Thursday, 15 April 2010

April update

We have spent the last month continuing to tweak and refine the design. It seems to be what we were doing last time I posted but the process is iterative and a few days ago we got to the point where we felt we could submit our planning application. Window placing and sizing, both hard to change after planning, have a big effect on the performance of a Passivhaus, so we had to be sure this was right before submitting planning.

Next, we are working out where all the ductwork for the heat recovery ventilation (MVHR) will go. The MVHR is a small unit, typically a metre and a bit square by half a metre. It needs to be located very near an external wall for maximum energy efficiency and, although barely audible, away from bedrooms and living areas. In our refurb, it will be going into the loft. The principle of MVHR is to extract stale air from kitchens, bathrooms and WCs through extraction ducts back to the MVHR unit where it passes through the incoming air whilst remaining physically separate. In this way, most of the heat (at least 75% in a Passivhaus) is transferred to the fresh incoming air. This new air then supplies the living areas and bedrooms through a separate network of supply ducts. Air is moved very slowly through large, smooth sided ducts, with silencers between rooms to eliminate perceptible noise. Choosing a good MVHR unit, designing the ducts and the room valves, and configuring the whole system once installed are vital parts of achieving a Passivhaus. The MVHR ensures that the internal air is always fresh, even when the windows are closed during the heating season. It means that the building is continually being aired - something we normally have to do briefly as a daily ritual. It gives a much better indoor air quality than virtually all other modern and many older buildings without sacrificing the building's energy efficiency.

The other great thing about using MVHR in a Passivhaus is that you can use it to distribute heat around the house; but only if your building needs very little heat. The air can only carry a very small amount of heat because the air moves through the ducts quite slowly (to avoid wasting energy or creating air noise by running the fans at a higher speed) and because the air can only be heated to about 30C above room temperature. These physical constraints translate (once you do the physics) into a maximum of 10W/m2 maximum heat load that can be conveyed by the ventilation system. For a typical UK home of around 100m2, 10W/m2 translates to 1000W (or 1kW). Compare this with the output of many UK gas boilers: 25kW or more. If your building can be heated with such a small heat input, you can use the MVHR as your heating system as well as your fresh air system, saving upfront capital costs and reducing on-going maintenance. In fact, an MVHR is a very simple system, not to be confused with heat pump systems or air conditioning systems. The only regular attention it needs is a change of air filters, something you can do yourself - there's no need for any servicing. The units use very little energy, many times less than they save.

Floor wall thermal bridge, the plot thickens
We have revisited the floor-wall thermal bridge problem. In a new build it is possible to design out thermal bridges but in our refurb, there is no economic way to do so. When you get a building as energy efficient as a Passivhaus, any remaining weaknesses, such as thermal bridges, can become quite significant sources of heat losses. In the PHPP, it is possible to include figures for the thermal bridge losses, however the calculations you need to get the figures are complicated. One good reason to design them out if you can.

This time I used another free, if infuriating, piece of software called Therm, which is intended for window designers but which can be adapted for other purposes. It allowed me to calculate a "U-factor" (as distinct from a U-value) for the external floor-wall junction, something which Heat 2, which I mentioned in an earlier post, doesn't do.

Once you have successfully calculated your "U-factor" in Therm, a further manual calculation is needed to gives you a psi-value for the junction: the psi-value is the linear equivalent of the U-value. Multiplying the psi-value by the length of the junction gives you the number of Watts the junction will lose for each degree centigrade difference between inside and outside.

The convention in Passivhaus is to use the U-value and the external dimensions to calculate heat losses through a wall or other area, rather than the internal dimensions normally used here in the UK. The Passivhaus convention of using external dimensions means that, at corners, the area is double counted, resulting in a slightly over conservative figure for the building's overall heat loss. In a well designed new build Passivhaus, this allows for any minimal thermal bridging that might remain. In our refurb, the thermal bridge looks like it will be significant and I don't know yet whether it will stop us achieving the Passivhaus standard. The Passivhaus Institute are planning to relax the standard for refurbishments because in part, I suspect, of the extra heat loss caused by these unavoidable thermal bridges.

External insulation
We have managed to reduce the thickness of the external from 300mm to 180mm. Originally, I'd hoped to use an insulator made from a tongue-and-groove wood fibre board product, like Pavatherm. The insulation would have had to be more than 300mm thick to achieve a wall U-value of 0.1. As this would have been applied to an existing wall of 300mm, the external walls would have been excessively thick. The weight of the insulation would probably have posed structural issues too, possibly requiring reinforcement of the footings. Instead, we are using Phenolic foam, which will deliver the same performance for half the thickness as wood fibre. Even though Phenolic foam is made from fossil fuels and has a higher embodied energy, our solution is overall less energy intensive than the wood fibre alternative. At 180mm, Phenolic foam costs £40/m2 or £100/m2 including installation, so not cheap. However, the thickness of the insulation has turned out to be more than just an aesthetic matter. The deeper the insulation, the deeper the windows are inset into the walls. This cuts down the amount of solar energy the windows can capture and negates some of the additional benefit of the thicker insulation.

Part of our refurb is a new build extension. Here we are using wooden I-beams in-filled with a cellulose insulation like Warmcel. I-beams are so called because they have the shape of a capital letter I when looked at end on. This design, using engineered wood, gives high strength with less thermal bridging because of the thinner central section. We will also be using I-beams in-filled with cellulose in the roof. An I-beam construction can become a source of thermal bridging unless the wall is carefully designed so that the "I" of the beam does not run through the entire thickness of the wall.

As all Passivhaus projects have to manage thermal bridging between and within walls, floors and roofs, a very helpful group of people have produced a compendium of building drawing and materials details that architects and Passivhaus Designers can copy, rather than always trying to re-invent the wheel. The "Passivhaus Bauteilkatalog" is in English and German. It costs about £81, so not cheap, but cheaper than doing all the work yourself.