What is the difference between Passivhaus and BREEAM?

 

At a time when energy prices are rising, it is helpful to know about options in the home for reducing energy consumption. From an architectural and design point of view, this equates to much more than having a shorter shower or reducing the time the heating is turned on. Today, there are several ways to deliver a high standard in energy-efficient construction, using well-developed design principles and sustainability assessment methods. We work with two approaches in particular – Passive House and BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method).

RISE Design Studio Passive House London

Passive House – Energy savings of up to 90%

In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the benefits of a Passive House (or Passivhaus). This is a construction concept that dramatically reduces the need for space heating/cooling and primary energy consumption, while at the same time creating good, healthy indoor air quality. In Europe, a Passive House generally uses as little as 10% of the energy used by a typical building, or 25% when compared with the average new build designed for low energy consumption.

A Passive House relies on energy sources from inside the building, such as body heat, light bulbs, heat from the sun, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable and healthy living environment. A mechanical heat recovery ventilation system is used to enable fresh air to enter the building without letting heat out, and allows heat contained in exhaust air to be reused.

For a building to achieve the Passive House standard, there is strong focus on energy conservation, particularly via insulation, air tightness and optimal glazing.  It is quite a simple approach and checking the design and build against the standard is straightforward.

BREEAM – thinking about carbon emissions

Although more complex to apply in practice, the BREEAM standard is concerned with more than energy conservation. The standard takes into account carbon emissions as well as energy consumption, and is more holistic than the Passive House approach. BREEAM considers the environment/infrastructure surrounding the house – good management, water consumption, biodiversity, transport, pollution, waste management, etc.

This broad-reaching approach allows careful master planning of projects, infrastructure and buildings, which is increasingly important in areas where pressure for housing development is high. BREEAM ratings focus particularly on the reduction of carbon emissions, low impact design, biodiversity protection and climate change adaptation, allowing the client or other stakeholders to compare building performance. To date, an ‘Outstanding’ BREEAM rating has been awarded to less than 1% of new non-domestic buildings in the UK and serves to inspire developers and others to improve, innovate and make effective use of resources.

Sustainability assessment at RISE Design Studio

We regularly work with both the Passive House and BREEAM standards, on both new build and retrofit projects. Our recent work that follows Passive House principles of sustainable design has incorporated the use of air source heat pumps, solar panels, airtightness, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, and additional insulation.

The focus on sustainable value and efficiency makes Passive House and BREEAM certified projects a worthwhile investment, not least for creating a healthy home or work environment with reduced operational costs, and contributing to sustainability both within and outside the home.

Passive House – a luxurious way to take climate action

 

At RISE Design Studio, we work hard to minimise the environmental impact and energy consumption of our projects. One way we do this is by working with the Passive House and EnerPHit standards. In October 2021, publisher and editor of Passive House Plus magazine, Jeff Colley, gave a TEdx talk in Tralee on ‘How Passive Houses can improve your life and help the planet’. Jeff’s talk highlighted some of the key reasons why the Passive House is key to tackling the climate emergency.

Passive House RISE Design Stdio

What is a Passive House?

A Passive House (or Passivhaus) tends to use energy sources from within the building, such as body heat, heat from the sun or light bulbs, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable, healthy living environment. Typically, a Passive House features high levels of insulation to roofs, external walls, ground floors (with no heat loss at junctions), triple glazing and air tightness. A ventilation system recovers heat from stale outbound air and passes it onto incoming fresh air that is then filtered when entering the house.

Your home is your sanctuary

In an increasingly uncertain world, we are often made to feel that taking climate action equates with making sacrifices in our lives. However, the Passive House shows us how climate action does not need to feel like this. Instead, it can improve life in several ways. Most importantly, a Passive House costs very little to heat (and in some cases nothing at all), and the internal environment always feel fresh and comfortable, whatever the weather.

