PALATABLE PASSIVHAUS

I've been asked a handful of times lately - 'So... what do you think about Passivhaus?' and I reckon it's a good excuse to get back on the old blog writing and summarise my most recent thoughts. I hope you enjoying reading, and please do get involved by commenting and sharing.

Previous to the last six months I've been a bit of an 'eco purist' about the whole Passivhaus concept, focusing only on it's flaws and unwilling to compromise and let the pros shine through. In a nut shell, for those less familiar, Passivhaus is the quality assurance and energy performance standard - 'the worlds leading fabric first approach to low energy buildings' which originates from Germany and focuses on a buildings fabric as a way to lower energy usage.

Passivhaus places importance on high levels of insulation and an airtight external envelope, with the assistance of mechanical ventilation and heat recovery systems. They seek to remove thermal bridges from the construction, use high performance windows and doors with insulated frames, and to reduce the heating demand and dependance of fossil fuels.

I'll start with the issues I have with Passivhaus:

High Levels of Insulation - there are no restrictions to the type of insulation you can use or limitations to the distance in which it requires to travel. Passivhaus certification can be achieved with fossil fuel derived expanded phenolic foam (kingspan, celotex etc) and shipped from across the globe. Buildings could be made with far more natural breathable materials and sourced as locally as possible, reducing carbon emissions in the construction process and increasing the overall air quality of the finished building.

Air Tightness - By making the buildings airtight, ventilation is required, passively or mechanically to ensure there is adequate airflow and no build up of condensation which leads to mildew, damp and mould. If a Passivhaus were to be left standing with no mechanical ventilation running and no inhabitants for a period of time, it would result in a stuffy, unhealthy internal environment and potential moisture problems. Buildings could be designed and made with breathable heat retaining materials for thermal mass, and for passive ventilation to keep the spaces fresh and still warm allowing the building to work even when not inhabited or 'plugged in'.

High Performance Windows & Doors - This probably covers thermal bridge free construction as well. I don't have an issue with these principles, but again it's down to the materials used and freedom to specify fossil fuel derived products made in the arse end of nowhere and shipped across the world. Buildings could be made from natural and low embodied energy materials resourced as locally as possible. Low energy buildings, that are high energy in construction are sort of counter productive in the overall energy demands of the planet, are they not?

Mechanical Ventilation & Heat Recovery - Ooo this one I had such a beef with for a long long long time. This is my most recent to get over and possibly the main point that's tipped me back to balancing point. Why design an energy efficient house that RELIES on energy to function correctly. The entire philosophy is to reduce energy usage, and the backbone of this entire concept relies on the one thing it tries to reduce. It's an oxymoronic system. There, that's all I'm going to say.

I've not engaged in arguments - sorry 'discussions' - about Passivhaus since Part II at C.A.T where I found it very difficult to explain to logical, Passivhaus minded students, lecturers and sustainable M&E engineers why I felt so strongly against it. It seemed nigh on impossible to explain my thoughts despite many scribbles and rants, and trying to figure it out in my own head. There always seemed a promoter just poised ready to fight against my 'purist' ideals. It seemed like it was logic versus gut instinct. I was on the side of gut instinct, and you can't academically argue gut instinct. There are no examples and fluffy feely airy fairy answer to - it just feels better to be in a passively designed, naturally made, breathable warm house.

Six months ago I realised my perspective had changed somewhat. While I've been working and living in West of Scotland, and being part of the Scottish Ecological Design Association hosting events and talking to individuals, designers, studios and governing bodies, it's extremely obvious to me that there is a growing mass of normal, every day, members of the community that are interested in and are growing their awareness of wider sustainability issues, and the effect of the built environment.

Students are arriving at university with these ecological values; awareness is spreading of harmful toxins and plastics and cancers and genetically modified food; parents are concerned over the effect of technology on their children and what they feed them; hospitals and schools, affordable housing - they want better for their inhabitants; energy consumption reduced, renewable technologies invested in, local support of crafts and skills...these things are all on the rise and so I realise that it doesn't do much harm to have a minimum standard - a household name - an identifiable, explainable set of criteria on which to start increasing the standard of the built environment.

As Kirsty Maguire puts it, it's 'Passivhaus by stealth.' If you can convince people that what they want and need is healthy, comfortable, enjoyable buildings, with reduced bills and at a decent price, then there's the starting point. I can't tear Passivhaus down for not being as green, or natural, or sustainable, as it could be, as much as I could be praising it for increasing the minimum standards that we already adhere to. If Building Standards adopted Passivhaus then it would significantly increase the quality of the built environment and drastically reduce the energy consumption of the country as a whole.

The most recent and relevant scenario to convince me of Passivhaus MVHR systems, was the weather we've been experiencing this winter. In temperatures below zero, with howling wind, to live in a house that is not airtight, where you can't open the windows because the bitter cold wind will cool the whole house, and the windows and doors are not high performing - Passivhaus makes a lot of sense. There, I said it. I 100% understand why mechanical ventilation while recovering the heat is a genius idea. I've been either freezing or oxygen deprived with my 'natural ventilation' system.

