Huge savings in energy are available from Passivhaus design, and the cost premium is generally as low as 0-3 per cent in Australia. So what’s stopping a full scale transition? Nick Lane explains some of the issues he will flag as a panel moderator at the Australian Passive House Association’s Sydney Symposium on 26 September 2018.
Australia is in the midst of four interconnected crises – of climate, energy affordability, housing affordability, and housing supply.
The need to act on climate change is well established among the scientific community, and in the minds of most of the general populace. Similarly, it is widely known that something must be done about the price of energy and housing. How is it that one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world struggles with such basic needs?
While it is clear that something must be done, there is (apparently) no silver bullet. Interests need to be balanced, and each issue tackled within the wider context of others. Furthermore, it seems to be the case that the public does not trust or expect the government to act appropriately on these issues, for a host of reasons – and we rely more and more on the market to resolve our problems. We look more and more to growingly powerful companies to lead the way on social issues.
Whatever your opinions are on this development in our society, it is clear that this is the reality. For this reason, for now at least, we must look to market-led solutions. We see it in the reducing price of solar and wind power, through efficiency of energy production and economies of scale, and we see it in the energy giants who inhabit the country as they themselves move away from coal.
One area we haven’t seen change quite as much is housing and construction – while the news is dominated by the cost of housing, and the invention of new machines that might displace labour, where is the reporting on the construction sector’s contribution to carbon emissions?
A paper submitted to the 18thAnnual Pacific-Rim Real Estate Society Conference (2012)found that in the UK, construction is responsible for about 50 per cent of carbon emissions.
In the US it is 48 per cent, according to Architecture 2030.
While the Pacific Rim paper found it more difficult to find a number for the Australian construction sector, it notes that residential electricity consumption alone contributes 24 per cent of carbon emissions in Australia. Further, our national energy consumption is set to rise rapidly. Of that energy, it was found that about 35 per cent is used on heating and cooling. That means 8 per cent of national emissions are directly caused by heating and cooling alone.
A technology becoming more popular in Europe and the US is Passivhaus. It’s not yet as popular in Australia, though there are a few notable projects beginning to form.
Passivhaus is a voluntary, but rigorous standard for energy efficiency in a building. Through a strong functional knowledge of thermal physics in buildings being applied from the start of the design stage, Passivhaus achieves temperature stability through design, rather than the use of appliances.
Passivhaus ensures a far greater focus on passive solutions to temperature control to greatly reduce the reliance of our buildings on the active ones. Passivhaus focuses first on this to ensures that our built environments are designed as effectively and efficiently as possible as a first priority.
The results are enormous reductions in the building’s energy demand and usage. When combined with a focus on reducing embedded carbon within construction material choices, such as timber and mass-timber construction, enormous reductions in carbon footprint and energy usage are achieved. In particular, for Australians, reduced energy usage means cheaper bills – and that isn’t insignificant these days.
For a small increase in upfront costs to build a home – 5 per cent – the people of Norfolk, UK, have enjoyed 90 per cent savings on their energy bills in subsequent years. In Australia due to our lower temperature differentials, it is even easier to achieve the Passivehaus standard and the cost premium is between 0-3 per cent.
Australia ought to adopt Passivhaus as standard.
The cost of building a home in Australia is not what has led to our inflated housing prices. Rapid population growth in Melbourne and Sydney, combined with highly restrictive planning in the inner suburbs, and low interest rates are far more potent influencers.
Combine this with the reluctance of government to tackle planning in a comprehensive manner – to ensure appropriate mid-rise and high-rise densification incorporates inclusive and mandatory affordable housing delivery – and we arrive at a national shortage of 500,000 affordable houses and a shortage of 200,000 social dwellings.
Nationally, 700,000 dwellings are now needed. Not to mention the other 700,000 dwellings that Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney each need over the next 15 years to accommodate expected population increases, as published in research by Infrastructure Australia.
Recently, developer Beulah International announced the winner of its design competition to build a new sky scraper in Melbourne. The winning design is a $2 billion mixed-use tower called the Green Spine, which will become the tallest tower in Melbourne (an impressive 356 metres tall). The Green Spine uses Passivhaus principles. Not only are the towers themselves very beautiful (in the author’s opinion), they will reintroduce greenery and community to Melbourne, something which has become scarcer in recent years.
This and other Passivhaus projects can help tackle some of Australia’s greatest challenges in climate, energy and housing and they will popularise the technology Passivhaus, but they do not go far enough. We should demand of our regulators, policy makers, and politicians that Australia does everything it can to tackle its challenges – we are positioned to do so.
The way to make a country great is by improving the lives of all of its citizens – and we can do that. Let the market drive the road to change – but demand of our governments that they direct the road that the market is to take.
Passivhaus is a rigorous, voluntary building standard that delivers huge reductions in carbon footprint and energy usage. It achieves temperature stability year-round through design alone.
It is climate friendly, reduces our energy bills, and maintains profitability and affordability. It ought to be demanded by law – it is the built environment of the future, and it’s here.
It’s here now.
Nick Lane is the executive director and founding partner at Passive Place. From 20 years’ experience in business management and development with major design and construction industry partners, he has developed a passionate interest in social responsibility, low carbon design, community buildings, and energy efficiency from design through construction and use.