The emphasis on ‘future proofing’ means that a Passive House can withstand any weather and/or temperatures that the future may bring. As Jeff Colley explains in his talk, people who live in Passive Houses regularly describe constant comfort, no ‘cursing at the cold’ in the mornings, and peace and quiet – acoustic performance is very high, making it hard to hear anything outside or between party walls in flats/other shared accommodation.

No need for heating

Impressively, there are many examples of Passive Houses whose residents rarely or never turn on the heating system. In some houses, a heating system is not even needed, with only small battery-powered back-up if required. For example, of 18 sheltered housing units built in Devon for elderly people, the heating had not been turned on in nine of the units five years after construction. Similar accounts relate to Passive Houses in which there has been a boiler issue but this is not an urgent problem, as in more standard homes.

A healthy home is a happy home

In the west, we spend about 90% of our time in our buildings, making it important that our home is a healthy place to be. Experiences during the pandemic have also made us think more about air quality and ventilation. Recent research in Ireland suggests that the benefits of Passive Houses go even further than reducing energy use and creating a comfortable living environment. Over 200,000 global lung cancer deaths each year are estimated to be caused by the presence of radon in buildings. This is a particular issue when the weather is cold outside and the indoor environment is warm – radon can rise up from the ground into the living environment. The average levels of radon in a Passive House have been found to be much lower than in an average home.

Drawbacks?

Some critics have questioned whether the Passive House standard restricts architectural freedom. However, the standard is remarkably flexible and accommodates good design, in both retrofit and new build projects. The standard can be applied to any building, including commercial and residential, and even listed period buildings.

The first Passive House hospital is nearing completion in Frankfurt and Passive House schools are becoming increasingly common, such as the Harris Academy in Sutton. Impressively, the standard has also been used in a very progressive council housing scheme in Norwich. The standard can be used to create a good indoor environment for ‘things’ rather than people as well. For example, an Imperial War Museum archive near Cambridge uses the approach to protect its artefacts for future generations.

Jeff Colley suggested that the main drawback of living in a Passive House is that it may become hard to stay in other people’s homes when one has become so accustomed to such high comfort levels. Joking aside, the Passive House is an excellent example of how ‘being green’ doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. As Jeff argues, it is one form of radical climate action that everybody can agree to. We fully support this argument and we continue to work with clients on new build and retrofit projects that apply the Passive House and/or EnerPHit standard.

Photo: Hervé Abbadie and Karawitz

Refurbishing homes for net zero – upskilling our design team

 

Refurbishing and retrofitting existing homes is a large part of the challenge of transitioning the built environment to net zero. We are faced with a significant task, especially as every home is different – efficiency measures that work in one home may not be appropriate for another. Retrofitting is also a daunting task for homeowners, particularly in terms of engaging a contractor with the right skills and experience for the job. At RISE Design Studio, we have worked on several projects that have included energy efficiency measures and, as the push to net zero becomes ever more critical, we are working hard to upskill our design team so all our projects are as energy efficient as possible.

Retrofit flat London

Embracing refurbishment

The 2008 Climate Change Act committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The buildings sector accounts for 37% of total UK GHG emissions and, of these emissions, 65% are from the residential sector. As a result, there has been growth in the residential retrofit industry, with buildings being adapted to be more sustainable and energy-efficient. The majority of our existing residential stock requires some level of retrofit to enable the government’s ambitious emissions targets to be reached.

Common measures include improving insulation. A new heating system might also be installed, or double glazing might be fitted. Yet, conserving energy is not the only reason to retrofit a building. Improving indoor environmental quality, reducing dampness and mould will all lead to increased health and productivity levels of residents.

Upskilling our design team

Recognising the increased momentum in London around reaching net zero, we have really enjoyed working with clients on refurbishment projects that incorporate environmental considerations. Modern architects are well-placed to add creativity and innovation into the drive to retrofit existing housing stock, particularly those that may prove very expensive to retrofit. For example, historic buildings such as Edwardian terraces are protected, and increasing energy efficiency can pose a real challenge. However, there are exciting options to retain the façade and rebuild the living spaces within the building.

