Thursday 27 October 2016

Panic stations over Passive Houses seems a terrible waste of energy

Published 18/08/2015 | 02:30

We have more than 340 passivhaus pros – the highest number in the English - speaking world
We have more than 340 passivhaus pros – the highest number in the English - speaking world

President Michael D Higgins told the international conference on climate change recently that it would take “moral courage to swim against the tide to change our models of economics and development” and that there was a “need for candour about change and the obstacles that were in its path”. 

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Really? Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly has expressly demanded that two local authorities delete all references to Passive House building standards in their 2016-2021 development plans. If not, he would invoke the rarely-used Section 31 of the Planning Act 2000, which allows him to veto local development plans.

What is this Passive House that has an environment minister so determined to prevent low-energy and climate-change initiatives? Unlike the Aggressive House we call the Dáil, “passivhaus” is a long-term, energy-saving, low-cost concept. They can be one-off designs, an estate of semi-detached houses or apartment blocks. Passivhaus is based on insulation and air-exchange, providing an ambient 21 degrees throughout the building without the need for radiators or underfloor heating. It does not require the alternative energy efficiency methods contained in Part L of our Building Regulations 2011. The minister warned that not complying with Part L could leave Ireland vulnerable to infringement proceedings for failure to transpose Directive EU/31/2010. 

He need not worry, as the passivhaus standard became compulsory for all new buildings in Brussels earlier this year, while Frankfurt and Oslo have made it mandatory for public buildings. Based on that evidence, Ireland would be accelerating its obligations towards the requirement that all new buildings in Europe would be “nearly zero-energy” from 2021. 

Homelessness has reached an embarrassing point for the Government, and it’s not due to lack of accommodation. The new homeless have been repossessed or evicted, with their homes sold by the banks or their rents hiked.

When Dublin City Council proposed adopting the passivhaus standard, Mr Kelly and Housing Minister Paudie Coffey wrote to all four of Dublin’s local authorities, warning them against introducing “unreasonable or excessive” housing regulations. 

Contrary to what the department and the chairman of the Construction Industry Federation have stated about passivhaus causing confusion and lack of skills, Ireland’s design and construction industry is well-placed to fulfil our housing needs using a concept that reduces heating costs to an average of €200 a year. As far as delays are concerned, a three-bed passivhaus basic structure can be erected in one day.

The minister’s argument against passivhaus is that traditional standards offer early delivery. It seems very short-sighted to reject available technology which diminishes the need for fossil fuel without consultation with all stakeholders. It is a short-term quantity over quality approach, tantamount to Fianna Fáil’s legacy of ghost estates and Priory Halls.

Nama has also requested removal of the passive house reference in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown plan, based on the erroneous assumption that it will increase the cost of building, thereby reducing the developer’s profit and rendering the sale of land unattractive.

Since there has been a stark gap in construction between the bust and the present, it would make more economic and environmental sense to begin the new wave of building with sustainable standards, resulting in low energy costs. Benefits will attach to our manufacturing and joinery industry. We have more than 340 passivhaus professionals – the highest number in the English-speaking world. There are 25 million inhabitants of passive houses worldwide. Wexford County Council already provides a 30pc reduction in local charges for passive houses. So much for the confusion warning by the minister. There are already accredited courses being run by Fas. With our need to build more houses, this is a pragmatic off-grid solution. 

Ireland has an opportunity to lead the way in passivhaus building. When we had our 1975 recession, ESB International was established and has since brought the skills from electrifying Ireland to more than 120 countries. We have the expertise and resources to replicate that success.

The latest news from the department is the easing of certification standards on one-off housing and extensions, reducing the need for engineers and quantity surveyors which can add €3,000 upwards. There should still be certification by an architect, otherwise there is the danger of a return to shoddy building – profit before quality. We’ve had enough of that: even the Housing Agency recently advised against rushing back to boom-style building. In its recent report it sets out needs, gaps, trends and guidelines but there is little mention of sustainability.

Unfortunately, under threat of veto from the department, the executive of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council last week recommended that the councillors delete all reference to passive house in the development plan “when such requirements are in excess of relevant national standards”.

The councillors will debate the report in October. They could consider a grant scheme for builders to use passivhaus standard; otherwise, the Government will keep consumers trapped by the spiralling cost of energy, property taxes and water charges. 

This issue is greater than the need to solve a housing shortage; an inter-departmental approach is needed to establish a cohesive strategy towards zero-energy in new building by 2021. Otherwise, this interference from central government raises serious questions about whose interests are being served.

Deirdre Conroy is an urban and building conservation specialist

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