Friday, 8 September 2017

What is Passive House? Probably not what you think

Here's my short answer:

Passive House is an excel spreadsheet.

There are loads of other definitions and mis-definitions out there. The term is frequently used loosely for any superinsulated building, and often mistakenly for passive solar buildings.

Passive House is not a way of using natural energy. It's true that Passive Houses will take natural energy into consideration, for example considering heat from the sun, but just pointing big windows south will not make a Passive House.

A Passive House is not a building without a heating system. Passive houses invariably have heating systems, but the amount of heating needed is very small. In fact the best definition of a Passive House is one where all heating and cooling needs can be met by heating or cooling the air coming in through the ventilation system.

There are many other things that Passive House is not, and in his excellent blog, Elrond Burrell gives a longer list.

My definition may put you off. I think excel spreadsheets put a lot of people off, including many architects. This is one barrier to the standard's popularity. If Passive House was a simple product you could buy to stick on your house, then lots of people would no doubt buy it. If it was a simple step you could add to the design process, designers would probably take it.

Passive house will help you to reduce your energy bill, and probably help reduce your environmental footprint. But if you want to save the planet, you need to do some sums. Laying a bit of turf on top will not make it green.

And now that we are firmly in the computer age, we can get a spreadsheet to do the sums for us. As with all good spreadsheets, you put various bits of information into the Passive House software, and you get out a simple and accurate picture of what is happening. In this case all the information going in relates to the building size, shape, location, materials and systems.

It is not difficult to find most of the information that you need to put in. But you do need to find it. You need to know the dimensions of the walls and the thicknesses and relative proportions of the various materials going into them.  The spreadsheet needs to know the insulation performance of each material, but most of them are already in there. You can also choose the hot water and ventilation systems, and their efficiencies. You need to know the size of the windows, and also their U values, and the psi values for the thermal bridges. The supplier of the windows should be able to supply these, and if not they may not be the right windows for a low-energy house. You need to know which direction each wall is pointing in. You need to know your local climate, or at least choose your location so that it finds your local climate.

The only piece of information you need to get up from your desk to find is the results of an airtightness test. If you're building an airtight house, then you probably should run an airtightness test anyway, and if you're building a house that is not airtight, start thinking about it.

W​hen​ all the information is in there, you know whether you have met the standard or not. More specifically it will tell you how much energy you need for heating over the year, how much total energy you need, and how often the house will go over 25 degrees centigrade. Even if you are not interested in meeting the standard, the software will give you a very accurate estimate of how much energy you are going to need to run your house.