Passive Houses redefine meaning of green

  • 2010-12-16
  • By Ella Karapetyan

BUILDING BLOCKS: Experts say that energy conscious living should be taught starting in kindergarten.

TALLINN - The earth is considered one of the most beautiful planets in the Universe. Unfortunately, our planet is suffering due to many problems, which should be solved before it is too late. Of course, Estonia is not an exception in all this. The major problems that Estonia is facing today are air and water pollution and recycling problems.
A few short years ago the notion of a zero energy home was beyond the imagination of most people. Experts, however, say that energy efficient homes cost much less to heat, cool and light, compared to a typical home.

The Passive House concept represents today’s highest energy standard with the promise of slashing the heating energy consumption of buildings by an amazing 90 percent. Today, many in the building sector have applied this concept to design, and build towards a carbon-neutral future. Over the last 10 years more than 15,000 buildings in Europe - from single and multifamily residences, to schools, factories and office buildings - have been designed and built or remodeled to the passive house standard.

Green building practices aim to reduce the environmental impact of new buildings. Buildings account for a large amount of land use, energy and water consumption, and air and atmosphere alteration. Considering the statistics, reducing the amount of natural resources buildings consume and the amount of pollution given off is seen as crucial for future sustainability.

The building industry alone accounts for 30-40 percent of global energy use. Over 80 percent of the environmentally harmful emissions from buildings are due to energy consumption during the times when the buildings are in use.
Green building brings together a vast array of practices and techniques to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the impact of new buildings on the environment and human health. It often emphasizes taking advantage of renewable resources, e.g., using sunlight through passive solar, active solar, and photovoltaic techniques and using plants and trees through green roofs, rain gardens, and for reduction of rainwater run-off. Many other techniques, such as using packed gravel or permeable concrete instead of conventional concrete or asphalt to enhance replenishment of ground water, are used as well.

On the aesthetic side of green architecture or sustainable design is the philosophy of designing a building that is in harmony with the natural features and resources surrounding the site. There are several key steps in designing sustainable buildings: specify ‘green’ building materials from local sources, reduce loads, optimize systems, and generate on-site renewable energy.

According to Estonian Statistics, public awareness of energy saving issues is low in Estonia; therefore, environmentally friendly behavior is not so evident. Role models are lacking, high level politicians and other opinion leaders do not set a good personal example in their thinking and acting against energy wasting and over-consumption patterns. People seem to not care what will happen after 10 years, their radius of thinking is very short term. Prejudices among the political and economical elite that energy saving is not cost-efficient are obstacles for energy saving. In addition, the awareness of local self governments regarding energy saving issues is low as well.

Some Estonian experts believe that education on energy saving issues should start from the kindergarten level. According to the new rules agreed in Brussels in 2009, by the end of 2020, EU member states must ensure that all newly-constructed buildings have a “very high energy performance level.” Member states must therefore encourage owners to renovate, by installing smart meters and replacing existing heating, hot-water plumbing and air-conditioning with high-efficiency alternatives such as heat pumps or renewable based systems.

Tartu University Institute of Technology is participating in an Estonian-Latvian joint project which aims to promote energy-efficient construction. The main goal of the two countries’ joint project, entitled “Active Through Passive,” is to increase the population’s awareness of energy efficiency and to promote the use of low-energy technologies in the construction of buildings.

The parties will create an Estonian-Latvian cooperation network for energy-efficient construction and will undertake several activities to promote energy-efficient solutions. The activities include the creation of a dedicated information portal, the organization of seminars and training courses, and the publication of training materials and instruction manuals that are intended for companies, the general public and local governments. The parties will also define the requirements for low-energy houses and prepare basic solutions for the improvement of the energy efficiency of buildings.

The program was launched at the beginning of June at the University of Tartu Institute of Technology with a presentation by Swedish architect Hans Eek. He shared his experience, gathered over 30 years and rewarded with the Goteburg Award for Sustainable Development, in sustainable urban planning and in the research and development of ultra energy-efficient houses. His experience proves that despite the difficult Nordic climate, it is possible and practical to build high-quality houses that meet the Passive House standard.

