Monday 21 October 2019

Is this the future of new homes?

What if your heating costs were close to zero? And your BER rating A minus? With a new homes scheme in Enniscorthy built to passive house standards that ‘what if’ has become a reality at prices first-time buyers can afford. Liadan Hynes reports

The Madeira Oaks development
The Madeira Oaks development

Liadan Hynes

Ireland’s first ever development of new homes built to the highly energy-efficient passive house standard has hit the market. Madeira Oaks in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, is an estate of 12 three-bedroomed, semi-detached houses costing a competitive €190,000 each. Better still, they have been awarded the first A minus BER rating in Ireland.

Up to now, the only Irish houses which meet the strict energy requirements of the passive house system have been one-off homes built for eco-enthusiast owners. Builder Michael Bennett of Enniscorthy Passive Developments was determined to make the passive house concept more mainstream.

In particular, he wanted to counter the notion that building houses to such exacting standards was necessarily more expensive. “Our challenge was to produce a three-bedroom semi-detached house for the ordinary Irish customer at a reasonable cost,” explains Bennett.

His company has been building award-winning one-off passive homes for over a decade. Two years of research and development went into the Enniscorthy project, and they have achieved their aim of building the houses for the same cost as a standard BER A3 energy rated home.

Passive houses are air-tight, with ultra-high levels of insulation. They are triple-glazed and use heat recovery systems to extract the heat from the air leaving the house. A ventilation system provides filtered air to the inside of the house, and passive houses are known for their indoor air quality.

The Madeira Oaks houses use timber frames by Shoalwater Timber Frame, as well as windows by Munster Joinery, while the HRV is by Nilan Ireland. 

The first two houses are now completed and ready for closing. They took approximately 13 weeks to build, including weather delays, and work is now beginning on the second two. Three have sold off the plans and there is strong interest in the remaining nine units which are being brought to market by local agents Sherry FitzGerald O’Leary Kinsella.

The pre-launch price was €170,000. Four units were offered at this price, while the second batch of four will cost €190,000. Bennett felt so strongly about the benefits of the passive house system that he decided to sell the houses more or less at cost price.

Each house extends to 102 sqm, and features a sitting room, a kitchen-dining room, utility room, store room, bathroom and three bedrooms, one of which is en suite.

The development has also achieved the country’s highest BER rating of A minus. This means they are producing more energy than they actually require. Passive houses routinely have low energy costs (about €200 per year); these can be eliminated altogether with the addition of photovoltaic panels or other micro-generation technology.

Bennett’s team had estimated heating costs at €200 a year at Madeira Oaks, but then they decided to add Solar Electric Ireland photovoltaic panels generating electricity on the roof, eliminating costs altogether. In the future, it’s possible that residents could sell electricity back to the grid.

“The technology and the calculations involved in achieving a passive house are complex enough, but the basic ideas are very simple,” says Seamus Mullins, who is in charge of Bennett’s quantity surveying and cost control, and is himself a qualified passive house designer.

Contrary to received wisdom on the expense of building to passive house standards, achieving a competitive price “is probably more achievable in a housing development than in a one-off, because you have the economies of scale that are not available in a one-off project,” Mullins points out.

At the outset of the project, they calculated that a passive house was costing them €4,000 more than a similar house with a BER rating of A3, explains Mullins.

“We looked at our specs again, and we got back our €4,000. On the front elevations we discussed less boundary treatment with the local authority. Then we changed the level of specification,” he continues, explaining they forfeited their usual choice of oak doors and did not landscape the gardens. “We can offer clients additional, add-on packages, to increase the specification.”

The Wexford planning authority has been very positive towards the development. “The local authorities have to embrace this,” says Bennett, pointing out that social housing passive houses would also eradicate the need for grants towards heating.

“We’re proving here that it can be done economically.” He suggests a pilot scheme of social housing similar to Madeira Oaks could act as an example for county councils nationwide.

Not everyone is a fan of the passive house standard. In an interview with RTE last year, Tom Parlon of the Construction Industry Federation suggested that reaching the passive house standard of insulation and energy efficiency would add €50,000 to the cost of a house. When pressed on what exactly would cost the extra €50,000, he said: “I’m not sure exactly what building a passive house is, but it is very, very substantial extra cost in terms of building one up to the current national minimum requirements which are very, very substantial at the moment for Ireland.”

When contacted for this article, Parlon would say only that the Federation “supports quality building standards” and a spokesman added that the Federation “generally wouldn’t mention one type of home over another as long as they meet all statutory requirements”.

