Passive homes move is active step towards carbon neutral future

Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown decision is set to be an environmental blessing that slashes energy bills

It’s a glorious day: Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown county council has passed a motion to make the passive house — and its equivalent — mandatory for all new buildings. Every new house, apartment, office and school in the region will have to be world class in terms of build quality, comfort, energy use and climate change.

The timing could prove prescient, as in a little more than a month negotiators from 195 countries will gather at Cop21, a United Nations conference in Paris, to thrash out a global agreement on tackling climate change.

I have campaigned long and hard for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown’s passive-house policy, so forgive my delusions of grandeur, but this concrete measure is central to the council’s aim to become a carbon-neutral county. This is the kind of action that gives me hope.

Radical progress is possible, but it must be rooted in tangible policies. Climate is a complex thing: the notion of carbon emissions causing the planet to cook can be hard to fathom.

Many people switch off when the discussion shifts to the need to achieve, for example, reductions of 80% in emissions globally by 2050 to avoid a temperature rise of more than 2C — something that could be the tipping point to runaway warming.

Perhaps there’s a lingering feeling of dread and helplessness, an inability to feel motivated by such a distant target to make a dramatic reduction. But who doesn’t want to live in a constantly warm, healthy home that costs half of nothing to heat?

Passive houses are an excellent example of what an 80% reduction in emissions might look like. As a consequence of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown’s vision, homebuyers and tenants will benefit from 80%-100% reductions in heating bills compared with the norm.

People lucky enough to live in these buildings will often spend less on heating in a year than on their weekly grocery shopping, according to the results of the monitoring of early passive houses. One semi-detached home in Salthill, in Galway, which has featured in Passive House Plus magazine, was retrofitted to the passive-house standard and cost €55 to heat last year. That’s for a family of four.

A similar house owned by Niall and Monica Walsh, in Mount Merrion, in Co Dublin, was central to the success of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown’s passive-house policy. The 3,100 sq ft property includes a home office and had a heating and hot water bill of €170 for a family of four last year. The Walshes invited Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councillors to visit their home on a freezing evening last winter.

Despite such low costs, which are in effect locked in for the long term, some might argue that a passive-house policy is a foolish distraction in the midst of a housing crisis, but I beg to differ. Grave dangers exist in rushing to build during such a charged atmosphere, and design and construction quality may be compromised in the interest of expediency.

Buildings are by far the biggest investments most people will make, and we can’t afford to get it wrong. We should have learnt this much from the failures of the construction boom.

I wrote the wording for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown’s motion, which I had campaigned for since last winter, with colleagues from the Passive House Association of Ireland and supporters across the construction industry and broader society. I took the past few weeks off work to focus on the campaigning.

Although I wasn’t paid for this work, I feel indebted to the councillors who listened to the arguments, considered the detailed evidence, and voted the motion through by 26 to 13.

The breadth of support for the motion was astonishing, but Marie Baker, a Fine Gael councillor for Blackrock, deserves praise for pushing it through. Mention should also go to Baker’s party colleague Patricia Stewart, the Green party’s Ossian Smyth, Cormac Devlin, of Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein’s Shane O’Brien, Karl Gill, of People Before Profit, independent councillor Victor Boyhan and umpteen others. Without their hard work and willingness to engage, none of this would have happened.

Many people are cynical about their elected representatives, but the experience of lobbying Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown’s politicians has opened my eyes. We have exceptionally hard-working, patient, civic-minded politicians out there, many juggling day jobs with their elected roles, community work and family lives.

These councillors are willing to consider detailed evidence and vote with their conscience. Therein, most unexpectedly, lies hope.

Jeff Colley is editor of Passive House Plus, an award-winning Irish magazine on how to build or upgrade to high levels of energy efficiency, comfort, health and sustainability; passivehouseplus.ie

Jeff Colley

Passive homes move is active step towards carbon neutral future. [online] Available at: < http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/article1622805.ece > [Accessed 10 November 2015].