Homage to Catalonia: A pre-fab straw bale Passive House 'first' for the region, by Oliver Style, ProGETIC

The Larixhaus is the first pre-fabricated straw bale passive house on the Iberian Peninsula. A project that took 7 months from start to finish, this single family home is located in the town of Collsuspina, Catalonia, Spain. Through careful bio-c1imatic design, thermal insulation with straw, an airtight envelope and high-performance windows, the Larixhaus has a projected space heating demand (calculated with PHPP) of 15kWh/m2 .a, approximately 80% less than that required by current Spanish building regulations. The project is a modest, but inspiring example of deep-green energy efficient construction, in preparation for the EU's 2020 deadline, when all newly built homes will need to be 'nearly zero energy'. Oliver Styles reports...

He huffed and he puffed...

Jordi, Itziar and their two daughters live in a small town in the hills above Barcelona, between rolling pine forests and burnt sienna escarpments. Renowned for its cool winters and even colder traditional stone houses, the area has been witness to one of the greener construction projects to have taken place in recent years south of the Pyrenees: the Larixhaus, Spain's first prefabricated straw bale and timber passive house. As straw bale building gains momentum in central Europe, with ground- breaking work from ModCell, White Design, LILAC and the University of Bath, the Larixhaus is a modest but determined example that timber and straw bale construction can move beyond the pigeon-hole of one-off self-builds and contend in the mainstream of beautiful, low-impact, energy efficient architecture. A simple, compact home which, despite the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolf, is set to brave the elements of this Mediterranean mountain region and place nearly zero energy construction on the map in preparation for the EU's 2020 deadline.

Early design: where the first steps count

The client's priority, from the outset, was to bring together a group of professionals with experience in timber and straw bale Passivhaus construction, who could design and build a small home at reasonable cost, where natural, renewable materials were married with a high level of energy efficiency and indoor comfort. In the early design stage, a simple and relatively compact building form was chosen, with 339m2 of thermal envelope enclosing a gross exterior volume of 437m3 over two floors, for a form factor of 0.78. The longest dimension of the building was aligned east-west, to provide maximum day lighting and reduce artificial lighting loads, resulting in a building aspect ratio of 1:1.3.

A location specific climate file was generated with the Meteonorm software and compared with the last 10 years of data from a weather station located 6km from the site, showing good agreement. Shading from nearby mountains was taken into account using a topographical horizon profile. The climate data was then entered into the PassivHaus Planning Package (PHPP) energy simulation and certification tool, for early stage design modelling and analysis.

Contrary to the orientation of all other homes of the street, the building's southern and most highly glazed facade was orientated perfectly south. PHPP modelling provided the required surface area of southern openings to take advantage of free solar heat gains in the winter. A combination of design strategies were modelled and tested for maintaining summer comfort with no active cooling.

To enjoy the spectacular views west to the jagged rock formations of Montserrat and east to the Montseny mountains, bedrooms are located on the ground floor, with a diaphanous kitchen, dining and living room space on the first floor. Wet rooms (bathroom and kitchen) are located in the same vertical plane, to reduce pipe runs and minimise heat losses in the domestic hot water system. To provide full fresh-air ventilation with minimal heat losses in the winter, a whole house ducted heat recovery ventilation system was chosen: careful early planning of duct routing made sure the duct lengths were kept to a minimum, reducing cost and energy losses. Operable windows on the east, north and western facades provide natural ventilation in the summer and sufficient natural light in all habitable rooms.

The skin: timber and straw bale

The timber superstructure and external cladding is PEFC certified, and was laser cut to order and delivered to the Farhaus workshop for prefabrication, 1 5km from site. The straw bales are 1200 mm x 700 mm x 400 mm, positioned vertically in the timber frame structure. The bales were sourced 1 25km away on the Costa Brava. The bales are enclosed on the outside with wood fibre breather board, followed by a 35mm ventilated gap and larch rain-screen cladding, fixed on timber battens. The ventilated wall reduces transmission heat gains in the summer and provides an exit for water vapour in the building structure - an important design consideration to avoid interstitial moisture build-up and condensation damage in straw bale construction. On the inside, the bales are shut in with 22mm formaldehyde-free OSB that acts as the air tight layer. Finally, Fermacell gypsum fibre board, over a service void, provides a dry-lined internal finish. Structural timber that spans the thermal envelope is thermally broken with cork insulation.

