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Why Passivhaus is Key to Addressing Climate Change and Energy Efficiency

Why Passivhaus is Key to Addressing Climate Change and Energy Efficiency

Insights & Perspectives
Image of stage with two speakers and a presentation detailing the process for creating the Passivhaus Playbook

A new playbook launched in Australia signposts the industry to a more sustainable, cost-efficient future. 

By David Barker

We are facing three seemingly intractable crises: climate change, health (both mental and physical), and affordability. The stories of extreme weather are not going away in Australia, from deadly bushfires and widespread flooding to large areas of bleached coral.

Time is ticking, and we need answers — quickly. In the built environment, our challenge is to create buildings that are both efficient with resources and help the health of their occupants while at the same time are not prohibitively expensive.

Up to now, Passivhaus has been a key mechanism for delivering on the first two parts for single-family homes, but it has still come with a hefty price tag. We could, and should, do better. Therefore, we set out to discover how to develop technically feasible and cost-efficient Passivhaus buildings at scale.

The adoption of the Passivhaus standard presents promising opportunities. Passivhaus, a rigorous standard for energy efficiency in buildings, aims to create ultra-low-energy structures that require minimal heating and cooling. Achieving the stringent performance criteria of Passivhaus while ensuring comfort and resilience across Australia's various climates requires both innovative approaches and localized solutions.

First, the good news is that there is a growing interest in Passivhaus within the Australian building industry. With growing awareness of sustainability and energy efficiency and rising concerns about climate change, developers, architects, and engineers are increasingly exploring Passivhaus as a viable way forward. The potential long-term benefits of Passivhaus, such as reduced operational cost and enhanced occupant comfort, are driving its appeal among stakeholders seeking high-performance building solutions.

Realistically, there are challenges to be overcome, too, primarily an immature supply chain, uncertainty in the market as to how to deliver a Passivhaus building, and who needs to be part of those project teams.

As the momentum for sustainable building practices grows, the path toward mainstream adoption of Passivhaus opens up. To accelerate that journey, the Passivhaus Playbooka collaborative project between Introba, Development Victoria, and the Australian Passivhaus Associationis intended to provide a process for a technically feasible, buildable, and cost-effective Passivhaus approach to new buildings in Australia.

Our industry must move away from its business-as-usual mindset. This entrenched approach means that opportunities to build better are missed. Here are four examples:

  1. By focussing on direct financial return during business case development, there is no room to develop a more rounded view of value creation, including health, reputational, and longer-term returns.

  2. Due to the concept design being squeezed into the project programme, the design team has little time to resolve key performance challenges.

  3. Opportunities for collaborative problem-solving and capacity-building are missed because design team meetings are often conducted as a reporting exercise, with each discipline providing updates in isolation.

  4. Very few projects allow for a contractual continuation beyond handover, missing an opportunity to understand operational performance, rectify underperformance, and apply insights to subsequent projects.

It is time for change, and the new Passivhaus Playbook shows the way forward. There are at least 120,000 Passivhaus buildings worldwide: entire cities and even regions have Passivhaus as the minimum expected standard for buildings. Australia should follow suit.

In the past, Australia's comparatively temperate climate has made the industry complacent towards adopting high-performance building techniques. People have perceived Passivhaus as a more important solution for parts of the world with extreme cold, such as Canada. However, these increasing numbers of heatwaves and smoky bushfires make Passivhaus just as relevant to Australia through:

  • Better air quality

  • Improved resilience to extreme weather events

  • Lower energy costs

Australia needs to catch up with other parts of the world. In 2017, the City of Vancouver in Canada adopted Passivhaus as one option to demonstrate compliance with its rezoning policy. That same year, the Province of British Columbia enacted the BC Energy Step Code, which uses Passivhaus performance as the benchmark for Step 5 in its goal for constructing net zero buildings by 2032.

At Introba, we have been ahead of the pack. Our Canadian team worked on Fire Hall No. 17 in Vancouver, North America's first Passivhaus fire hall and Canada's first Zero Carbon Building design certified fire hall, and Clayton Community Centre, the largest Passive House facility in the country and North America's first Passivhaus community center.

The new Playbook has nine steps, designed as a cyclic process that starts with an alignment of stakeholders via a clearly articulated investment case all the way to advocacy, sharing project stories with the broader industry. This process should involve everyone associated with project delivery, including investors, developers, designers, consultants, builders, and end users. Everyone has a part to play in achieving success. Here are the nine steps and some key actions to take along the way:

1. Establish ambition

  • Develop a clear value proposition for Passivhaus delivery to align stakeholders.

