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.

Passivhaus explained

 

Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings is a key concern for a sustainable architect. In this blog post, we look at the basic principles of the Passivhaus (or Passive House) standard: a sustainable construction concept that is the fastest growing energy performance standard in the world. Developed in the early 1990s in Germany, the standard can be applied to any type of building – residential, commercial, public and industrial – in any part of the world. 30,000 buildings now have the standard worldwide, with more and more non-residential buildings such as administrative buildings and schools being built to Passivhaus standards. Passivhaus standard components are also being applied to retrofit projects.

Passive house

So, what exactly is a passive house?

Not to be confused with solar architecture, although it shares some common principles, the key concern for an architect designing a passive house is to reduce dramatically the need for space heating/cooling and primary energy consumption, while at the same time creating good, healthy indoor air quality.

A well-designed and constructed passive house can allow for energy savings of up to 90% when compared to typical building stock in Europe, and over 75% when compared with the average new build designed for low energy consumption. This means that passive house owners and tenants tend not to worry about rising energy prices – passive houses require less than 15 kWh/(m2/yr) for heating and cooling, compared to an average of 150 kWh/(m2/yr) for the space heating demands of a typical house built since 2000.

A passive house uses 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. A mechanical heat recovery ventilation system allows fresh air to enter the building without letting heat out, and allows heat contained in exhaust air to be reused. This highly efficient heat recovery system means that fresh air is supplied without draughts and guarantees low radon levels and improved health.

In order to ensure that the ventilation system is effective, a passive house must be properly insulated and airtight, allowing for minimal air leakages in and out of the building through thermal bridges such as the walls. This means that heat can be kept out during the summer and in during the winter. Windows are triple paned glazing and the whole building is oriented so that shade is received in the summer and low angle sunlight in the winter.

It is an exciting time to be working with the Passivhaus sustainable construction standard. Even though ventilation systems require an extra investment, passive house owners/users can save a considerable amount of money over the long-term in energy savings, with many projects showing how applying the standard can be surprisingly affordable as a new build. A Resolution of the European Parliament in 2008 called for implementation of the standard in all member states of the European Union by 2021. With 2020 as a deadline for all new buildings to be nearly ‘zero energy’, the Passivhaus standard provides architects across Europe with a robust, holistic set of guidelines for achieving this goal.