Wednesday, 26 October 2011

the not so passive conference

on PassivHaus Standard and Methodology

organised by


Monday and Tuesday this week saw us participating in the third annual UK PassivHaus Conference in London. While it was held at what one must define as the most extreme opposite of a PassivHaus, The Barbican Conference Centre, the event and discussions per se offered lots of food for thought:

The logo of the Passiv Haus Institute
its website offers some challenges

Fabric first
It now seems to have become the general understanding that it makes more sense to design and thoroughly calculate a building's envelope to the possible highest specs, first and then think about how to provide what and, more importantly, how little energy will be needed to run it. In simple terms, before we think about building new power stations we should try to follow ways of not wasting energy.

The Barbican per se and the conference's presentations offered the chance to understand how to do better, much better and why we must learn from tradition and the mistakes we made in order to secure our future.

Amazing how much time was spent questioning air quality provided by mechanical ventilation including heat recovery systems (MVHR) and/or the dubious threat to possibly die in an air tight house caused by lack of oxygen - well, may be I am exaggerating that last bit; but just a wee bit.

a simple schematic

Apart from the fact that traditional houses and those built to PH Standards do have in common that windows and believe it or not even doors are openable, why would fresh air through an open window be any cleaner or healthier than air mechanically filtered entering the same building in controlled volumes through purpose build ducts?
I should add that in my first house, a glazier's refurbished old workshop, I had an early version of an automated ventilation system including heat recovery installed in 1983. It was a French system and in order to follow that stupid routine of not liking what the French and/or Germans and/or English, always vice versa, do come up with (see further down) I should confess: even though it was French it worked fine.

Why did I install it then? Well, if you refurbish an old house and try to make it air tight in order to keep the warmth in - yes, we did discuss and try this in 1983 already - it makes perfect sense to swap moisture and used air for pre-warmed fresh air. Sorry, but that's basically S1 Physics, isn't it?

In S2, maybe, air tightness might be discussed, which mentioned in connection with selling a house might shrug innocent people off; so one of the presenters tried to replace the term by using draft-free environment; fine, however by definition air tightness includes draft freeness, while vice versa it is not the case. Hence, a more positive term remains to be found, but then we should hurry, please, as the customers might overtake the crawling process of inventing new descriptions for old realities.

Appropos Germany
It seems to be a hard nut for many to get over the fact that this PassivHaus Standard could have something to do with Germany, with those Germans. It is a fact, and as I had to live with it I know what I am writing about, that the German Government(s) were among the first, if not the first, to not only realise that energy might become a challenging issue but they have for very nearly thirty years consequently and constantly implemented ever tougher laws and bylaws of how to make constructions and appliances more energy efficient. No wonder the "others" now have to chew on the fact that most working and price worthy solutions, in this case for PH related products, components and technologies are offered by German companies. It is that simple.

By the way, listening to the cramped and constrained efforts of all officials trying to avoid any German ties with all kinds of PassivHaus issues was very close to being offensive; not so much in my eyes as a German living in the UK for a decade, now, I am used to such rubbish especially of those who at the same time indeed own Audis or a German kitchen, etc., but much more so in the heads and translations of German speaking visitors from the Continent. Britain allegedly stands for non discrimination acts and blames others of not sticking to the rules; well, here we are!

UK supply chain
One could say in a globalised world where most if not all of our daily consumer products are produced where they are made the cheapest, sometimes the most efficient, often the "dirtiest" way, this subject of an UK supply chain for PH components could not be of any relevance: may the best, i.e. the best working solution and value for money win.

Not so in this case: with generalised reference to import and transport cost the request for an UK supply chain for PH components e.g. windows is constantly mentioned, most probably by the same people that drive an Audi, a Mercedes, BMW or Toyota and buy Chinese toys, PCs and shoes! I will come back to the industry of automobiles further down.

Meanwhile, think about this: forget the advance in understanding the PH Standard and the advance in know how, training and experience from long years of actual application, it is a fact, the Continental market is huge. Most probably, the window manufacturers in question produce and deliver thousands of windows a day, mostly to very high specs, much higher than the average UK window, and on top of this they manufacture a  smaller, yet comparably substantial number to PH standards. Don't forget: in addition their means of production are high tech manufacturing robots which represent heavy long term investment, the companies' purchase power for raw materials is gigantic, per unit margins are kept to a minimum and transport to and from their facilities are their daily bread covering the Continent from Portugal to Russia and from Italy to Norway.

