Published by Ecotech

Commentary by Justin Bere

5 April 2007 

Each spring Germany’s Passivhaus Institute holds its annual conference within a European city. The conference probably represents the largest gathering of low energy construction research academics and professionals in the world and without a doubt it presents the most experienced, the most scientific and the most professional low energy and ecological papers presented to construction professionals at any single international conference.

Between 13th and 15th April this year this annual conference was held on the shores of Lake Konstanz at Bregenz in the Vorarlberg region ofAustria. Hosted this year by the Vorarlberg Institute of Energy (set up 22 years ago by the regional government for scientifically researching and monitoring building and the environment, and advise architects, the construction industry and government), the conference tickets were completely sold out before the event with over 1000 people staying locally for three intensive days of perfectly organised lectures and visits. Simultaneous translation to English of 100 individual meticulous presentations was provided by a host of translators working in four different lecture halls and the Institute this year translated into English their 400 page book that summarises all the presentations.

The above statistics alone should pose a number of questions that UKprofessionals and policy makers should consider:


  1. Why, when sustainability is so high on the agenda, was the UKrepresented by the smallest contingent of any European country? Just a handful of UK architects attended and the totalUK group numbered 14 people including one pioneer from the BRE and the universities of Exeter, Lincoln and UCL. No policy maker, no official from the RIBA and no UK journalist attended. By comparison, 41 people attended from Ireland.
  2. Why when UK policy makers and industry have spent the last 5 years gushing about vaguely modern methods of construction, vague sustainability methods, joined up thinking etc etc; why has not a single one of these chattering advisors to government and industry managed to attend the one major European event that can provide independent research, information and proven examples?
  3. Why has, for example, a small region of Austria set up its own independent, academic energy institute and to my knowledge the whole of the UK has nothing comparable and independent of industry’s commercial pressures?

  4. Why is there such a gulf between both current and planned UKbenchmark standards and the widely adopted German Passivhaus benchmark standards? The Passivhaus insulation standards are 3x better than the UK Building Regulations and air tightness standards a staggering 14x better than in the UK.

  5. Why in the UK is there no numerically defined maximum energy requirement for new building? German Passivhaus has named a practically and economically achievable maximum figure for sustainable living of 15kw/m²/annum whether zero carbon or not. This demanding figure means that Passivhaus zero carbon building is less dependent on increasingly scarce and valuable biofuel supplies than most in the UK.

  6.  Why when Passivhaus standards demand elimination of cold-bridges and the use of at least 300mm wall-fill thickness of predominately ecological insulation materials, is the UK Building Research Establishment for its ‘off-site’ conference 2007 currently needing to rely on the construction of industry-funded exemplars, not all of which seem to be achieving the highest standards or the lowest embodied energy?

  7. Why have Passivhaus advanced construction and environmental methods in Germany and Austria and Minergie standards in Switzerland been taken up so enthusiastically by local authority purchasers, developers and private individuals to such an enormous extent, while in the UK we appear to be floundering to introduce truly sustainable improvements on a similar scale?

The answer I believe can be found in the impressive attention to detail and authoritative independent government and regionally funded research and development which creates healthy regional pride, cooperation and friendly competition. The German speaking countries have set up independent research institutes attracting the best brains; they probe and search for both questions and answers and then they test, prototype and crucially monitor solutions. More than 3000 Passivhaus buildings have been built so far, after which, they publish hard hitting facts and targets for all to study and provide everyone interested with the opportunity to attend conferences and debates. People read the material and attend the conferences because they know that they will see and hear the results of academic research and experiment and not more greenwash. Why? Because there is no pandering to commercial targets, little pressure to involve private industry to pay the researchers’ salaries and hence no bullshit.