Two straw bale roof cassettes, with the bales positioned in the same direction as the walls, provide a thermally efficient roofing system, finished with clay tiles over a ventilated air gap, reducing transmission heat gains and summer overheating. Gravel infill on the intermediate floor adds some thermal inertia, although with the air-tightness and thermal insulation specification, combined with careful design of openings with external blinds, the building's thermal mass (calculated as 84Wh/K for every m2 of Treated Floor Area) was calculated as sufficient for maintaining summer comfort with natural ventilation. Given the site's altitude at 888m, peak summer temperatures are lower than coastal Mediterranean regions, averaging only 20°C in July and August. PH PP modelling showed that with no active cooling and a combination of glazing with a solar factor of 47%, external blinds on southern openings, and natural night ventilation, summer overheating frequency (when the indoor air temperature exceeds 25°C) could be kept below 3%, equivalent to a total of 36 hours in which the indoor ambient temperature rises above 25°C.

Despite not meeting the environmental criteria established between the client and design team, the most cost effective and thermally efficient solution for the floor slab was found to be 130mm of rigid polystyrene under the slab with perimeter insulation of 60mm around the edge of the slab.

The testing of alternative design strategies with PH PP modelling showed that an acceptable balance of heat gains and losses was achieved with triple glazing (with two low-e coatings, argon gas filling and TGI warm spacers), for a centre-pane U-value of 0.65W/m2.K and solar factor of 47%. Soft-wood Farhaus frames provide a U-value = 1.00W/m2.K, with cork insulation to reduce installation thermal bridges. The average installed window U-value is 1.06W/m2.K, not enough for cold' central European climates but sufficient in the Collsuspina climate to meet the comfort and hygiene requirements set by the Passivhaus standard.

The average weighted thermal transmittance of the building envelope is U-value = 0.21 1 W Im2K. The door blower test gave an impressive result of n50 = 0.32ACH (air changes per hour). Cold bridges were eliminated or reduced with modelling and optimisation in the design phase.

The building shell was prefabricated in the Farhaus workshop over a period of 6 weeks. It was divided into 10 separate modules, with the air tight layer and window frames installed and sealed. The modules were transported to site and the basic structure was assembled in two days. Pre-fabrication minimises on-site construction times, providing cost savings and near-zero on-site waste. The Larixhaus' embodied energy and C02 emissions derived from materials are minimised by prioritising natural, non-toxic, renewable materials with minimum processing (certified timber, locally sourced straw, cork, and gypsum fibre board).

Indoor air quality, acoustic comfort and active systems

Healthy indoor air quality is achieved through the use of non-toxic, Iow-VOC, natural materials. Exposed timber inside the home is either untreated or coated with water-based varnish. Healthy materials are combined with whole house ducted heat recovery ventilation to provide efficient, comfortable full fresh air ventilation during the winter. Cool air is brought into the home and pre-heated by outgoing stale air through a Passsivhaus Institut certified Zehnder Comfoair 350 ventilation unit, with an installed sensible heat recovery rate of 79%. PHPP simulations showed an average seasonal COP of 9. Efficient DC fan motors are essential for reducing electricity consumption: calculations showed that, given an average of 4,700 hours of operation per annum, at an air change rate of 0.40 (91 m3/h), the unit will consume only £31 of Spanish electricity each year (where household electricity is the 3rd most expensive in Europe). The ventilation unit is fixed on acoustically insulated mounts and located in the service cupboard by the entrance on the ground floor. Silencers on the indoor air supply and return ducts, combined with adequate duct sizing to control air velocities, means the system has a maximum measured sound pressure level of 33dB(A) in living spaces. The result is a quiet, discrete and efficient comfort ventilation system.

The near-zero heating demand is met by two low-cost 500W wall-mounted electric radiators in each bedroom, and one 450 W electric towel radiator in the bathroom. On the first floor, a 4kW air-tight log stove (that modulates down to 2kW) with a twin-walled concentric chimney flue, provides heat on very cold days, without compromising air tightness. Hot tap water is produced by a compact air-source heat pump unit with a COP of 3.75 (@ air = 15°C and water = 45°C) and a heat store of 300 litres. The air intake of the heat pump is located just above the stale air outlet of the ventilation unit, providing some performance improvement. The clients have set timing controls on the heat pump to make sure it does not activate between 1 1 pm and 8am in the winter, to avoid poor 'performance when outdoor air temperatures are low. Following 3 months of use, there has been sufficient hot water to meet daily demand with this control strategy.

Cooking is done on an induction ceramic cooktop with a re-circulation cooker hood. Artificial lighting is with LEDs and all white goods are A++. If the Spanish government decides, at some point in the future, to reverse the current legislation and encourage the use of renewable energy technologies rather than bending to the pressure of the large energy companies, the clients intend to install a grid-tied photovoltaic array to achieve a net zero energy balance. When the budgets allows, a rain water catchment system will follow suit (pre-installation was done during construction) .

Beyond PHPP and into the real world

A remote monitoring system will be installed in the coming months, providing quantitative data over a 2-year period, monitoring outdoor temperature and humidity, indoor temperature, humidity and C02 levels, together with electrical energy consumption for space heating, ventilation, hot tap water, lighting and equipment. It will be particularly interesting to see the in-use summer performance of the building.

