Robert Prewett of Prewett Bizley Architects reports
After 15 preceding conferences, one might imagine that there is precious little left for the 1000 or so delegates to listen to at this year’s gathering in Germany. However, the three day event staged in Hannover earlier this left me convinced that this approach to low carbon design is shifting up gear rather than down. The need for knowledge sharing is greater now than ever.
Anyone who is still under the apprehension that Passivhaus equals dull housing blocks would have had such prejudices challenged by a growing number of projects that demonstrate high architectural quality as well as technical prowess. While the conference proceedings are rather unrelenting with 80 or so papers presented in four parallel running workshops, the output and building types were remarkably diverse. Schools, embassies, retrofits, industrial buildings, clinics as well as houses reminded us all that haus is not strictly a domestic term.
There was also an increasing geographic range, stretching from the United States to Southern China. Several presentations focussed on how well the fundamentals of the approach export well to all sorts of climates, challenging another widely held view that this only valid for cold northern European climes.
The Austrian Embassy in Jakarta by Fritz Oettl iexemplifies one of those projects that demonstrate that Passivhaus can deliver low carbon design and high architecture simultaneously.
For a number of years now, the international conference has been well attended from the UK, and encouragingly this year there was greater evidence than ever before that the UK is delivering as much as aspiring. Bere Architects presented their research into costs as well as the monitored performance of their Mayville Clinic (AJ 23.02.12) in London. I was delighted to present similar monitoring evidence with my client Robert Cohen for our retrofit of a project in Hackney. Andy Simmonds used his retrofit to critique the forthcoming UK Green Deal. This latest ‘wheeze’ of UK energy policy seemed at best quite puzzling to the international audience. More of a crowd pleaser was that all these projects have shown better performance in use than predicted. For the UK this is not only a refreshing change from the usual performance gulf but another reminder that the rigorous approach enshrined in this methodology delivers on investment.
The European-wide debate about zero carbon or zero energy was a continuous theme throughout this year’s conference. One extreme standpoint was showcased by Werner Sobek’s D10 house near Ulm, that uses the ‘Ativhaus’ principle. This Farnsworth-inspired composition with sheer glass walls is aesthetically about as far removed from what one might expect of a low (zero energy building). While its heating demand is a fraction higher than the Passivhaus criteria, this is offset by a large PV on the roof which powers the borehole driven heating/cooling system. Overall the house produced more energy per year than its consumes. One may only imagine what this all costs but nevertheless this is an impressive achievement, even if it raised a few eyebrows from the purists. For those interested in the debate about zero energy, see Nick Grant’s paper on the subject here.
Perhaps most compelling of all was Jonathon Hines from Architype who spoke about his experience in delivering two Passivhaus schools in Wolverhampton (AJ.23.02.12) while working within a ordinary budget. As well as doing the technical and cost bits, these projects deliver a wonderful sense of light and air. They are refreshingly free from architectural ‘ticks’ and stamps, allowing the children and teachers to make the spaces their own. It is interesting to note that these projects have resulted from a long term design collaboration that has been going on between the architects and Nick Grant (Passivhaus consultant) and Alan Clarke (M&E), all of whom have been regular attendees of this conference for several years. Grant and Clarke incidentally presented their own papers at this year’s event, too.
After two days of intense workshops and presentation, the conference wound up on day three with tours to real projects nearby. Twenty buildings were crawled over and pored over by eight groups, making for a fascinating insight into how designers have dealt with the everyday construction challenges.
One of the highlights for me was a visit to a primary school in Gronau by Schumann-Reichert. It was a great example of simple robust design ideas applied with rigour. Like the English schools we had seen the day before, this project seemed at once thoroughly civilised and within the reach of everyday communities.
The density of such excellent building design exemplars was heartening on the one hand but did make one question how long it may be before the UK conference will have similar access to such a number of projects. Given the clutch of emerging projects that show that they ‘do what it says on the tin’, perhaps not as long as some think?