The UK Passivhaus Conference 2023 and Passivhaus in the UK – An End of Year Reflection

At the end of the year, our Founding Director, Chris Herring reflects on this year’s UK Passivhaus Conference in Edinburgh, the story of Passivhaus in the UK, and the role that we have played

In October this year, I attended the UK Passivhaus Conference in Edinburgh. This was, I think the 25th Passivhaus conference I have attended in the UK or overseas. So, I have seen quite a few exciting moments in the Passivhaus journey.  This year, in the UK, this felt different. After the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few years and at a time when decisive action on Climate change has never been more urgent, this year’s conference felt like a turning point for the UK.

In this reflection, I want to consider why I think this and how I and we have got to this point.

Scotland and the Sullivan Report

In 2007, the Scottish Government commissioned a report from an expert panel chaired by Lynne Sullivan to look at the future energy standards for new buildings and recommendations for retrofit.

The Sullivan report recognised the need to rapidly improve energy standards in buildings in light of the challenges of climate change.  At the time, Passivhaus was referenced as a benchmark for energy efficiency, although there were concerns expressed, perhaps not surprisingly as there was at that time no Passivhaus building in Scotland and no experience of reaching this level of performance.

Passivhaus and me

In 2007, I went with my friend and colleague (and now Passivhaus Trust Technical Director), Nick Grant, to my very first international Passivhaus conference in Austria, in the beautiful Bregenz opera house, set not just on the banks but built in Lake Constance (the Bodensee): a stunning location for my Passivhaus induction. I came back convinced that Passivhaus was a game-changer for building performance and one of those good news stories in the challenge to reduce emissions and begin to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

In 2009 the Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB) conference broke new ground by becoming, in all but name, the first ever UK Passivhaus conference, with Prof Wolfgang Feist as guest speaker – his first conference appearance in the UK.  As a result, in 2010, we established the UK Passivhaus Trust to support and promote the uptake of Passivhaus in the UK.  I became and still serve as  Chair of the Passivhaus Trust.

Passivhaus and Green Building Store

In 2009, we saw the very first two UK Passivhaus certifications, and in 2010  the first small tranche of Passivhaus buildings was certified, with Green Building Store I am proud to say as one of those pioneers.  Indeed, we might have been first had it not been for a year’s delay in starting construction due to legal problems with a ‘ransom strip’ on site.  Three years later, we were able to claim a real ‘first’ – the first EnerPHit (Passivhaus Retrofit Standard) in the UK by the component method with the Cre8 Barn conversion.

Where there had previously been considerable debate and disagreement among leading-edge building professionals and academics about optimal levels of energy efficiency and building performance, in many ways Passivhaus nailed this.  Establishing the ‘sweet spot’ for performance and creating the tools for design and verification set the obvious benchmark for best practice that has become increasingly recognised in the UK and worldwide over the subsequent years.

Where are we now?

Fast forward to 2023 and how things have changed. We have thousands of buildings across the UK, including individual homes, social housing, schools and offices and even swimming pools built to the Passivhaus Standard.

We have a growing, dedicated and rapidly expanding body of building professionals able to design and deliver to the Passivhaus performance standard.  And Lynne Sullivan is now (among many roles in the industry)  a Director of the Passivhaus Trust.

We have come a long way, and there is no doubt in my mind, and many other people’s, that Scotland is leading the way with a wide range of buildings designed and performing to Passivhaus standards already and, most importantly, a nation now committed to making the next set of building regulations ‘the Scottish equivalent to Passivhaus’.

This was the setting for this year’s UK Passivhaus conference: a nation committed to Passivhaus with clear expertise at all levels to begin delivering this performance level.  As Jessica Grove-Smith, a Director of the Passivhaus Institut, pointed out, there are other examples of regional commitment at scale to Passivhaus, from the Heidelberg Bahnstadt development, which I visited a few years ago, to the US state of Massachusetts and Vancouver city region. Still, next year, Scotland will be the first nation in the world to adopt a Passivhaus standard.

So, the obvious question is: can Scotland achieve Passivhaus level performance for all buildings next year?

What this year’s conference told us

The conference programme was designed to give us some insight into Scotland’s Passivhaus journey: the politics, how far the nation has already come, and the pinch points in the road ahead.  It was a fascinating story to hear.

The story began with Patrick Harvie, MSP, Co-Leader of the Scottish Green Party and Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings (among other things), articulating that there was a real commitment to Passivhaus performance as well as an understanding of what was entailed in design to this standard and perhaps most importantly how to bridge the performance gap that has bedevilled most attempts to improve energy efficiency.

This message was reinforced later by Jono Hines, Managing Director of Architype and a Director of the Passivhaus Trust, who has been working closely with the Scottish Government and whose view was that the Government does understand the central role of quality assurance in bridging that gap.

Even more heartening was the opportunity to hear from Tier 1 contractors who saw the value of the necessary collaboration, detailed planning and construction to higher levels of quality.  While all of these are necessary to achieve Passivhaus performance, they looked beyond this to the other gains that building to this standard provided, such as better health and safety and better mental health at work from knowing a good job had been done.

For anyone who has suffered the often adversarial and corner-cutting approach of many contractors, hearing stories about this collaboratively beneficial attitude that building to Passivhaus Standards was producing felt like the beginnings of a true culture change within the industry.  Perhaps this could also make construction, at all levels, a truly attractive career proposition for young people as we struggle to meet our future new-build and retrofit commitments.

I also heard some very sensible voices of caution at the conference.  Politics is a messy business, and such a sea change in the industry will take time.  Patrick Harvie was realistic about needing a soft touch adoption process, bringing the industry along with the government over a period of time.

Similarly to England, there is the issue of warrant approvals and the granting of extensions – something that was grappled with back in 2007 in the Sullivan Report – which will inevitably delay implementation for many big developers.  We can only hope that the political will might be there in due course, and as the industry starts to come on board, timescales to full implementation will shorten too.

In the meantime, another takeaway from the Conference was that we must hope and work for the Passivhaus standard itself to be recognised as a ‘deemed to satisfy’ route to the new regulations so that those already working to this standard can continue to lead our industry forward, providing the skills and training it will need for the revolution in building which is coming in Scotland.

Now that Scotland has led the way, we need to continue to support and promote Passivhaus and the lessons we have learnt..  The Passivhaus Trust will do that, lobbying for better standards and supporting those already working to the Standards across the UK.  Like other pioneering companies, Green Building Store can be, I think,  justly proud of what we have achieved in influencing the market over the last 15 years.  Even more importantly, we look forward to building on that achievement and continuing to take a leading role in the transformation the industry needs to see.

So now we have the small matter to address of the building standards in the rest of the UK, But that will be for another conference and another day.

See you in Cambridge for the UK Passivhaus Conference 2024…

Chris Herring

Founding Director, Green Building Store

Chair, Passivhaus Trust

Director, AECB

19th December 2023

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