The international Passivhaus Standard is most often associated with cooler climates. People assume it works best in climates like that of Germany and Northern Europe where the standard originates from.
But physics works wherever you are.
And people the world over want to live in comfortable, energy efficient homes.
So what about Australia?
We most often associate Australia with the beach and warm climates. With Sun, Sand and Surf.
And yet, Passivhaus is rapidly taking off in Australia. From a standing start of zero certified Passivhaus buildings only a year or so ago, there are now six at the time of writing.
We talk about Superpod homes, Passivhaus Prefabrication and why Passivhaus is relevant in Australia despite what you might think.
From Law to Passivhaus, via shipping containers.
Advocates of Passivhaus are often architects or other consultants and builders involved in delivering Passivhaus buildings. Fiona is none of these, she is actually a lawyer! Like me, she has a passion for taking complex subjects and making them accessible in plain English.
I am a practising barrister in Melbourne Australia, and I run training courses in administrative law. This is a highly technical and important area of the law which involves detailed compliance work together with high-level concepts of justice. I have written a plain English book, with cartoons, to explain this difficult area of the law to people who need to understand it. For example, decision makers in government who exercise power over the citizen. I am passionate about explaining important topics so that they can be understood, and so that you can help people to make better decisions with better outcomes for those affected.
Fiona became interested in sustainable design a decade ago. The qualities of her own home directly highlighted many of the energy efficiency and comfort issues – highly conductive window frames, single glazing, lack of insulation, uninsulated crawl spaces, draughts. She searched for industry experts to help her understand what worked in sustainable design. And with her enquiring legal mind started asking questions that were very detailed and precise. Questions such as: exactly how much glazing should face the sun for “passive solar” design? Exactly how much thermal mass is needed? No one had clear answers which bothered Fiona.
Fiona was also concerned about the speed of building. Combining these questions led her to look at shipping containers, a common architectural student preoccupation! So she experimented:
A large amount of money was spent on architectural design, and I put a shipping container in the backyard for one of the teenagers. We were testing a special paint which was supposed to be highly reflective and have insulating qualities. I was asking many questions about types of insulation by that stage.
And what did she find out?
The container didn’t work. It was expensive to cut holes into and strengthen. Window connections were difficult. It got a lot of condensation and mould, and the shape was constricting. I found out that we breathe out a litre of water a night, as evidenced by my son sometimes waking up with water dripping on him from the ceiling!!!
This was a wake-up call. Where does all this moisture go in our houses? What causes condensation and mould? And then she found Passivhaus:
Somehow I got to research passive house on the internet by then. I found out about thermal bridges, and said to my architect, how are we avoiding thermal bridges in the shipping container extension? He said we don’t believe in thermal bridges in Australia. I reviewed all his connection details and saw bridges everywhere. I started to get concerned.
And through this process I decided that if you want a proper building, with good insulation, proper orientation and window design, good connection details, an effective ventilation system, there is no point in a shipping container. It’s not really a cost saving.
And so Fiona started researching Passivhaus in earnest – it seemed to be the solution for sustainable design, comfort and taking positive action against climate change.
Super Prefab Passivhaus
Fiona put all her research to work and came up with her solution: Superpod®. It addresses all the comfort and energy efficiency questions by certification to the international Passivhaus Standard. And it can be factory built to speed up the construction time considerably.
Superpod® is a building system, using Passive House modelling (the PHPP or Passive House Planning Package) to design a building in terms of shape, orientation, size, number of windows etc – so that it can be a certified Passive House building. The connection details are worked out so that any size building can easily be designed using the Superpod® system.
Superpod® is also a series of floor plans for residential buildings, either built on site or in a factory. If in a factory, they are prefab pods, delivered on a truck and connected on site.
Fiona hasn’t just produced a prefab Passivhaus product, though, she has also expanded her educational reach into the world of sustainable housing. It has been a steep learning curve for her. She wants other Australians to understand Passivhaus and sustainable housing faster.
Superpod® also has an educational and inspirational arm. This is because my journey has been so challenging – in terms of just obtaining information and understanding for a start, that I would like to make the concepts of Passive House much easier for people to understand.
The Superpod website has a multitude of useful blog posts, videos and learning resources. Fiona has also started writing for other websites (including “Is Sex Better in a Passive House?“) and making radio appearances.
Why Prefab Passivhaus?
People can get very excited about prefabrication and make ambitious claims. Prefabrication is often claimed to save construction cost but it seems to rarely be the case in reality. More often the advantages are scalability, quality and being able to build in difficult locations. For Superpod® the main motivation is time and quality:
Prefab is not often cheaper in terms of actual construction cost per sqm. I assume that is partly because prefab buildings require an investment and overheads that the local site-build does not attract.
However, many people are interested in prefab, even if it costs more per sqm, because they sensibly take into account other costs. Like the cost of their time, or the cost of renting somewhere for 12 months. When it comes to Passive House, the cost of power / energy is another cost we should factor in – the running costs of the building.
