Don’t Hit Me With Your Physics Stick…

Don’t hit me with your physics stick, because I get the Physics of Passivhaus! I suspect my resistance to embracing Passivhaus wholeheartedly – or rather, my nagging unease somewhere around Passivhaus is also that I’m not convinced that reduced energy costs automatically leads to good architecture. I know most of you don’t either, but I’ve been sent many examples recently of fully certified Passivhaus buildings, and predominately, the key issue I’m told about is reduced running costs (generally at the expense of greater construction costs). Of course we aspire to reduced energy use and the resultant running costs, but much of the time it feels that for many Passivhaus builders, this is the overriding ambition for the building and of course, a building has greater responsibilities that this. Similarly, a symbiotic connection with context means more than being able to open the windows.

Low energy use and low running costs are the starting point, not the end point. I know there are some great examples of the Passivhaus principles being used wisely by really good architects – Bere, Architype, Mole, and many of the people I’ve been having this conversation with, but these guys know that there’s more to a building than the chasing of efficiency. I worry that it is a system that can be used by mediocre designers to justifying a well performing and well intentioned but poor piece of architecture.

Yet, dare question it, and you’re labelled a ignorant Luddite who misunderstands the system. I know the system, but that’s no excuse for thinking it infallible, or a tool that magically transforms mediocre work into exceptional. And no excuse wither for thinking that if the physics is infallible, then the system is infallible.

And maybe that’s the point – you exceptional and intelligent designers will always be fine. But for the rest, it seems often as a mechanism of justifying a poor building. Maybe again, that’s a fringe issue. As there’s so many poor buildings anyway, and at least with Passivhaus they’ll better in one regard.

I’m loving the debate, and thank you. We’re on the same side, and we want the same thing. And I know most of you know it is just a design tool – I get that, along with everything else. I’ve stated above, and I’ll state it again, Passivhaus is good physics, I’m sold for the main part, and, read it here: Passivhaus is THE standard that we should as a construction industry adopt. Just let’s not think that because something can be measured, that makes it always appropriate.

Maybe the great Robert Hughes should have the last word: ‘A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop.’

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  1. Posted November 5, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Piers, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say above but there are still a couple of points I would suggest need to be discussed further. You state “Yet, dare question it [Passivhaus], and you’re labelled a ignorant Luddite who misunderstands the system.” That’s not what has occurred here. As I think Nick Grant has eloquently explained on many occasions, sceptics who question any of the Passivhaus assumptions from a position of understanding and a desire to refine or improve them, or present alternative approaches, are warmly welcomed in the Passivhaus community and PHPP continues to develop and adapt as a result of this. What irks Passivhaus designers is criticism of , or negative statements on, the standard that are founded on fundamental misunderstandings, or even downright lies, and I think its only fair that these are addressed and clarified. Secondly, and you make this point yourself, a poor architectural design is a poor architectural design and achieving Passivhaus doesn’t make it good – although it does benefit its occupiers and arguably the planet compared to equivalent Building Regs-standard buildings. But good architecture has to endure to be considered sustainable – if it becomes unloved or impractical to the point that it needs to be demolished in 30 years time then its a failure. Conversely however, and this is the position we have long been pushing within the RIBA Sustainable Futures committee, the architecture we as a profession laud as great , through awards and recognition, should not be allowed to ignore its impact on the wider environment. Should we really celebrate the ‘look-no-hands’ visual gymnastics or adherence to the latest ‘ism’ if the building requires an immoral proportion of the planet’s resources to remain operational? The German Building of the Year 2013 is an Art Museum, that is both elegant AND meets the Passivhaus standard. Its a good constraint to have (in fact, if you want to build public buildings in places like Frankfurt, Brussels, Hamburg etc it’s a minimum requirement) and, in the right hands, can produce the only morally justifiable form of Architecture. In my humble opinion, of course 🙂

    • Posted November 5, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      No, I agree with you – my luddite accusation was via twitter where my questioning was labelled as misunderstanding (which is, in part true). But the comments here? All (largely) valid!

  2. Posted November 5, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I’m enjoying the debate too. I agree that Passivhaus buildings are not necessarily good buildings beyond the comfort and energy aspect. But why, if you ‘get the physics of Passivhaus’ do you suggest that the windows can’t or shouldn’t be opened?

    • Posted November 5, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Yes, sorry, that was stupid and lazy of me in my first post. I know they can be opened. I’m yet to see a Passivhaus building that could open us as much as Moonshine, though, where the ground floor is a series of interchangeable sliders – but this is the fringe again.

  3. Posted November 7, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Piers, I’d love to be as generous as Mark and say I agree but I think there is still a gulf of misunderstanding.

    First who claims Passivhaus somehow guarantees good design or excuses poor design? Show me any system that guarantees good design and I will become a real zealot and tell all my friends and colleagues about it!!

    Passivhaus doesn’t even guarantee good performance if physics is applied without intelligence.

    For example one way to hit the annual heating target would be to put in lots of south glazing to compensate for poor efficiency in the rest of the design. The physics (the laws of the universe are not peculiar to Passivhaus) then tells you it will overheat so you add mechanical shading. This could be a certified passivhaus but I’d say it was expensive, likely to be uncomfortable and a bit dumb for the UK climate.

    Comparing the loveliness of buildings that don’t address practicalities such as keeping the weather out or the heat in with ones that do is like comparing clothes seen on a catwalk with those we wear everyday and then pointing out that the fashion models look more interesting.

    I am not imune to the charm of the tipee or ger but they are a bit shit in Wales in winter.

    As for Passivhaus performance at the expense of construction cost what about Architect style cladding at expense of construction cost (and carpenter’s sanity)??

    If you are Hereford way again lets meet up at Architype and have a proper argument.

    Thanks for the open discussion.


  4. Posted November 7, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Now that we’ve got past the toddler stage of Passivhaus in the UK, and understand the tools and the techniques Passivhaus provides, I’m looking forward to seeing more and more architects designing great buildings that are energy efficient as a matter of course.

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