It's taken me quite a while to balance out, but I think there's a place for both Passivhaus promotion while still pursuing greener, healthier, simpler, 'purer' buildings. I can still strive to make things as excellent as they can be, while appreciating the effort of the real world applicable increase in standards that Passivhaus has to offer.

THE THINGS I DO FOR ARCHITECTURE

While on a roadtrip around the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, myself and friends stopped at Playa Guiones to take in the splendour of the white sand, blue skies and makeshift palm tree shelters. From where we entered the beach, halfway along I noticed an unusual building popping up from the trees at the other end.

I hadn't a clue what it was, perhaps a lighthouse? It was pretty colourful and an unusual shape. I was very intrigued. It didn't look like we could get to it from the beach we were on, but as we were heading north along the beaches I figured that perhaps we could see it from the other side at the next stop.

When we reached the next beach, it was beautiful, lovely fishing boats and rocky areas, and there poking out from the tops of the trees was the building. Someone suggested it might be an observatory judging by the circular balcony we could make out.

I decided to climb up to get a better picture, there was a 45 degree incline from the beach up to the building and the remnants of a pathway. Scratching my knees and ankles I made it up, but there was no fence. The more I explored the more obvious it became that this building was abandoned and no longer in use.

As I made my way up the estate to a ginormous swimming pool and outhouse, I started to get excited about the prospect of this building being abandoned. I could see things hanging upstairs and a couple of items that suggested someone was living there, but it was definitely no longer in use as a hotel or whatever it was.

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spot the german shepherd…

I cautiously made my way up the open steps of what appeared to be a restaurant, when my heart did a little flutter - there was a German Shepard dog, asleep under a fusball table. I backed up, amazed it hadn't woken up as I was so close and made my way back to the swimming pool and up the other side of the swimming pool area. I figured this was safe enough as I was far away from the house and any potential inhabitants.

At the other side I found myself at the end of a well maintained lawn, with a view of the whole building tower. It was unfinished in places but still absolutely stunning. Behind me were rows of cabinãs presumably rented out back in the day, with access to the restaurant and pool within the bigger building. I cautiously peeked out to take photos in case there were people inside and then turned and made my way down the steps heading back to the pool and the way I'd came.

This is when my heart jumped. I heard dogs barking. Dogs plural, not just one. They were coming from the house so I prayed with luck that one of the others had come up looking for me, and the dogs were barking at them from the front. But no. Within thirty seconds before I even had time to think, four dogs came shooting along the maintained lawn, whizzed passed me and started down the line of cabinãs. Even at this point as my heart jumped I thought maybe, just maybe they'll run right past me and continue looking for some other imposter. But alas. They stopped right next to me on the parallel path, turned and growled. In the split seconds between them jumping over to me, I wondered whether I should run. Fight or flight right? My heart was pounding. All I thought was, "Don't snap at me, don't snap, please don't snap...but at least I have my rabies shot!!"

So it turns out I'm a fight, not flight. Running? Are you kidding me, that would have been far more terrifying, with them snapping at my heels, and a 45 degree angle slope down to the beach. No. Logic prevailed and with a series of "ssh"-ing and rotating so that none of them would snap, I proceeded with caution towards the lawn, hoping beyond hope that there were in fact people within the building.

Fortunately there were two men, up in the building and looking out over the lawn, they shouted at the dogs and I stumbled up the lawn, hand on my heart and managing to repeat the word sorry in Spanish over and over. I explained that I was an architectural student and the man didn't seem too fazed. He motioned for me to come in, or that it was ok, and I headed back down to where I'd come up. However instead of climbing down to the beach I decided I'd walk along the driveway to the road and back to the car park before getting the others. I was shaking and my heart was still going nineteen to the dozen. The sounds of the dogs barking kept me alert and eventually I found a path to the beach just as the others came up looking for me.

They said they'd heard dogs barking and one of them had actually made the joke of "that'll be Kirsty being eaten by the guard dogs then!" I told them what had happened and I headed straight for the car for some water and a chocolate snack. I was in shock.

After twenty minutes or so of talking to a local guy, (and me getting my heart rate back to normal) we left the beach, and I drove up the exit. As we reached the entrance to the hotel, we drove up and someone got out to go ask the men if we could come in and see the building and take pictures. They had better Spanish than the rest of us!

There was a brief moment where we heard the dogs barking and saw our friend running towards the car, which was quite entertaining, but the guys called out to her and we drove up to the front of the house. They locked the dogs in a room, there were seven or eight in total, and allowed us to look around.

The local guy we'd been talking to on the beach told us that it was designed by John Fraser eighty something years ago, as a hotel and restaurant but that his (the local) family who own the beach front location got the area turned into a national reserve beach and that halted construction so John Fraser was no longer allowed to do anything with it. I think the current owner can live in it as a residence but can't renovate or build or use it as a hotel. The recent earthquake caused damage to the tower so I'm not sure if they are allowed to even fix that.

It's an absolutely gorgeous building, almost made better as it's abandoned. The downstairs area that I saw coming up from the beach apparently hosts a whole building underneath the swimming pool according to the local.

It was an absolute gem of a building, and it's a shame we couldn't get up to the tower, but what we saw was definitely worth being chased by a pack of dogs!

It's just one of the things that I do for architecture.