Kelsall Architects

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Passive House?

Passive House and sustainable design in Manchester

It all started when we were given this book for christmas...

Sustainable design has always been one of our core values, but since reading this book we have been travelling down a rabbit warren of information; blog posts by passionate architects, reports on case studies and very convincing statistics. And it's safe to say, we are converts to Passive House!


So why Passive House and not some other sustainable building standard? Passive House works on hard data and calculations. A certified building must achieve a maximum of 15kWh/m2/yr specific heat demand and total energy usage of 120kWh/m2/yr. To put that in context, a Passive House building uses 75% less energy than a building built to minimum building regulations! The clever software (PHPP) in the form of a complex spreadsheet removes all guess work and, most importantly, there is no level of green ‘tick boxing’ which will help you reach that target. Just like when buying a car, a house buyer can have a good understanding of what it will cost to run a Passive House, allowing them to compare like for like and quantify value.

Why are we in the UK so far of the mark with our building regulations? Germany and Scandinavia seem to be embracing the challenge and are apparently streets ahead, with Passive House building becoming the norm. The UK began to make bold steps in the right direction with The Code for Sustainable Homes but that was abolished last year in favour of swiftly increasing the supply of homes. This book by Justin Bere from Bere Architects really challenges architects to look seriously at their responsibility to invest in good quality sustainable design to reduce our impact on the world. When you look at the bigger picture, you realise the importance of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and he describes Passive House as ‘a worldwide revolution that has the potential to put power and security back into the hands of local communities.’ There are wider implications; ‘Energy independence is potentially a huge benefit to a nation’s security and to its economy.’

a worldwide revolution that has the potential to put power and security back into the hands of local communities.
— Justin Bere

So, assuming we have clients who are keen to embrace Passive House, how do we go about it? From our investigations we have identified a few hurdles to leap in order to fully embrace the Standard;

1/Architects are just not used to being so involved!

We love this quote from Justin Bere; ‘Since the Industrial Revolution, construction has been increasingly emancipated from the constraints of the natural world, as we have transitioned from an era of building with labour and materials that were close at hand, to building with whatever we desired from a global marketplace. The inevitable consequence has been a detachment of both architects and society at large from the physical impacts of our buildings on the planet.’ And it’s true, each building is a mixing pot of products and materials that come from far and wide. It is important to know the true impact of each of these products in order to know the true impact of the whole building. This takes time and therefore money. As with most things initial investment will pay dividends in the future. Building a repertoire of good products in the first few projects will hasten the specification process for the architect in the long run.

2/Finding the right builder.

Architects have a tendency not to get their hands dirty so they don’t fully understand how things go together. To design to the rigorous Passive House Standard, architects don’t just have to detail the socks off all the junctions, they also have to find a builder who is willing to use new techniques and build to a quality that they may not have done before. The testing procedures will hold no prisoners!

At Kelsall Architects we have recently adopted the complete use of Revit in our office and it really does aid the process of thinking about each interface and junction in 3D. The more we understand the interface, the better we can detail.

3/Getting the training

Trying not to sound too cynical, but as we probe into the heady world of Passive House, it can sometimes feel to an outsider like an exclusive club. To become a Certified Passive House Designer you have to complete a two week course costing several thousand pounds with an exam at the end. This simply isn’t feasible for a fledgling practice like ours, so we have to find another route. After much investigative work, and some solid advice, we have decided that the best route is to buy the PHPP software and just get stuck in! If you manage to design a Passive House and get it Certified you can become a Certified Designer through that route.

After delving a bit deeper we have in fact found a community of enthusiasts who are more than willing to help out Passive House novices like us.

4/Paying for building certification

Now, having carefully designed your building and found a considerate builder to painstakingly build it, and then had it tested to prove that it meets the insane airtightness levels… the certification of a Passive House building will set you back a further few thousand pounds. Word has it that many people who want to build their own Passive House are not interested in the final hurdle of getting it Certified. Their reward will be in their negligible fuel bills for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately this doesn’t help the architect who needs that certification to keep their ‘Certified Designer’ status… hmmm.

So we have established that we are keen. We believe in it! We are converts to the success of Passive House, but is our dogged enthusiasm is quite enough? Without much support from the government, it appears that the people driving this movement forward are architects willing to invest their own time and money, acting on their conscience to design responsibly for the future. The problem, as Justin Bere says in the book is ‘a solution that reduces energy consumption, even though providing clear benefits to people and the environment, will not be championed by those who profit from poor-quality construction or by those who see energy efficiency as a threat to business-as-usual.’

Relying on the goodwill of a few is unlikely to gather momentum fast. We believe that for real change to happen on a national level, there has to be an appetite and ambition for it; and that has to be supported by Government.

We’d love to hear your comments and thoughts on this. In the meantime we leave you with another quote from Justin Bere which has given us much food for thought; ‘architects need to conceive of buildings not as isolated entities but rather as organisms that are fundamentally integrated into the ecosystems in which they operate.’ A topic for another blog post perhaps…