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Passion of the Passivhausers

Last month, I began the travels for my Churchill Fellowship by making a pilgrimage to Darmstadt in Germany, the birthplace of the Passivhaus standard. I gathered with fellow ‘Passivhausers’ from around the world for the 20th International Passivhaus Conference and to celebrate the impressive milestone of 25 years of Passivhaus. Technology, techniques, awareness and enthusiasm for the standard have evolved dramatically since the prototype house was constructed, but the reliable physics underlying the system remains largely unchanged.

Events were kicked off with a rallying cry for a revolution in sustainability. There were representatives from a diverse range of institutions, from the Passivhaus Institut and City Mayors to the European Parliament and United Nations. They emphasised the stark reality of our environmental situation: the effects of climate change are heading to a crisis point, with the risk of entire civilisations being displaced – or worse.

History was made during the conference; the Paris Agreement was signed by an impressive 165 nations. As an international community, we are now committed to keeping the global temperature increase to less than 1.5ºC and it’s time we put these words into action. More than a third of energy consumed within industrialised nations occurs in buildings, especially for space heating. Our dependency on fossil fuels and nuclear energy has to stop if we are to meet the Paris target. But there is currently a massive gap between what we are achieving now and where we need to be. Passivhaus will help close the gap.

It may take a little courage to get started, but once you know how to design energy efficient buildings, why would you choose not to? … Money? If we base such important decisions solely on money we are going to destroy this planet. The emphasis on payback period seems only to come into effect when decisions about energy efficiency are being made. Nobody ever asks about the payback period of a car for instance, which is losing value with each day that passes. Meanwhile, properties smugly increase in value – including the energy efficient ones.

Constructing a Passivhaus will still result in a profitable investment but it means taking a more ethical approach to the financial return. Knowing what we know about premature deaths due to air pollution makes building to the minimum of standards to maximise profits unethical. There is no fast way to change attitudes, but it is reassuring to see that an ever-increasing number of authorities, associations and companies are looking to Passivhaus to reduce energy demand and improve user comfort. In response, affordable Passivhaus construction was a running theme throughout the lectures, with tips and solutions being widely disseminated to make it accessible to all. I will be exploring these techniques in subsequent posts.

As the delegates disperse back to their homes around the world, the positive message of the 2016 International Passivhaus Conference will radiate, namely that energy efficiency can be done everywhere… and it is for everyone. 

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