In addition to Eek, Latvian architect Ervins Krauklis made a presentation at the project launch. He discussed the construction of the single-family home that he designed, which utilizes Passive House technologies. Afterwards, the specialists visited the Kaseke day-care center in Valga, which is the first kindergarten in Estonia built to Passive House standards.

The project partners include Valga’s city government, the University of Tartu, the Latvian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Passive House Latvia, MTU Zalas Majas, and the Strenci county government. The project started on Feb. 1, 2010 and will end on July 31, 2011.

According to Urmas Luure, an architect who specializes in building passive houses, in order to build energy efficient houses, the client and the architect, as well as the later user of the building (if by a chance it is not the client) must be aware of what the energy efficient house brings about.
“Insulation and efficient technology devices (such as reheat ventilation, airtight caps) are not enough to decrease utility costs. In the case of designing, everything starts from determining the site plan, the typology of the building, and the room program,” he says.

Luure considers that over time energy efficient houses will become more and more popular. He noted that it is difficult to make good architecture in an energy efficient manner at a reasonable cost. He says that clients and the builders in Estonia are mainly interested in as low costs as possible. He believes that the relationship between the cost and quality is the biggest issue in architecture these days.

“The builders and construction companies need training on passive house and energy efficient building technologies. The air tightness of construction seems to be the biggest bottleneck at the moment. The building materials, such as air tight tapes, mastics, and other equipment are not easily available on the Estonian market,” Eric Tamm, an architect in Estonia told The Baltic Times. “The economy of saving energy in housing should be one of the branches of the economy but that is often ignored in Estonia today,” he says.

“Eighty percent of people in the European Union now live in cities. A significant way forward
in controlling energy consumption is to manage and control cities through spatial planning. By doing so, energy consumption can be reduced with the aim to achieve zero carbon emissions in cities. This will entail cities needing to be more aware of how the physical structure impacts on energy use and how the location of functions have a material effect spatially within a city region,” Tamm explains.

“The design of green housing includes using solar thermal panels on the roof and storing the heat in tanks, which allows the support of heating in other ways than supplying air preheating. The non-central ventilation concept should allow maximum flexibility in considering different users demands. Passive design is not the attachment or supplement of architectural design, but an integrated design process with the architectural design. Although it is mostly applied to new buildings, it has also been used for refurbishments. The vast majority of Passive structures have been built in German-speaking countries and Scandinavia. Estonia still has much to learn from Scandinavian countries in building passive houses,” added Tamm.

“A house with zero energy requirements means that the house will not consume any more energy than the building is able to produce... A passive house will have heating costs ten times lower, on average, than a regular house,” says Rene Valner, an architect with ultraKUB, the first company in Estonia which developed an innovative energy-efficient modular home solution, called Elumaja, which transforms the current understanding of construction and the general way of life for all people. This is the first zero energy modular home concept in Estonia, and also in Europe so far.

“The new modular home allows the use of autonomous renewable energy solutions and by means of this enables its occupants to live (if necessary) independently of a central infrastructure, that is, with zero CO2 emissions. In this case, the house will meet the zero energy criteria. A wider use of such buildings will increase the country’s energy independence,” Valner explains.

Zero dependence on existing utilities, the mobility of the module and the small area of land occupied by the house mean that the house can be built without having to apply for a building permit; only the written approval of the local governmental authority is required.

Valner says that one of the starting points for the development of a modular home, in accordance with the passive house standard, is to make sure that the concept could be developed further to create an energy-plus-house. The owner of the latter type of house can sell the excess energy produced by the building to the supply network. In Estonia, this is unfortunately not yet possible for residential customers.

According to Valner, Passive House buildings are designed carefully and built with modern insulation and building materials and techniques and controlled with a program called PHPP (passive house planning package). PHPP is a verification procedure for the building specific values. “For example, the average annual energy consumption per square meter in old houses in Estonia is 200 kWh/m2. This value is around 130 kWh/m2 in new buildings, and this is only 15 kWh/m2 in a passive house.”

Designing a passive house, using the passive house elements, such as triple-pane windows with krypton as gas with insulated frames, and double-sized insulation materials makes a passive house more expensive than a regular house, but the cumulative cost of any annual expenses makes it more feasible in the long-term.”