Is Passivhaus Relevant in New Zealand?

 

Elrond Burrell
Elrond Burrell

Is it ‘Passive House’ or ‘Passivhaus’? That was one question I put to expat Kiwi, architect and Passive House expert, Elrond Burrell. But the main question should be, is Passivhaus even relevant in New Zealand?

Elrond Burrell was back visiting New Zealand recently and took the opportunity to conduct a couple of seminars on the Passivhaus standard. I didn’t catch him in person, but fortunately Elrond is an exemplar of a modern professional when it comes to social media, so I was able to connect through LinkedIn and then via Skype.

Passive House or Passivhaus?

Passivhaus School - Architype
If a school in the UK can achieve Passivhaus, then sure a home in New Zealand can too.

At Architype, Elrond and his colleagues try and use the term ‘Passivhaus’ to more accurately reflect the origins of the standard. Elrond also pointed out that ‘haus’ is often mis-understood to mean ‘house’, when in fact the correct translation is ‘building’. Hence Passivhause is about all building types, not just houses.

This is reflected in much of Elrond’s recent work where the Passivhaus standard has been successfully applied to school buildings.

What is Passivhaus?

At it’s most fundamental, Passivhaus is a comfort standard relating to indoor air temperature, ventilation rates and surface temperatures of a building. Specifically:

  1. The design software Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) is used in the design process
  2. The heating load of the building must be no greater than 15 kWhr/m²/yr (as assessed using PHPP)
  3. The total energy demand my be no greater than 120 kWhr/m²/yr
  4. Surface temperatures inside the building must go no less than 17°C
  5. The air leakage (through cracks and joints) of the building must be less than 0.6 times the total volume each hour (0.6 ac/hr) when measured at 50 Pa using a blower door.

New Zealand is Different From Germany

Passivhaus was co-developed by German physicist Professor Wolfgang Feist and Professor Bo Adamson from Sweden. As such, I often hear it referred to as a European standard and that we’re different here in New Zealand, so it doesn’t really apply here.

Is is true that Germany and Sweden are colder. They aslo have a lot more people and therefore build a lot more houses.

But we also have a lot in common with places like Germany. Their houses haven’t always been very warm and energy efficient. Through a long process of learning and market transformation, houses have become better. Surely we could learn something from this journey?

In addition, because it is colder in Germany and Sweden than it is in New Zealand and these standards are achievable there, we must surely be able to achieve them here.

New Zealanders Like ‘Indoor-Outdoor Flow’

This is another argument I hear about Passivhaus. We don’t want to be ‘closed in’ or sealed in an ‘airtight box’. Elrond points out that we like the idea of indoor-outdoor flow, but in reality, how much do we live this? I know at our home we do enjoy periods of hours where our French doors are flung open, effectively extending our dining room onto our deck. So in part, this is true.

However, as Elrond puts it, for the bulk of the time when we’re indoors, we tend to be fully indoors.

And is this really an issue anyway? Is Passivhaus incompatible with indoor-outdoor flow? Not in Elrond’s experience. He’s actually designed Passivhaus school buildings that include large sliding doors with ample indoor-outdoor flow.

Passivhaus School
This school building, designed by Elrond Burrell, achieved the Passivhaus standard and has large sliding doors, adding ‘indoor-outdoor flow’.

How Much Does it Cost to be Energy Efficient?

I really liked what Elrond had to say about the inevitable ‘cost-benefit’ question. Elrond’s suggestion is essentially to start with the budget and the desired comfort in mind, then design to suit these parameters. This sounds obvious, but it is contrary to the more common approach I see. A standard ‘design’ scenario for new home usually involves a prospective home buyer either choosing an existing plan, or starting with a floor size, plus a number of bedrooms and a wish list. Sustainability feature are then added at the end if there’s any budget left. And usually there isn’t.

The alternative approach of starting with a comfort objective in mind then limiting the size instead of limiting quality, sounds a lot like the ‘fabric first’ philosophy that Ben Adam-Smith and a number of his guests advocate.

Is Passivhaus Relevant in New Zealand?

In summary, I’m still unsure how relevant Passivhaus is to the New Zealand market. The objectives of the standards with respect to health, comfort and efficiency are certainly relevant. The adoption of the standard as a whole though is more of a marketing issue. But I guess the same could be said for all approaches that differ from the status quo.

Footnote. At the time of writing I’m aware of one certified Passivhaus in New Zealand. But I know that the team at Green Being (among others) are working on more designs. Are there any that I don’t know about? Leave a comment below and spread the good word.

Resources

Two of Elrond’s favourite resources are the Whole House Book and The Brute Force Collaborate.

 

  • Hi Matthew,

    It was great chatting to you, thanks for the opportunity.

    For Brute Force Collaborative I would point people to the blog where they cover a lot of interesting topics related to Passivhaus: http://www.bruteforcecollaborative.com/blog

    There are 2 passivhaus houses in NZ completed that I know of: –
    New Zealand’s first PH; http://passivehouse1nz.blogspot.co.uk/
    Raglan Passivhaus: http://www.ahousethatperforms.co.nz/ (Also: http://www.ecobob.co.nz/EcoArticle/2352/0/The-Journey-to-a-Passive-House.aspx)

    In addition to Green being, I understand, Vicus Design Group also have several live Passivhaus projects on the go. NZ has very rapidly trained a lot of Certified Passivhaus Designers / Professionals so I think the number of projects is also going to grow rapidly with such a strong interest!

