Monday, 18 January 2010

January update

I have not written anything on the blog for few weeks now. This has not been due to lack of activity!

We are working on the design. I don't see it as a problem that we are taking plenty of time to get the design right. It is much cheaper to change things at this early stage! The architect pointed out another thermal bridge problem that I'd failed to notice before. Part of the building, currently a garage, is attached to the neighbouring house. We need to re-look at our solution to eliminate a significant thermal bridge at the corner with the neighbour. I also want to minimise any party wall issues if possible, as I've never met the owner; he lives 12,000 miles away.

I am also starting to enter data into the PHPP - Passivhaus Planning Package - the huge Excel-spreadsheet based tool used to model proposed Passivhaus developments. The data entered, and any assumptions made, all need to checked very carefully. It is very easy to overlook something that will give you an over optimistic picture of how the house will perform. It is vital to use the tool during the design phase, as correcting problems that it flags up, like the potential thermal bridge I missed above, is often very difficult and expensive.

We have chosen our favoured window provider. Unfortunately, there are no manufacturers of Passivhaus Institute accredited windows in the UK. Until the Passivhaus market grows, this is unlikely to change. Using windows with the PHI accreditation is important because it means that technical performance of the windows has been independently scrutinised and tested. It gives confidence to Passivhaus builders that the windows will do what they say they do on the tin.

[Edit on 23/Jan/10 - there does appear to be one UK manufacturer, Greenspec, who produce a range known as "ecopassiv", that claims a whole window U-value of 0.75, which would be low enough to meet the Passivhaus standard. They do not appear to have certification from the Passivhaus Institute but do meet the AECB Carbonlite Gold Standard. There is more information here: - click on the product brochure for the ecopassiv range.]

Because we are forced by the constraints of the existing building to have quite a lot of east and west facing glazing - not ideal because unshaded east/west windows cause summertime overheating - we wanted a window with integrated external Venetian blinds. This will allow us to keep the daytime heat out without plunging the room into darkness. I also much prefer "tilt-and-turn" windows that open inwards and can be operated with one hand. They are so practical in many ways; once you have lived with them, any other type of window seems unsatisfactory.

The other vital task now is choosing our builder and deciding how we are going to work. A very formal arrangement of tendering, backed up by copious documentation, will not give us the flexibility and the type of working relationships we need. It is very easy to get focussed on the hardware of a Passivhaus, and on modelling it in the PHPP, but one of the most important decisions in the project is choosing your two key partners - the architect and the builder - building a trio that co-operates well as a team. This is, of course, very important in all builds but especially so in a Passivhaus where there is very little room for winging-it with last-minute workarounds to correct mistakes. In Britain I think we are great at winging it and less good at following a proscribed methodology. I am no exception to this. And both approaches have their pros and cons of course. The other vital ingredient is very good communication between the trio of client, architect and builder, with all of us checking that the others have the same understanding of how to proceed. It also means all parties have to be be engaged, really to want to achieve the Passivhaus standard. I'll write more about this later I'm sure.