Meanwhile, feedback to date from the clients shows that with outdoor night time temperatures reaching -1°C, indoor temperatures have remained above 20°C with no active heating, as long as there is some sun during the day. For successive days with no sun, they turn on the electric radiators for half an hour at night and in the morning, to maintain comfort. The first test of the log stove ended with Itziar opening the windows as it got too hot in the sitting room (!), confirming the PHPP calculated peak heating load requirement of 11 W 1m2. At least during this first mild winter, the stove seems largely redundant. The specific construction cost of the build has come in at around £1,005/m2, an estimated 14% more costly than building to current regulations in Spain. This gives an approximate simple payback time of just under 9 years, for a building with an expected useful life of 80 years.

So goes the story of the Larixhaus: a green-building homage to Catalonia and its rich history, number 10 in a growing list of healthy, comfortable, Passivhaus constructions south of the Pyrenees.

Oliver Style

Useful links:







Project team:

Client: Jordi Vinade, Itziar Pages

Architecture: Nacho Mart, Maria Molins, Oriol Mart.

Passivhaus design, PHPP analysis, M&E: Oliver Style, Vicenc Fulcara - ­ProGETIC SCP

Contractor: Albert Fargas - FARHAUS

5tructural Engineering: Manuel Garcfa Barbero - Klimark Architectural Consultant: Valentina Maini

Project Spec:

Energy standard: PassivHaus new build Location: ColIsuspina, Barcelona, Spain Treated floor area (PHPP): 92m2 Construction type: timber construction Completion date: December 2013 Completion time: 7 months

Space heating demand (PHPP): 15kWh/(m2a) 5pace cooling demand (PHPP): 3.2kWh/(m2a) Heating load (PHPP): 11W/m2

Cooling load (PHPP): 3.9W/m2

Primary energy requirement (PHPP): 96 kWh/(m2a) Construction costs (gross) [1m2]: 1211/m2

Air tightness (n50): 0.32ACH

Envelope information:

Exterior wall: U-value: 0.127 W/m2.K: in> out

  • 13mm plasterboard (Fermacell)
  • 35mm service void between timber battens at 8%
  • 22mm 05B 4 [air-tight layer]
  • 400mm straw bale insulation [052] between timber joists at 8%. thermally broken with cork insulation [040]
  • 16mm wood fibre breather board (DFP Kronolux) Wind tight membrane and ventilated larch rain screen cladding, flxed on external timber battens

Floor slab: U-value: 0.165 W/m2.K: bottom> top

  • 130mm XP5 insulation [034]
  • 350mm reinforced concrete floor slab
  • 80mm Pavaflex wood fibre insulation [038] between timber joists at 10 %
  • 22mm timber flooring
  • 60mm XP5 insulation [034] around the edge of the floor slab

Roof: U-value: 0.122W/m2.K: bottom> top

  • 15mm timber board (Fir) 22mm 05B 4 [air-tight layer]
  • 400mm straw bale insulation [052] between timber joists at 2% 16mm wood fibre breather board (DFP Kronolux)
  • Timber battens and roof tiles

Windows / doors

  • Farhaus, Fargas window frames
  • 50ft-wood laminated wooden window frames (90mm)

Uframe = 1.00W/m2.K

Average U- value window = 1.06W/m2.K

  • Triple glazing. with two low-e coatings and argon gas fllling; 33.2/16argon/4/16argon/4; TGI warm spacer

U-value glazing = 0.65W/m2.K

g-value = 47%

Entrance door - Farhaus: Fargas door

  • Triple glazed entrance door with identical speciflcation as windows

Udoor = 1.00 W/m2.K


  • Zehnder ComfoAir 350 Luxe
  • PHI certifled ducted whole house mechanical ventilation with sensible heat recovery
  • Distribution in HDPE 90mm pipes

Heating system

  • Ground floor: electric radiators
  • First floor: Rika Passiv blomass stove

Domestic hot water system

  • Theodoor Aerotermo 300 Plus
  • 3.6kW thermal compact air source heat pump unit, with backup electric immersion heater.

Oliver is a certified PassivHaus designer/energy consultant and co-founder of ProGETIC, an engineering practice based in Barcelona, Spain. He specialises in passive design and building performance optimisation through energy model­ling. He has an MsC with distinction in architecture, with the Centre of Alternative Technology and University of East London. He enjoys working closely with designers, developers, engineers and free thinkers who want to build or renovate beautiful, healthy, comfortable buildings with low running costs. - OSTYLE@PROGETIC.COM

Style, O. (2014) ‘Homage to Catalonia: A pre-fab straw bale passive house 'first' for the region’, Green Building Magazine, vol. 23, Spring 2014, pp. 20-24.