    Best wishes, Elrond

    • Matthew Cutler-Welsh

      Elrond,
      Thanks for that. I forgot about Raglan. Good to mention Vicus. Another one I should also mention is http://www.truegreenhomes.co.nz. Lots more future content for more podcast interviews I Hope!
      Cheers, MCW

  • Great episode, guys! Passivhaus really does have a bright future and the more I learn about it, the more I feel it is a necessity for new builds. Clearly retrofitting is tougher. Elrond brings up a good point about the comfort aspects. It probably took me 6 months to grasp fully what that means. You really need to experience it! I must admit that I foresee a time when there is going to be a big rich/poor divide, where energy efficient homes offer cheaper to run and better homes, and the rest of the housing stock is only heated when it is deemed affordable. I fear the real era of fuel poverty is yet to hit us. Anyway, at least most people are seeing the light of a fabric first approach. Surely this can only help.

    • Matthew Cutler-Welsh

      Thanks for your comments Ben. That’s a sobering thought.

  • Kara

    There’s also Valhalla Living, nearly done building one in Kinloch http://www.passivehousetaupo.co.nz/, and eHaus http://www.ehaus.co.nz/ building them all over the North Island. This will soon be the second Certified Passive House in Auckland: http://idealhousenz.wordpress.com/

    Passive Houses are unstoppable…

    • Matthew Cutler-Welsh

      Thanks Kara. I think you might be right. Unstoppable indeed!

    • Elrond Burrell

      Thanks for sharing those Kara, I had forgotten about the others already underway! It’s exciting to see the speed of development in NZ! I’m expecting see some popping up in the Wanaka / Queenstown region soon too with all the Passivhaus Designers down there!! 🙂

  • David Savage

    There was a presentation at the International Passivhaus Conference this year from someone who is building Passivhaus in New Zealand and I quote from my notes:
    John Iliffe – Building Passive Houses in Sub-Tropical Climates? A lesson learned from New Zealand: – New Zealand has 77% of its energy generated by hydro-electricity. There are at least 3 different climate zones but the South Island is similar to that of central Europe. 81% of houses are detached and 25% of housing stock is performing very badly with very poor air quality (NZ has the second highest asthma problem in the world). The average air tightness is 10 air changes (i.e. 17 times worse than PH standard) and 5 air changes is considered good? The typical external wall thickness is only some 90mm! The presenter first looked at PH in 2008 and designed his own house to PH standards. It did not quite meet the criteria but offered a huge improvement on what was typical in NZ. Now there is an institute set up in NZ http://www.phinz.org.nz./ and a number of new Passivhaus homes have been constructed http://www.ehaus.co.nz/about/ . High performance windows are being manufactured by two Germans who originally came to NZ for the surfing. New Zealand’s building stock problems are renowned as a result of some very poor thinking by the Government in 1994 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaky_homes_crisis when they thought such things could be left to ‘market forces’. The result is that the true cost of renovation of the defective buildings could be as much as $23 billion. Many large contractors and consultancies have gone into liquidation rather than share the responsibility for the significant repair bill.

    Passivhaus can be built just about anywhere in the world for just about any climate its not just a German or even Northern European thing. There are over 50,000 PH buildings globally from as diverse climates such as China, Japan, Jakarta, Mexico, USA, Norway, Mediterranean, etc. etc.

    • Matthew Cutler-Welsh

      David, thanks very much for this. Very sobering statistics on the state of housing in New Zealand.

  • I have been a strong supporter of the passive house method of design and construction in New Zealand, for nearly 3 years now.
    Please see http://www.brianswale.com/passive-house/

    It is rather strange, to my mind, that the climatic zone which has seen the first passive houses built in New Zealand is the zone that needs them the least. That is, in the Auckland general area.

    There are many places elsewhere in New Zealand where they would confer greater benefit – such as Southland, Dunedin city, Central Otago, Christchurch city – in fact much of Canterbury, especially inland Canterbury.

    I don’t really understand why there has been so little market acceptance in these regions; except perhaps that there is nearly zero publicity, despite that there are several PH architects in southern New Zealand. If I had more spare cash I would place some newspaper advertisements myself; but the ONLY one I have seen is ONE item coming from VICUS in relation to one of the Christchurch Home-Shows.

    I have tried to provide more on-line publicity for current designers on my web-site, but my offers have been snubbed.

    I suspect that two aspects of PH design work against it in southern New Zealand – (a) the minimalist visual designs that frequently are used – most unattractive to many people, and (b) the relatively high cost In addition, regarding the Christchurch (after the earthquakes) rebuild, the major buildings companies seem to have gained control over much land, decide for themselves what style of building they want to make, and have the finance to do constant advertising in the print media. PH seems to be absent in the print media.

    • Matthew Cutler-Welsh

      Brian, good comments. I agree it’s a bit strange that there is a strong resistance to Passivhaus. I think a lot of it comes from a mis-understanding of what it actually is, and what it isn’t.

      In the end, there are lots of people who agree that we can build better than what we have done. This is what I think we should focus on. Still it is also useful to debate the details from time-to-time.

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