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Passive House is on the rise in Australia

The Limestone House by John Wardle Architects.
The Limestone House by John Wardle Architects.

The South Pacific Passive House Conference wrapped up late on Sunday 6 May following a packed day of site tours that included the presentation of a certification plaque for a recently completed house by Maxa Design.

The record attendance and breadth of topics and projects covered is evidence of the huge uptake of Passive House buildings in Australia. From a cost-effective Passive House school by David Halford to the seriously impressive Monash University student housing project to some deep technical analysis of mechanical systems for commercial projects, the event had breadth and depth.

The story of Monash University’s journey towards net zero emissions by 2030 and the now inevitable role of Passive House in it was told passionately by sustainable development planner Rob Brimblecombe.  

The efficiencies needed, the role of high performance buildings and the complex shift away from gas raised the inevitable question: how is everyone else planning to get to net zero emissions? As net zero energy cannot work at a global scale, some form of storage is required, be it seasonal or daily. Radical efficiency is the obvious pathway.

The South Pacific Passive House Conference 2018 site tour

The South Pacific Passive House Conference 2018 site tour

Getting the codes in place

Keynote speaker Karen Tam Wu from the Pembina Institute in British Columbia told the audience how the BC Energy Step Code was birthed. The code was a product of serious engagement amongst a wide group of stakeholders and influencers, including the Urban Development Institute. They developed a policy platform that was presented to government. The adopted policy sets out a trajectory for building performance from now to 2032.

The first three steps add no extra cost of construction. Step one only requires a project to prove minimum compliance; it seems the Canadians have some similar compliance issues to us! 

The policy work shares traits with ASBEC work underway to plot a trajectory for Australian buildings. The Canadian evidence of the economic benefits gives hope that governments see the jobs and growth potential in increasing standards: $3-4 million in economic growth for every $1 million invested in energy efficiency, along with 13 jobs. Compares well to a new toll road! 

The South Pacific Passive House Conference 2018

No dull boxes here

With close to 30 projects undergoing certification at the moment and countless more in development the movement is building scale rapidly. The Steele Associates 11-unit development in Redfern looks to set a new benchmark. Following on from his previous high bar at 88 Angel Street, The Fern promises to turn a mediocre site into an oasis in the city. With off-form concrete internally and a multi-level green wall through the circulation spaces, the project will shatter the myth that a Passive House building is a dull box.

The Fern by Steele Associates

The Fern by Steele Associates

Another non-candidate for the Dull Box Award is The Limestone House. The John Wardle-designed project is targeting both Passive House and Living Building Challenge. ESD engineer Nick Mulvany shared the challenges and solutions of the project that will be truly world leading if its targets are met. 

Social housing

At the other end of the societal spectrum, Clare Parry spoke of the promising start her Passive Place Ethical Housing venture with Nick Lane has had. The seeds for growth have been planted and we eagerly await to see which of the sites gets out of the ground first in what will prove to be a game changer for the sector.

Jessica Hogg gave a fantastic walk through the challenges she has encountered along her Passive House journey, providing the audience with a hot list of rabbit holes and traps in the commercial sector. The often dull intersection of codes, standards and warranties that plague designers on daily basis were laid bare. Hopefully a few less hours will now be wasted on the rabbit holes and more dedicated to more comfortable buildings.

Medium-density Passive House

No Passive House conference would be complete without Elrond Burrell. The now New Zealand-based architect presented on the relative simplicity of achieving medium-density Passive House apartment buildings. As New Zealand makes all the right noises about addressing its poor indoor air quality and associated health issues, it was a salient reminder that in our favourable climates the Passive House standard is not the technical challenge that many fear.

The next South Pacific Passive House Conference will be in Wellington in February 2019. By then we may well have two apartment buildings, one 5200-square-metre student accommodation building, two commercial buildings and a school along with 20-plus more houses certified to the Passive House standard.

Comfortable, healthy and efficient buildings are on the rise.

Andy Marlow is a director of the Australian Passive House Association and Envirotecture. He is an architect and certified Passive House designer.

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