Environment minister Alan Kelly reinforced the idea that passive houses are more expensive to build when he asked Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to reconsider their plan to make passive house standards mandatory for all new-builds on the basis that the standards were too onerous on developers.

It was to counter precisely this misconception that Michael Bennett undertook his project in Enniscorthy. Bennett’s architect on the Enniscorthy scheme, Tomas O’Leary, followed the controversy closely. The objectors to the proposal had two main concerns: “It’s going to be too expensive. And it’s going to be too slow,” he says.

O’Leary’s own Wicklow home, completed in 2004, was the first passive house in Ireland. He and partner Art McCormack run the Passive House Academy in Wicklow, and their practice, MosArt, is one of the world’s leading practices in passive house builds.

In Ireland, the passive house has developed in an opposite trajectory to that of the rest of the world, as one-off, high-end projects rather than something associated with social and affordable housing.

“The trend internationally, whether it’s in Germany or the United States, is for the initial focus on passive housing to be for low-income social housing. That’s where it’s kicking off. We’ve actually gone about it arseways in Ireland. We started off with the private, higher end,” explains O’Leary, who has built passive houses in China, Australia, the US and Canada, amongst others.

“I think what we’ve done in Enniscorthy is going to be a tipping point,” he continues, revealing MosArt is now being approached by other developers interested in doing large schemes, one of up to nearly 60 houses.

“Because you can’t argue on the comfort, or the energy bill or the indoor air quality. So the last question mark that people have is ‘well what does this thing cost?’”

This is the first time in Ireland that a builder has been able to achieve a scheme of passive houses at cost parity. There are several factors at play in that achievement. Our climate, with its lack of extreme seasonal changes, freezing winters and hot, humid summers — “one dimensional” is the term O’Leary uses —stands out as one of the most favourable for building passive homes.

“So because of that it’s easier and cheaper to achieve the passive house standard in Ireland as opposed to elsewhere.”

Bennett and MosArt brought over 10 years of experience building passive houses to the project. “The reason they’re able to do it at no extra cost is because now they have the experience behind them,” explains O’Leary. “The biggest cost in passive house is the learning curve.”

Benefits of the passive house range from low-energy costs, to environmental concerns. O’Leary’s own house is 372 sqm, with an annual heating bill of less than €300. He estimates that for a standard 139 sqm home a yearly heating bill should be about €100 a year. Aside from the comfort element, there are suggestions, as yet unproven, that living in a passive house, with such clean, filtered air, could be beneficial to those with respiratory problems.

Although it tends to be seen as an expensive passion project of the environmentally concerned middle-classes, actually passive houses are most ideally suited to two of society’s most vulnerable groups; the elderly and the poor.

In a report last year, the ESRI found that by 2011, 7pc of people were in households that could not afford adequate warmth and nearly 12pc were in households that had had to go without heating at some point in the previous 12 months. Passive houses offer a way of avoiding fuel poverty in Ireland, argue Bennett and Mullins.

“If people are trying to choose between heating and eating, that’s a terrible situation,” says O’Leary. “So if we could build to passive house standard, we actually take that worry and concern away from people.”

What does passive house mean?

The passive house concept was co-created by German architect Dr Wolfgang Feist and Swiss architect Bo Adamson. The first passive houses, a terrace of four, including Dr Wolfgang Feist’s own home, were built in Darmstadt in Germany in the early 1990s, and the Passivhaus Institut was formed in 1996 in Darmstadt to promote and regulate standards.

The average yearly spend in Ireland on energy bills is €2,500. A passive house will reduce this to almost a tenth. “A passive house uses so little energy that a typical living room in Ireland can be heated to 20 degrees Celsius even while it is freezing outside, with just the heat from six tea lights,” says David Hughes, secretary of the Passive House Association of Ireland.

This is achieved by three things:

  • High levels of insulation, insuring the house is draft free, and the elimination of cold bridges
  • High-quality triple-glazed windows
  • A highly-efficient, heat-recovery, ventilation, heat generation and hot-water generation unit

You can open the windows in a passive house, however, the heat-recovery ventilation system allows for a noticeably fresh atmosphere, changing the air in a passive house between 8-12 times a day, ensuring a high quality of air.

The retrofit

It is possible to retrofit your house to

passive house standards. “The mistake is to try

and do the entire house in one go if you’re on a small budget,” Tomas O’Leary of MosArt advises. “Do it in small steps, doing each step really well. Focus on one

particular aspect, for example the windows.”

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