A passive house under construction

Burning Money

2nd March 2012

We are all becoming increasingly aware of rising energy bills and the price it costs to stay warm and comfortable at home. Your house may be perceived as a solid, protective defence against the elements, but all is not what it seems. Look closely, says Emma Brading of Chambers Goodwin and Partners, Rickmansworth, and you will notice the building fabric is full of gaps, holes, poor seals and poor materials…

Over half of a home’s heat will be lost through insufficient insulation in the walls and roof, and UK homes are particularly poor in terms of heat leakage. They tend to be old buildings, the majority erected pre-1990, before energy efficiency was even considered. Set this against the price of rising energy bills and it is not surprising that eight million homes are now said to be in ‘fuel poverty’ (this is when a household will spend more than 10% of earnings on fuel).

So what is the vision for our future homes? Ideally, we aim for energy independence, free of the link to burning fossil fuels and the price tag. The way we do this is by becoming as energy efficient as possible endeavouring to live ‘passively’ within the environment – and for a house this means having no impact on its environment.

Is this possible? Of course! A ‘Passive House’ is a real and viable solution, implemented already by many in Europe. A Passive House invests in the building’s envelope (that’s the walls, roof and floor) by using loads of insulation to keep it warm. It works as a building’s tea cosy; keeping the heat in and the cold out.

Next the building must be exceptionally air tight, so as not to compromise the insulation. Ever noticed those draughts and wondered where they were coming from? It’s most probably from leaky windows and doors – not only may they have poor seals, but thin glazing encourages cold radiation, which is why windows are mostly cold to the touch. To keep the heat in they must be good quality double or even triple glazed and well maintained.

And, finally, a Passive House uses a neat and ingenious piece of technology to get the air quality you require for a healthy house. A Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery (MVHR) system will cost around the same price as a conventional boiler. It works by circulating air throughout the house, extracting warm air from areas such as bathrooms and kitchens and transfers the heat to fresh air coming in. This means that up to 95% of that precious warm air is recycled and conserved. If you’re thinking that this might sound like an evil air conditioning unit, think again! Unlike an AC unit, it circulates fresh, outside air and controls the humidity and temperature. This means that there will be no condensation or excess moisture anywhere in the house, and the air is filtered so that it reduces impurities such as dust mites for a cleaner environment (great for people with allergies).

And the benefit of all this? Such a house will have a naturally comfortable and healthy living environment with very little energy input. A small amount of required electricity can easily be balanced through renewable sources such as solar panels.

Currently, conserving energy is as important as producing it. New government initiatives are not just about where we get our energy from but how much we use, especially as it’s perfectly possible to achieve up to 80% energy savings by undertaking a full refurbishment of an existing home.

As part of ambitious targets to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050, the government has introduced a scheme called the ‘Green Deal’, confirmed in the Energy and Climate Change Secretary’s annual statement. It will go live in October 2012, giving British homes and businesses the opportunity to install energy efficient improvements with no up-front costs. Participants will receive a loan of up to £10,000, obtained via an accredited ‘Green Deal Provider’, and paid back over a long term through repayments made via energy bill savings.

End-users will be able to install packages of energy-saving technologies such as insulation straight away, so that they can benefit from the measures immediately. Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, says: “The earlier you Green Deal your home, the quicker you'll benefit from a warmer and cosier property as well as protecting yourself from rocketing prices.”

So why wait? If you begin thinking about plans for improving your home today, it will ensure that you’re ready to collect the benefits when funding becomes available. Start your journey by talking to an architect or specialist to explore the different options possible.


Find Your Local