Passivhaus as planning policy

Ireland has a 15-year history of campaigning for Passivhaus adoption and recent events have propelled the standard to the forefront of industry debate.

Last year, the County Councillors of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown voted 35 to 4 in favour of adopting Passivhaus for all new buildings in the Development Plan for the region. This will have a hugely positive impact on their future building stock in terms of energy performance, health standards and comfort levels. It is a momentous achievement and puts the county shoulder-to-shoulder with other progressive regions such as Brussels, Oslo and parts of Germany and Austria.

The policy

The County Councillors were advised about the environmental benefits of the standard, but it was upon experiencing the high comfort levels first-hand on a visit to a Passivhaus home that the case for mandating the standard was won. They immediately appreciated that low energy homes could, and should, be available to their whole community.

The resultant planning policy requires all new buildings to be built to the Passivhaus standard, or equivalent. Below is an extract of the policy from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s County Development Plan:

Policy CC7: Energy Performance in New Buildings. It is Council policy that all new buildings will be required to meet the passive house standard or equivalent, where reasonably practicable. By equivalent, we mean approaches supported by robust evidence (such as monitoring studies) to demonstrate their efficacy, with particular regard to indoor air quality, energy performance, comfort, and the prevention of surface/interstitial condensation.

It will be the responsibility of the planning officers to interpret the policy and apply it to the planning applications they receive. This leads to the question: is planning the right place to enforce performance standards?

For Passivhaus to have maximum impact with minimal effort, its concepts should be interwoven with the design strategy of a project from its outset. The performance standards laid out in both the Building Regulations and Passivhaus influence the siting, orientation, form, windows and shading of a design. These are all elements that affect the appearance of a building and, therefore, are of interest to the planning authorities. This would suggest that a commitment should be made to achieve Passivhaus before a design is submitted for planning approval.

There is resistance from some in the construction industry to have Passivhaus mandated. The reasons often cited are that designs would be too constrained and increased costs would inhibit development. As discussed in previous blog posts, these claims are misguided. There are plenty of examples of Passivhaus developments, both big and small, which prove that the standard can be achieved on beautiful designs and built within budget. But it does require a small shift in attitudes, which perhaps is the more likely reason for resistance to mandating Passivhaus at planning.

This debate will soon become a moot point anyway. As the regulated energy standards move towards NZEB (nearly zero energy building) performance, it will become increasingly difficult for designers to shoehorn sustainability measures into a design after the planning scheme has been approved. Passivhaus offers a tool to ease the pressure of meeting the more onerous standards of NZEB. If Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown embraces and enforces their Passivhaus policy now, they will be on the right track to becoming NZEB-ready by 2020.