Now, who would think that any UK supplier can just pick up here and be competitive in a wee UK market that is still discussing the possible disadvantages of e.g. MVHR? Or whether or not recycling and waste water management should be part of the building regulations. I think that should be common sense and should not be used to dilute energy efficiency of any building envelope.

So that successful launch of that part of the UK supply chain remains to be seen. It seems a bit unlikely, as a true Scot would put it; I say, it is economically impossible: either the price or the windows' quality and variety will have to suffer unless protectionism or currency related influences would run the show

In this blog I often refer to China: I do not bash China, I might criticise China, but mainly I adore China for its flexibility, its will to succeed and for always doing their homework. But then, China very much frightens me; many could not care less, which frightens me even more.

Now, imagine China had felt it was too proud to just produce and copy what the market needed or wanted and then too proud to use the much better machinery and tools that they were often even given for free but then soon were able to import upon their own decision. Where would China be today?

No! I believe, the tactic should be quite the other way round. Get what is best value for money, wherever it comes from, learn, understand, teach, use, copy, adopt, adapt and improve! Like Fabric first, we should make a market for the most appropriate Standard: that is the way forward for any industry while the customer will be very grateful.

This species felt almost like not existing over those two days; from my personnel experience over the last five years attending shows and conferences all over the UK the customer has changed.

They have learned, they google two words and are flooded with information, they travel, they visit, they discuss, they all feel energy costs closing in on them, but in the end they also might drive a ... as I said, I will come back to that.

Real estate markets have changed; the idea that one's dwelling is a lucrative short term investment to climb up a money making ladder has become a very difficult one. While land to build on might be of pretty reliable value, a house that costs a fortune to run proves itself an unaffordable and unwanted burden. Driven to the extreme this could end up to where one will have to sell a house for its land's value minus demolishing and recycling cost. Think about that!

No, I did not leave the red line; a house build to PH Standard, certified, is futureproof. It will hardly loose its value as the standard sets a clear energy consumption figure: 15kW/m2a or even less. So anybody interested in one will know exactly what kind of quality he will get and what it will cost him year by year to come.

Futureproof Asset
With defining energy consumption levels, materials, technologies and tradesmanship are becoming part of this definition. One won't go without the other. Hence, the overall quality including life expectancy and durability are improved; indeed this is setting new standards were the customer or client will be able to compare like with like on the basis of a set energy consumption figure. King customer will love that. And really, once the mortgage companies will be prepared and willing to understand those differences they will finance traditional builds with a surcharge, only. 

It was also very interesting to learn that there are differences in the door-blower test routines of the UK and Continental procedures; I will look into this much closer. I know from experience that we all need to be sceptical when confronted with too-good-to-be-true U-value calculations; whatever you compare, values, technologies or procedures, only, it should have a common base otherwise any discussion is a waste of time or simply humbug.

Automobile Industry
My first car was a 1967 MG B, spoke wheels, leather, chrome; then we loved British cars, the variety, the design, everything. German cars were boring, looked old and ugly.

What is left of that famous British car industry? Some brand names, now put on Indian, Chinese and again, I beg your pardon, German companies' makes - the rest is history. The industry did not follow what the market, the customers wanted and/or needed, it avoided investments for the sake of short-term share-holder values and called for the government when it failed.

Today the leading car manufacturers are either Asian or German manufactures. There is a severe chance that the British Construction Industry will be following the British Automobile Industry. Trying to protect one's market share by aiming at suppressing competition and innovation and neglecting customers' demands is a certain recipe for disaster.

By the way
when I don't blog, eat or sleep I work with HANSE HAUS (UK), a German off-site manufacturer of highly energy efficient components for all kinds of low energy houses, including, of course, PassivHaus certified turn-key Passive Houses. Here is the German website, here our English one.

Above a Passive House on our show area in Oberleichtersbach, Germany. Below a video, showing the eight essential hours of making a house thoroughly prepared by taking advantage of the latest off-site technology wind and watertight.

Should you miss the phrase "leading" or "best" or "first" in front of our name please don't worry, we know where we stand while we walk the walk!

Carpe diem!

#PassivHausUK: thank you and well done, hope to see you next year in a PHCC*

* PassivHaus Conference Centre


Justin Bere said...

I enjoyed your blog entry on the PH conference very much! You talk great sense. BTW I fought very hard against the Barbican as a venue for the same reasons as you say - the Barbican is the extreme opposite of a PH! We'll have to see how many people we can fit into the Mayville PH Community Centre - maybe this would be a good venue for another year...

caw rock said...

Thank you for your comment; if we only learned fast from such mistakes like the Barbican. Mayville PH CC looks very impressive!

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