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Passivhaus – gathers steam in UK, halters in US

by Mel Starrs on September 7, 2011

in Passivhaus

Passivhaus. I have a love/hate relationship with the standard. What really intrigues me is how as a standard it has captured the imagination of the industry in a way that CSH, for example, has completely failed to do? Why is this? Is it Wolfgang Feist, the public face of the standard who is typically characterised as delightfully ‘mad scientist’ in his demeanour? Or is it the simpleness of the standard?

I see it’s virtues but for some bizarre reason it tends to generate a zealousness not seen elsewhere, and this generally serves to put me off, making me suspicious and looking for faults. My biggest complaint? It’s just a spreadsheet (PHPP) with a doable but stretching target. It is nothing more than this. Building services engineers (especially before SBEM) used similar spreadsheets for years with no wild claims of solving all the planet’s energy efficiency ills.

However, I’ve had an interest in Passivhaus from the early days of the blog. I have worked on a few schemes (none of which made it past pre-planning – mostly for budget reasons), and I know via Twitter and real life a growing, tight group of fans and practicioners who are making a decent living out of being experts in Passivhaus.

Given my retiscence of embracing the standard in the true fervour most proponents of it seem to have done, I am really looking forward to the CIBSE EPG debate on 22 September:

Passivhaus buildings claim to provide a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling. They are supposed to be built with meticulous attention to detail and rigorous design and construction according to principles developed by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany. However, is this a myth or a reality?

Passivhaus has developed a large and growing body of support among those interested in creating sustainable architecture, but some architects and engineers question how appropriate/practical the standard is. Is Passivhaus the ideal model for sustainable buildings? Does it target the right things? Is it practical? Are the buildings comfortable? Has Passivhaus helped or hindered?

Expert speakers include Mark Elton (ECD Architects), Nick Grant (UK Passivhaus Trust) and Liz Reason (Reasons to be Cheerful Ltd). This will be a FOR and AGAINST debate with audience participation through Q&A, hopefully leading to an enjoyable evening and some clarity on the subject.

AECB have been supporters of the standard for years, currently trying to get it integrated into Building Regulations more successfully – for more detail see Neil’s blog on ‘deemed to satisfy’ here. They might be on to a winner there as BRE are now  currently pushing Passivhaus quite agressively too. I wonder what will happen when the two cultures meet though – in my eyes, AECB being a radically different beast to BRE.

From all this current interest in the UK, perhaps a cautionary take from the US. This story broke over the summer and has turned into a bit of a palaver.

Passivhaus has had to date a mixed reception in the US – the majority of comment I have seen prior to the latest episode came from Martin Holladay, a very hands on expert (think a US Mark Brinkley). Martin Holladay has had reservations with regards to Passivhaus for some time, branding the targets arbitrary but also heaping praise on the practicioners of the standard.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, the Passivhaus Institut, founded by Dr. Wolfgang Feist in 1996, revoked certifier status held by Passive House US (PHIUS), the only Passive House certifier in the United States (see Jetson Green article).

In the UK there are currently 3 companies/bodies who can certify – BRE, Peter Warm (an AECB member) (Passivhaus only) and Inbuilt (my ex-employer – doing Passivhaus and EnerPHit). Peter’s website is a great resource of all things Passivhaus including a map of the 11 certified buildings in the UK. Yes, there are only 11 certified buildings so far, but with the nation’s obsession for certificates (I recented had it pointed out on Twitter that this might come from being a nation of badge winning scouts and brownies!?) and the BRE’s involvement, I assume they are hoping this will grow exponentially.

Anyway, if you want a building certifed you go through one of the approved companies (and it would make sense to go for a local presence), and until the falling out PHIUS was one such body. Buildings in the States can still get certified, but could use one of the 3 UK companies or any of the others on the list. So the loss of PHIUS isn’t really that much of a big deal. What is of more interest is the resaons why the falling out happened. Preston covers three reasons on his blog:

First, PHIUS allegedly certified Passive House buildings without the requisite documentation, threatening the integrity of the standard.  …

Second, PHIUS allegedly infringed the Passivhaus Institut’s copyright in the PHPP software by selling and making changes to it without authorization or license.

Third, PHIUS introduced a competing professional certification scheme and allegedly refused to honor existing contractual obligations with the Passivhaus Institut.

Inhabitat says the expulsion “…also reflects the commitment the Passivhaus Institute has to the quality of its certification process.” Wolfgang Feist’s two letters can be read here and the response from PHIUS is linked to from here (lots more links to other blogs on the acrimony there too if you want to read more). From the PHIUS response:

  • The Passivhaus Institut (PHI) in Germany has made “often-capricious, bureaucratic and cumbersome demands.”
  • The Passivhaus Standard “belongs to no one or no organization.”
  • “Dr. Feist and PHI long ago lost control of the European certification process and with it lost its legitimacy on this issue.”

These are points worth making – of the quoted 20,000 Passivhaus‘s in Europe only a proportion have bothered with certification (This document implies 32,000 certified, of 46,000 in total?). To a UK mind (and indeed a US one) this is boggling – how can they possibly know they are correct without a piece of paper? Then again, can anyone claim owenership over what is to all intents and purposes (as I said above) a spreadsheet with a doable but stretching target?

PHI seem to have taken control of the situation and are trying to make sure that only ‘properly’ certified buildings can be called Passivhaus. Probably a good move but I’ll be interested to see how the UK box ticking culture (cultivated from CSH – sorry to bash it yet again) plays out against our demand for certificates. If AECB successfully push Passivhaus into the Building Regs, is the UK ready for the stringent paperwork and evidence involved? Will we see planners start to impose it as a standard in the same way CSH has been? The BRE obviously feel the standard is valuable in the UK marketplace.

Whilst I would love to do the CEPH qualification (I do love collecting those letters after my name – good little girl guide that I am), I’m not sure the demand justifies me doing so yet. Any thoughts from already qualified CEPH’ers?