The government's cynical recent energy policy announcements represent a dereliction of duty to the vulnerable and to future generations. There is an alternative, argues award-winning passive house architect Justin Bere - and it's beautiful.
Many of the UK's elderly citizens and low income residents cannot afford to maintain healthy conditions or basic levels of comfort in their homes, while those who are better off often cosset themselves in over-heated homes burning excessive amounts of precious and polluting fossil fuel. Everyone complains about the cost of energy, politicians wring their hands and try to sound as if they have a plan, but little is done to improve the UK's domestic and non-domestic buildings to make them more affordable to run.
"Those who peddle minor gestures in sustainability as if they are an alternative to passive house are either lacking in real knowledge, or simply playing confidence tricks on the public."
In a world where there is a rapidly growing population demanding a share of ever fewer resources, it is unrealistic folly and indeed utterly foolhardy to think that the answer to the high fuel consumption of our buildings is simply to outsource new power stations on guaranteed repayments to meet the unchecked projected future growth in demand. Yet this is exactly what the UK is currently doing. Through sloppy thinking, the UK is mortgaging the future; locking the younger generations into a level of expenditure on fuel that will most likely be completely unaffordable for them. Effectively they will be trapped in a situation with no affordable way out. What is utterly unforgiveable is that the reason for this is that the current generation doesn't want to feel any of the pain of transition. But transition will have to happen in the end and the longer we leave it, the more painful - or catastrophic - it will be.
Yet those of us in the passive house community have demonstrated that there is a solution that can deeply reduce overall energy demand in both new and existing buildings by 80 or 90% while at the same time creating exceptionally healthy and comfortable buildings. New passive house buildings can be built for little or even no extra cost if design priorities are realigned with an energy saving imperative. But even where there are additional costs, such as in passive house retrofits, the costs can be paid back in a lifetime so that future generations are handed an affordable and beautiful solution.
The UK can look back with pride at how its population pulled together and responded effectively to national emergencies in the 20th century. Once again, and as much as at any time before, we need to respond with effective action to what I believe is an even bigger emergency than those faced by previous generations.
Effective action will include re-building the respect for vocational skills, the passion for making things to the best of our ability and to world-beating levels of excellence. It will include renewed respect for world-class engineers and engineering businesses. It will include a transformation of the construction industry from one focussed on what it can take from society, to one focussed on what it can give to society.
All this requires an honest, clear vision which I believe all of us in the passive house community have, and which we must promote. We must point out that those who peddle minor gestures in sustainability as if they are an alternative to passive house are either lacking in real knowledge, or simply playing confidence tricks on the public.
In An Introduction to Passive House (RIBA Publishing, £27.99), I present facts and arguments that attempt to show why passive house is the best form of building for people's health, comfort and general well being, for every age group, for fantastically low energy use, for very low whole-life costs, for the environment as a whole and for the future of the planet.
Embracing passive house technical methods does not mean that we have to turn our backs on beautiful architecture or light-filled, flowing spaces. Passive building techniques give us the opportunity to hold on to the uplifting aesthetic tenets of the very best 20th-century buildings, while at the same time transforming our technical abilities to make social progress and beauty possible in a world where excessive consumption is no longer tenable.
An Introduction to Passive House shows that the economics of passive house are clear. While shifting priorities is a simple lifestyle choice for many, for others the help of responsible, intelligent and forward-looking governments is needed in order to make it easy for individuals and organisations to make steps now, for the benefits of both themselves and of society at large, now and in the future.
Passive house is emphatically not a product, nor does it require designers to use particular products. The Passive House Institute offers manufacturers technical assistance to improve their products, and provides quality assurance certification, but passive house buildings can be built without any certified products. Passive house is a standard and an advanced method of designing buildings using the precision of building physics to ensure comfortable conditions and to deeply reduce energy costs. It does what national building regulations have tried to do. Passive house methods don't affect "buildability", yet they close the gap between design and performance and deliver a much higher standard of comfort and efficiency than government regulations, with all their good intentions, have managed to achieve.
The in-use performance data from passive house buildings shows that to provide comfort, to save energy, to reduce bills, to protect people from fuel poverty, to reduce excess winter deaths, to save money in the long run and, arguably most importantly, to reduce CO2 emissions, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that deep, energy-saving passive house retrofits and new-builds must become the norm. A deep, energy-saving retrofit programme will create jobs now at the same time as saving money on fuel imports, both now and long into the future. Vast amounts of money can also be saved by reducing the need for new power stations and for long-term storage of nuclear waste, and by reducing the serious impact upon the National Health Service of the UK's dreadful, damp and draughty buildings.
In concluding I will repeat the question that visitors to passive house buildings seem to ask more than any other: Why aren't all buildings built like this?
An Introduction to Passive House by Justin Bere (RIBA Publishing) is available now at RIBA Bookshops (ribabookshops.com/passive)
Bere, J. (2014) ‘A Beautiful Solution’, Passive House + , Issue 5, UK Edition, pp. 20.