More and more clients are seeking energy efficient homes and we are fully aware of the important role architects play in helping to reach the government target for 2050. As a result, we have been working hard to upskill our design team to work on these types of projects.

Maximising design benefit

There are several industry standards designed to increase the efficiency of residential property, including the Passivhaus and EnerPhit certifications. A Passivhaus project tends to use energy sources from within the building, such as body heat, heat from the sun or light bulbs, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable, healthy living environment. However, it can be difficult to reach the exact requirements of the Passivhaus standard in a retrofit project.

Recognising this, the Passivhaus Institut has developed the EnerPHit standard for projects that use the Passivhaus method to reduce fuel bills and heating demand. We are working hard to implement this standard in our projects and our design team has developed the skills to align retrofit projects with this approach. EnerPHit takes into account the limitations associated with retrofit projects and relaxes some of the Passivhaus criteria to reflect this. Nevertheless, it is still a very demanding standard and generally results in a building that outperforms a new-build property both in terms of energy and comfort.

Architecture and the planet: a crucial moment

 

David Attenborough’s ‘A Life On Our Planet‘ brings into sharp focus the destruction of Earth’s habitats that he has witnessed during his nearly 70 years in broadcasting. There is no mistaking the significant scale of the issues currently faced by our planet. At the end of the film, Attenborough offers us some rays of hope: the power of the right financial incentives to encourage reforestation and renewable energy development; the potential to replenish the seas with fish by protecting our coastlines; the importance of raising the global standard of living to slow population growth. But what role can architects play in tackling the pressing issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution?

Garden studio RISE Design Studio

Cultivating a circular economy

It is common knowledge that buildings have a significant impact on our environment. In 2014, a European Commission report noted that construction and builing use in the EU accounts for 40% of all energy use, 35% of greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of all extracted material, 30% of water use and 35% of all generated waste.

Armed with this information, it has become imperative that architects consider how their design decisions can reduce the impact of the industry. It is time to move away from the traditional ‘take, make and waste’ system towards a ‘take, make and reuse’ approach – a circular rather than linear economy. Recycling materials becomes paramount, working hard to divert construction and demolition debris from landfill and reusing, repairing or remanufacturing materials where possible.

Burrows road home renovation RISE Design Studio

– This glazed extension to the rear of a house in London used bricks reclaimed during the demolition to create a feature wall in the new space. 

Building in biodiversity

We also now know that plants and trees in our cities play an important role in tackling climate change and improving the health and wellbeing of residents. Green infrastructure – networks of green space and other green features in our communities – is central to quality placemaking. There is a compelling case for developing more natural and semi-natural habitats in our cities, towns and buildings, and architects play a key role in considering green infrastructure in the earliest stages of design.

Mill Hill new build RISE Design Studio Green roof

– Our new build house in Mill Hill features a green roof (along with other Passivhaus principles) to minimise the environmental impact and energy consumption of the house.

Embracing energy efficiency

Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings is a concern that has been increasingly recognised in UK legislation and policy. This may involve retrofitting buildings – using new technologies and materials such as insulation to increase energy efficiency. Conserving energy not only has environmental benefits – improving the quality of the indoor environment and reducing dampness increase health and productivity levels of residents.

Rise-Design-Studio-Douglas-House-ph-Edmund-Sumner-25-600x817

– Our Douglas House renovation features a range of passive and active environmental technologies (insulation, airtightness, solar panels, a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system, rainwater harvesting and smart thermostats).

At RISE, we see the importance of contributing to positive change in the way we conceive, construct and deliver the built world. We have made a serious commitment to reducing the impact of our projects on the environment and creating designs that improve the health and wellbeing of our clients and communities.

How will architecture adapt to Covid-19 and beyond?