And of course, there are serious costs associated with poor quality building. Prefabrication doesn’t guarantee quality, but it does make it easier to achieve. Passivhaus also ensures a very highly quality of construction and a very high quality of life in the building. Low maintenance materials and construction are a big part of the quality equation for Superpod®:
And also the cost of poor health! I would rather be in a healthy building than one which is full of mould and makes me sick. What price do you put on your quality of life in this respect? And for Superpod®, prefab means that the particular materials we have used, being prepainted steel, and Upvc, which never needs painting, substantially reduce maintenance and lifecycle costs. This is part of my interest, as I hate painting whether plaster or window frames, and I am not that keen on plaster, and I really hate what happens to tiling and grout over the years.
Hard not to agree with: healthy and low maintenance, on top of fast to build and with all the benefits of Passivhaus.
A Minimal Modern Passivhaus Pod
When I first came across Superpod, I was a little taken aback by the minimal aesthetic. The home looks like a curiously simple outback hut sitting proud on a hillside with Australian gum trees in the background. No kangaroos or Koala bears in sight though! So I asked about the aesthetic: is it a result of the prefabrication process, a personal preference or something else?
The idea, in terms of modernist design, was “form follows function.” The first goal was to design a fast, highly energy efficient building, by reducing trades. What do you really need? You don’t really need plaster for thermal performance. In a sense plaster is more about hiding the wiring and framework beneath it.
So the first Superpod® has achieved this. Interestingly, the painted steel is quite beautiful, with an organic concrete or timber floor, linens and soft furnishings, and the option of any kind of wall panel you like. I think we associate steel with discomfort, because it usually comes inside a poorly designed building!
So a cool modern aesthetic doesn’t have to mean a cool uncomfortable building!
Minimalism doesn’t appeal to everyone, though. The first home was a prototype that fulfilled the intentions and forms a skeleton design that can be customised to suit the desire of homeowners.
The idea is that people can dress up a Superpod® as they wish – internally or externally, so that the “pod” becomes engulfed in whatever you like, according to your taste and budget. As long as you don’t compromise the thermal performance of course.
So it is almost full circle to something akin to shipping container housing – you have the bare forms and you can adapt and dress them to suit your preference. And yet Superpod® is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum in housing quality! Radically energy efficient and exceptionally comfortable.
Is Australia really all Sun, Sand and Surf? (No need for Passivhaus?)
You may be wondering, is it that hard to be comfortable in Australia? Or at least isn’t the main focus on keeping cool rather than staying warm? The Australian climate is actually not as benign and comfortable as we might imagine. And apart from anything else, Australia has many different climates – it is a continent in its own right after all!
The Australian climates range from zone 1 with Hot humid summers and warm winters, through to zone 8 which is Alpine. In between there are hot, cold, humid, dry, mild and cool climates! In other words, almost every kind of climate. It turns out that Australians themselves have some of the same mistaken ideas about their climate that non-Australians do:
In some parts of Australia, we are under the illusion that we have hot sunny days all the time. In Melbourne, this just isn’t true. We spend most of our money on heating our homes, up to 6 months of the year. And many of us don’t have air conditioners at all. If we do, we use them a few days a year at most.
The trouble with people thinking the climate is mild and benign, is that they build buildings based on this illusion. And it’s no laughing matter. A great many people die because of this.
More people die from cold in Australia than in Sweden, a study published in the respected medical journal, The Lancet, found. The study found that 6.5% of preventable deaths in Australia were from the cold, primarily due to the poor quality housing. In contrast, only 0.5% of preventable deaths were caused by heat.
Fiona goes on to add:
Also, in Melbourne, our temperatures swing a lot. In summer, it can get to 9 degrees Celsius overnight but in the 20s during the day. We found with the Podhouse® it stayed warm during that season, without any heating at all. (In winter you do need some heating).
I have been thinking about Passive House in our hot and humid areas. What a bonus it will be to avoid humidity and mould inside your home. Did you know in Darwin [climate zone 1 mentioned above], your clothes can get so mouldy you have to throw them out? Mould is a really big issue. And in NSW my friend’s children have asthma, and the moist air settles on their house every night. Controlled humidity would be fantastic for their breathing problems.
So, no matter what the climate zone, there are issues of comfort and health to solve, never mind energy efficiency! And Passivhaus does solve these issues, reliably and effectively.
Prefab Passivhaus Pods: First Australia, then the world?
It is exciting to see the development of Passivhaus buildings around the world. There are so many different variations and approaches. And yet they all have the same building physics being put to work for the benefit of the people in the buildings.
Passivhaus buildings also bring the benefit of radically reducing our reliance on fossil fuel to keep our buildings comfortable and functional. As we transition to renewable energy networks we need radically energy-efficient buildings. As Fiona puts it:
Passive House solves so many problems, from comfort and health to low power bills and climate change. It is so relevant to all climates, and I can’t wait to get our Superpod® buildings in all climate zones to prove it!
Sun, Sand, Surf and most definitely Passivhaus in Australia. The growth and development of Passivhaus in Australia is worth watching. I am sure there will be many more exciting Passivhaus developments coming soon.
Melbourne is host to the second South Pacific Passive House Conference in February 2016 (#SPPHC16). I am very excited to have the privilege of being invited to present at the conference.
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