There is growing awareness of the contribution our built environment makes to carbon emissions and the resultant impacts on climate change, which has raised the question of whether we are doing enough to change the way we design and construct our buildings?
The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) recognises the important role that the built environment plays in our journey towards zero emissions and through the Building to COP26 Coalition, is calling for urgent action.
Many major asset owners have set net zero carbon targets for their portfolios, driven by stakeholder and investor demands. The role of buildings is proving critical in ensuring these targets are met, through improvements to design, material choices, and technology, and the way we monitor and operate our buildings.
The impacts of climate change through extreme weather events are also a challenge for our buildings. To make them more resilient, we need to take a more strategic approach in their design, construction and operation.
To make the major improvement required to design, build and operate climate-resilient, net zero carbon buildings, we need to change what we design, and how we construct and operate our buildings.
Buildings need to be responsive to their local context and to their function, so that they can operate in the most efficient way possible for the benefit of occupants, owners and the environment. They also need to be resilient to the physical impacts of climate change, such as rising temperatures, fire hazards and extreme cold.
One way to achieve a high level of building performance is by designing and constructing to Passive House principles and standards.
Passive House is a voluntary standard for design and construction that provides a well-established template for ultra–low energy buildings that provide high levels of occupant comfort as well as resilience to future climate changes.
Passive house is a verifiable methodology that allows designers and builders to work together to address one of the key challenges we face in the construction industry, namely that we are not very good at designing and constructing well-insulated, airtight buildings. It provides a tried and trusted way of controlling the design and construction process to deliver the comfortable, low carbon, healthy buildings that we need for the climate emergency we are facing.
The first Passive House was constructed in Darmstadt Germany in 1991 and there are now over 60,000 Passive House buildings throughout the world. Despite being developed initially in cold climates, Passive House design principles and standards can be applied to buildings in warmer regions, including Asia and the South Pacific.
For instance, Passive House designers in New Zealand work across 19 different climate zones, while in Australia, designers need to contend with eight different climate zones, as identified by the National Construction Code. Each climate zone requires different design approaches. The world’s tallest and largest residential Passive House-certified building at 26 storeys, The House at Cornell Tech in New York, is located in a region where the average temperatures range from minus 5 degrees Celsius in winter to 30 degrees Celsius in summer. The building uses 60-80 per cent less energy than a conventional building, which translates to planting approximately 5,300 new trees.
In Australia and New Zealand, a Passive House building typically uses 90 per cent less energy for heating and cooling compared to buildings constructed to the current NZ and Australian Building Code minimum requirements. Interest in Passive House is growing in the Asia-Pacific region with dozens of projects completed to date and many more in the pipeline.
Any type of building can be designed to Passive House standards, including multi-residential, hospitals, universities, shopping centres, schools, commercial offices and more. The standard can be applied to both new and existing buildings.
Passive House buildings are:
Passive House has three levels of certification for new buildings: Classic, Plus and Premium.
For existing building refurbishments, an EnerPHit certification can be achieved.
Passive House associations around the world, including the Australian Passive House Association, the Passive House Institute New Zealand and the Passive House Institute China, provide detailed information about how to access Passive House professionals to assist in achieving certification.
Often, Passive House projects will also aim to achieve sustainable building ratings, such as those administered by green building councils, under the umbrella of the World Green Building Council, to recognise and reward designing, building and operating greener buildings.
The key to delivering net zero carbon all-electric buildings cost-effectively is to use the Passive House principles and methodology during both design and construction to deliver a continuously insulated airtight envelope. (See Figure 1)
The five Passive House principles are:
Designing to Passive House principles needs to occur at the very beginning of the design process and incorporate an integrated approach from all project partners.
Architects, engineers, contractors and sub-consultants need to be committed to achieve the high-performance standards required to reach Passive House certification, and advice from a certified Passive House designer is required to ensure the building meets all requirements. While this may seem complex, Passive House is a simple approach that creates a more stable environment, rather than incorporating more energy intensive means to regulate air quality and temperature.
In the long-term, a Passive House building will be more efficient, less expensive to heat and cool, more comfortable for occupants and more resilient to extreme weather events.
Jeff Robinson is a Principal and Sustainability Consultant with Aurecon. In this role he has been responsible for the design of many leading-edge sustainable and one of the first Green Star buildings in Victoria. Jeff has worked as a consulting engineer for more than 34 years and has been involved in the design of a wide variety of leading-edge sustainable buildings and communities in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Middle East, Europe and America. He is a passionate advocate for sustainability and an experienced Green Star Accredited Professional (AP), LEED AP, WELL AP, and infrastructure sustainability professional.
Anita Milne brings 20 years’ experience in New Zealand and the United Kingdom on a range of complex and highly serviced building designs. As a Principal within Aurecon’s Buildings team based in Auckland, Anita has managed multi-disciplinary engineering teams for the last 10+ years, and specialises in leading building services design teams to deliver complex highly serviced building projects. Anita is a Green Star Accredited Professional and NABERSNZ Accredited Assessor.
Pablo Sepulveda is an Associate, Sustainability and Integrated Design, with Aurecon. With a background in architecture, development economics and urban planning, Pablo is passionate about the role that engineers can play through their scientific vision, methods and accuracy to change the way that buildings are designed for the better. He is a Certified Passive House Designer.
Michael T. McGough is Aurecon’s Buildings MEP Practice Leader based in Bangkok. With extensive experience on complex projects across Central Europe, Middle East, Turkey, Libya, Riga, India and North America Michael currently works across the Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Hong Kong markets. Michael was the Principal in charge for the MEP, and Engineer of Record, for the world’s tallest and largest residential Passive House-certified building, The House at Cornell Tech, New York when certified in 2017. He is passionate about incorporating sustainable practices into building services design.
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