 

The global Covid-19 pandemic has created a new world for all of us. While the fight against the virus continues, we are all learning to adjust to life in a socially-distanced society. How we move through our cities, towns and villages has changed, and we have had to refamiliarise ourselves with adapted indoor and outdoor spaces. What will these changes mean for the design of housing, work spaces and placemaking in the future? We think there will be some key changes that architects will need to respond to.

RISE Design Studio architecture and Covid-19

Seeing our homes in new ways

Even those of us who have always loved spending time in our homes will feel, after many weeks of lockdown, overly familiar with our own living space. Bedrooms have become the office or the home gym, kitchen tables have become the home school, and the quiet space that was once a reading nook may now be overrun by all members of the family seeking that rare moment of solitude.

As we contemplate the reality of more time in our home in the weeks and months to come, we are valuing our homes more than ever before and thinking about how to maximise the space. Storage has become more important as we appreciate the simplicity and order of life at home while the world outside seems increasingly complex. What was originally a temporary workspace may become a permanent feature and this presents an opportunity to create a soulful space that inspires creativity and productivity.

Even the tiniest bit of outdoor space has provided a huge boost for those lucky enough to have some. For those without, sunrooms or spaces with good quality natural light for urban farming provide a welcome alternative.

Perhaps the most important question is about how we delineate the spaces in our home that we use to rest, eat and play from those in which we now work. How can smaller spaces be used to perform these multiple roles but still allow a separation of home and work life? The creative solutions need to flow.

The importance of our local surroundings and supply chains

The pandemic has made us all acutely more aware of our local surroundings and what effect these can have on our health and wellbeing. Encouraged to walk, run and cycle close to home, we have become very familiar with our local streets, paths and parks, perhaps much more than we could have ever imagined.

As many of us continue to spend more time at home during the working week, there is an opportunity to implement energy-efficient standards, and push for faster decarbonisation of heating systems to ensure the carbon footprint of the home is reduced and energy costs are manageable.

New developments will need to adopt strong placemaking principles likely walkability to local social infrastructure. This will be crucial to ensure that local businesses can be accessed quickly and safely, particularly as home workers are likely to make these sorts of trips more regularly than in the past.

The longer we spend without regular social contact, the more important our greenspaces become for our mental and physical wellbeing. There is a need to embed these spaces in our local communities and look after them for the years to come.

Adaptable and healthy cities

Perhaps most striking has been the decline of the use of cars in our cities. Streets have been left empty and air pollution levels have dropped significantly. As people are converted into ‘full-time pedestrians and cyclists’, the benefits of making streets safer for those of us not in vehicles couldn’t be more apparent.

There is likely to be a greater focus on health in city planning and development. For example, in Singapore, therapeutic gardens have been built into public parks, and in Tokyo citizens are working with urban designers to create more greenspace in their neighbourhoods to improve their health.

Across the world, architects have been working hard to identify and adapt buildings and other spaces into temporary health care facilities. The pandemic has highlighted the need for fast design and build projects, which has made the use of modular construction – buildings assembled using prefabricated modules – more common.

Perhaps most exciting is the growth in the adaptive reuse approach to design. Using existing structures to serve new purposes, this is a real opportunity to use a sustainable and efficient approach to upgrading our living environments in this new world.

Passivhaus residential architecture: learning from Goldsmith Street

 

The Goldsmith Street council housing scheme in Norwich is a gem of contemporary architecture, a precedent for the direction architecture should take as it wades through the challenges presented by today’s world. More than just a pleasant place to live, the scheme stands up to housing difficulties, faces dilemmas about inequality, and all the while tackles environmental concerns reaching Passivhaus standards.

Photo by Tim Crocker

Sustainability, equality, dignity, character, ecological and social consciousness, and the much-sought-after-but-rarely-achieved Passivhaus standard… we are all compelled by these terms and, in an ideal world, would like to implement them in our homes and our designs.

The truth, however, is that a very small percentage of new builds are willing to raise their standards to meet environmental and social demands, and that most home-owners and developers who do want to respond to these concerns are often deterred by the cost increase or the toll it takes on aesthetic aspirations. Indeed, for many years it seemed that too much had to be given up, that quality design and Passivhaus were a luxury… But then Mikhail Riches designed the Goldsmith Street housing scheme, and the Norwich City Council decided to build it.

