new buildings must be constructed to the Passive House Standard. Folks on the other side of the pond are also paying attention. In New York City, the green-building initiative championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio sets a target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Passive House standards are being studied as governments and other entities look to overhaul the performance standards for all new construction. This has already led to the creation of a 250-foot tall residential high-rise at Cornell University’s Roosevelt Island campus, which will house 520 people when completed in 2017 and will be the world's tallest and largest passive-house building. Buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of carbon emissions worldwide. In New York City this is closer to 58% and buildings such as Cornell’s new campus dorms will save 882 tons of CO2 each year compared to a normal building.

Passive House Explained in 90 Seconds from Hans-Jörn Eich on Vimeo.

UK’s target for all new homes to meet the Zero Carbon Standard comes in advance of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive’s target for all new buildings in the EU to be Nearly Zero-Energy Buildings. The scale of change required to meet these new standards highlights a need to act now and to try different ways of securing a low-carbon future for the UK. Creating more energy efficient homes could be a solution.

Is cost the stumbling block?

The most common argument against making Passive House a mainstream building standard is its cost. In the past, Passive House building costs were regularly documented as coming in anywhere from six-15% over that of a standard code build. However, Steve Bluestone, a partner in the Bluestone Organisation, which is set to build a 249-unit rental development in Mount Vernon, New York, has said they can deliver the development with only 1% in additional cost tied to Passive House standards. And back in the UK, St Luke’s CE Primary School in Wolverhampton was built to Passive House Standards with a 0% difference on current Code Level 4 costs, and it boasts significantly lower energy bills.

With a handful of pioneers also reporting that they too have achieved Passive House on the same budget as the standard alternative, it seems that the difference in costs is slowly starting to shrink. So is passive house really unaffordable?

What can we do as designers to combat this?

Let’s use a proven building standard, reap the rewards and use the unique selling points. Twenty five years of detailed monitoring of existing Passive House buildings has proved that they are genuinely energy efficient, healthy, comfortable and built to last.

What next?

In Gensler’s London office, we have looked at what impact Passive House Principles has on our RESIDE project. The severe lack of affordable housing in London is leading to a growing interest from buyers to explore alternative types of accommodation, and there is a real desire from a lot of people to have more control over the way that they live and treat their environment. Using Passive House technology not only reduces stress on the environment but also offers a significant reduction in annual heating costs, and – if latest figures are anything to go by – offers a very minimal difference in construction costs between Passive House and a conventional build.

Creating a healthy building stock for the London market, as well as comparable cities such as New York, offers an opportunity to leverage the power of Passive House.

Are you sold? I know I am.

Craig is a Chartered Architectural Technologist and Certified Passive House Designer with experience in retail and residential projects based in Ireland, the UK and the Middle East. Combining this with his background in Architectural, Transport Technology & Urban Design experience has allowed for involvement in number of projects ranging in use and size. Since joining Gensler, he has been involved in a number of research projects including the Firmwide initiative RESIDE & Design Performance. Contact him at Craig_OHalloran@gensler.com.

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