  • Secure internal alignment of Passivhaus drivers and values, which may include social and financial values.

  • Include all stakeholders, especially for the first few projects, where a strong investment case will be more critical.

2. Create a clear project brief

  • Set out specific Passivhaus outcomes and objectives, such as pursuing formal certification and determining which verification process will be used.

  • Allow time for additional early-phase resolution of Passivhaus principles, which will likely extend the concept design program and need additional design scope compared to a business-as-usual brief.

3. Engage the right people early

  • Engage a broader team from day one to allow Passivhaus feasibility to be tested and to make early design decisions with an understanding of Passivhaus implications.

  • Bring in a specialist Passivhaus consultant, fire engineer, and building surveyor early on.

  • Ensure these team members have demonstrable Passivhaus experience: architect, building services engineer, Passivhaus specialist, structural engineer, and quantity surveyor.

4. Resolve Passivhaus principles promptly

  • Develop a feasible Passivhaus solution before committing to planning to resolve key pain points.

  • During concept design, identify opportunities to simplify the design in favour of elegant rather than complex Passivhaus solutions.

  • Resolve building form rationalisation, window-to-wall ratio, construction methodology, and key construction detailing, all supported by Passivhaus planning package (PHPP) modelling.

5. Focus on collaboration

  • Establishing a program of integrated design workshops focused on Passivhaus coordination will help the whole design team better understand their roles.

  • Foster a safe learning environment for Passivhaus newcomers to increase agency and build capacity more quickly.

6. Build it right

  • Avoid ambiguity in performance objectives, scope gaps in tender submissions, and poor construction practices.

  • Invest in extra diligence in developing watertight tender documents by allowing two weeks for the Passivhaus specialist to review construction documentation before finalisation.

  • Ensure that the contractor creates an induction process for all sub-trades to communicate key objectives and specific requirements, such as the reporting or rectification process for any penetrations to air barriers.

7. Foster new skills in your local industry

  • Use each project to contribute to local economic growth and the learning of new skills for people throughout the supply chain.

  • Encourage your local supply chain to have products certified as official Passivhaus components through the Passivhaus Institute (PHI) and seek out locally fabricated windows and doors that meet Passivhaus performance requirements.

  • Include Passivhaus training and experience as evaluation criteria for consultant team engagement and the contractor.

8. Get maximum value from data

  • Embed sensor and feedback technology into the building management system to capture energy and indoor environmental quality data.

  • Measure the operational data to address performance issues early; engage with occupants to gather qualitative feedback and share collated information for future business cases and design processes.

  • Invite owners and tenants to take part in feedback and provide incentives for their engagement.

9. Share and celebrate your successes

  • Use project successes to promote Passivhaus understanding across the industry, including cost and health benefits.

  • Don't forget to share what failed and what worked; challenges are as valuable as wins as learning opportunities.

  • Engage with your regional Passivhaus institutes and communities, such as the Australian Passivhaus Association, which offers an excellent range of knowledge-sharing platforms such as its project database, webinars, conferences, and publications.

With the pace of climate change quickening, building regulations and codes worldwide will likely align with Passivhaus standards to drive tangible improvements in building performance and quality. Therefore, there is no time like the present for firms to invest in capacity building and upskilling to meet that need.

Download the Passivhaus Playbook.

David Barker is Introba's Managing Principal, Sustainability in Australia. Connect with him via email or on LinkedIn.

David Barker
David Barker, MIEAust, CPEng, BEng (Hons)
Managing Principal

David leads Introba's Australian National Sustainability Team and is known for his pragmatic approach to sustainability, providing evidence-based advice that focuses on people, place, and performance. He returned to Australia in 2019 after spending several years working in London and has led global projects. David brings a wealth of knowledge in cutting-edge analytical tools, sustainable design technologies, and global benchmarks and exemplars.

A particular strength in people-led design comes from years of experience working with high-profile tech sector clients alongside international design firms. His approach to design revolves around early engagement, technical rigor, and compelling storytelling, allowing collaborators and stakeholders to engage with his work. David has served on industry panels, including the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) Expert Reference Panel for GHG Emissions, the WELL Building Standard's global Advisory Group for the Light and Thermal Comfort Concepts, and the PCA Sustainable Development Committee.

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