Goldsmith Street is not remarkable just because it has achieved Passivhaus for social housing, it is remarkable because it is living proof that budget, design, and environment are not the irreconcilable points of a triangle we thought they were (read an earlier post we wrote on sustainable architecture principles).

This seemingly futile event has had a big impact on British architecture; council houses are constantly being commissioned and built, but few of them manage to have an impact, let alone a game-changing impact, on the way we see the future of architecture. And this is a future that is important to think about: as big cities like London face evermore pressing housing crisis and the effects of the damage to the environment start to be felt globally, it is crucial to identify a direction for architecture that addresses these issues.

The fact that Mikhail Riches’ design has received so many awards is a hopeful sign. To date, it has been bestowed with the RIBA East Award 2019, the RIBA East Client of the Year 2019 for Norwich City Council, the RIBA East Sustainability Award 2019, the RIBA National Award 2019, the Neave Brown Award for Housing 2019 and the RIBA Stirling Prize 2019… and there are probably more to come!

The scheme deserves each and every one of these prizes because of its relevance and uniqueness. For being innovative using humble forms, for proving that it is worth taking on a challenge such as is council housing, for having the courage to stick with its priorities, for designing with the people that will become occupiers in mind, for caring about the details, for not being afraid of using the traditional British street as a precedent, for understanding the difference between fashionable and good… and for inspiring other architects, like us, to strive to meet the same architectural and ethical standards.

You can read more about the Goldsmith Street design on the RIBA website.

Image © Tim Crocker

What is retrofit?

 

The 2008 Climate Change Act committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% by 2050 (against the 1990 baseline). The buildings sector accounts for 37% of total UK GHG emissions and, of these emissions, 65% are from the residential sector. With this in mind, there has been growth in the residential retrofit industry, whereby buildings are adapted to become more sustainable and energy-efficient, while in the non-domestic market, retrofit can often be part of a larger refurbishment project. The majority of our existing residential and commercial stock requires some level of retrofit to enable the government’s ambitious emissions targets to be reached. In this post, we look at some of the methods available for retrofit and consider the role of architects in the retrofit of existing buildings.

retrofit living spaces

Making homes more energy-efficient

A study in conducted in 2014 estimated that 40 million houses in the EU would have to be retrofitted by 2020 if the reduction of emissions is to stay on track. In general, retrofitting involves the use of new technologies and materials within the home, to increase energy efficiency. A popular and simple example is improving insulation. A new heating system might also be installed, or double glazing might be fitted. There is also the option to carry out a Passivhaus retrofit. Although it is more difficult to reach the exact requirements of the Passivhaus standard in a retrofit project, the Passivhaus Institut has developed the EnerPHit standard for projects that use the Passivhaus method to reduce fuel bills and heating demand.

High performance buildings

Conserving energy is not the only reason to retrofit a building. Improving indoor environmental quality, reducing dampness and mould will all lead to increased health and productivity levels of the building’s users (read more on our blog about sustainable architecture principles that improve health). A retrofit project also presents the opportunity to reassess the accessibility, safety and security of a building.

The role of the architect

Retrofitting the home to increase energy efficiency can have significant architectural implications for the interior/exterior of houses. Modern architects are well-placed to add creativity and innovation into the drive to retrofit existing housing stock, particularly those that may prove very expensive to retrofit. For example, historic buildings such as Edwardian terraces are protected, and increasing energy efficiency can pose a real challenge. There are exciting options to retain the facade and rebuild the living spaces within the building. Because architects have an overview of the whole build process, they tend to be well-placed to act as a lead co-ordinator in retrofit projects. If you are keen to implement the Passivhaus method, you are likely to need planning permission as the work may require external insulation or changes to the roof, for example. Again, an architect can help with this.