Local authorities' new kid on the block - can they help today's broken housing market?

Submitted by Dan on Wed, 03/01/2017 - 15:15

Dan Weisselberg | The Green Register

Dan Weisselberg, The Green Register's Business Development and Outreach Manager shares his views on the broad role Passivhaus can play in our broken housing market.


Googling “council housing” and finding images of Passivhaus homes alongside archetypal 60s blocks and 50s estates should become more common.

In last month’s newsletter I contributed a short members’ story about architects Emmett Russell’s (1) work on three small developments (see photos at base of page) which are a mix of one bedroom flats and two bedroom bungalows on difficult to develop sites, and that are being built, and will be certified, to Passivhaus standards . The homes are nearing completion and are part of a pilot scheme of exemplar council homes for the City of Bristol (2,3).

With much of my last seven years having been spent working on green open homes events (biased towards normalising retrofit (4)) I was curious to find out what impact these new build exemplars could make in these cash strapped times and, in taking a closer look at this part of the sector more closely.

I found that Passivhaus occupies a unique position from which it could catalyse significant change in an industry struggling to keep up with the times. Not only that, many of us can contribute to this change too.

Those with an interest in housing and sustainable construction and looking for leadership in this sector, could be feeling a bit bewildered right now. I know I sometimes do.

Just think about: the government admitting the housing market is broken via its white paper (5); the scrapping of the Zero-carbon homes standard in 2015; uncertainty over the economic and legislative implications of Brexit (what will happen to the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (6)); the  delayed, rather wimpish arrival of the  post Green Deal Bonfield Review in December; and now fully justified fresh questions about both regulation of the market and standards of volume builders’ new properties arising out of the Bovis poorly built new homes scandal (7). Get out of the wrong side of bed and it would be easy to think that things are unfixable.

Aspirational, hard to achieve, niche and expensive are just some of the adjectives used to describe Passivhaus in the discussions we’ve all heard and obviously some of these aspects were part of the allure to the pioneering self-builders who got the UK Passivhaus ball rolling. However, these are not terms you generally associate with council housing, so why should the actions of progressive local authorities’ matter?

Is Passivhaus moving from fledgling to wise owl? 

With 75% reduction in space heating requirements, compared to UK new build standard practice Passivhaus standard houses provide a method to help achieve UK’s 80% carbon reductions targets. Unsurprisingly interest in Passivhaus has grown significantly amongst members of The Green Register in the last three or four years. 
Because building at scale is so essential critical today, looking at where things have moved on from the almost eclectic mix of individual new build and retrofit houses and buildings featured in the Passivhaus buildings database (8), is important.

The lead in this sector has been taken by social housing from local authorities in Exeter (the first in 2011) or housing associations such as Circle Housings (9) 51 units in (Rainham 2015).  These developments were driven by social responsibility whereas other mixed tenure ones are more financially driven such as Camden Council’s 53 home development in Highgate 2015 (10), capitalising on high property prices or Norwich council’s 237 homes in 2016. New business models are being developed for the latter including this council’s creating a new housing company in a similar way to how Bristol and others are forming energy companies.

With councils expected to build lots more homes over the next few years (eg Bristol 1000 in 10 – 15 years) and some having not done so for over ten to twenty years, the experiences of builders in the fast growing and very government supported self and custom build sector such as Potton (11) (selling fourteen Passivhaus home plots in Kent) or Beattie Passive with their off-site construction complete builds, should be invaluable. Here’s hoping they can access them, affordably.

Do we want everyone to benefit from Passivhaus? 

Yes, probably. As well as the environmental and health benefits Passivhaus presents here are some other reasons why it’s time may have come.

Raising standards in construction is a topic we are all familiar with and the high standards required for Passivhaus could be used as an inspiring kick for our workforce to lead force people to expecting more of contractors and developers. Since Melhuish and Saunders Building started work at Emmett Russell’s Bristol City Council development, they have added a new Building the Future page to their website promoting the work and innovative ways of spreading best practice. Close that Performance Gap!

Imagine all new homes offered the bill savings of a typical Passivhaus homes (say £750 less than your average home), each home then potentially has that amount of money to spend on non energy items, locally which can add up. Bristol’s local plan 2016 -2020 has an aim to build 7,100 homes which on current energy prices could bring over £5 million extra per year to the region.

As many of us know, the Tories’ former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, had a way with words and when stated the above (12), despite managing to make Passivhaus sound obviously rather “other”, I suspect the sentiment Pickles also held that is that, like Mercedes, BMWs and Audis, Passivhaus could be very aspirational, help drive consumption and thus boost our economy. I think it can and the broad appeal and spin offs are exciting for it appears that Passivhaus is embryonically meeting needs across the entire housing market.

In being taken up by local authorities, the custom build market and ambitious greenies Passivhaus is hitting the Settler, Prospector and Pioneer ‘primary motivation’ groupings (values based groupings determined by ‘why people do the things and make the choices they do’) identified by brand positioning experts Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing (13).

For such a new brand this could mean Passivhaus is not only fairly unique and but also that right now, in the context of sustainable construction, carbon reductions and a housing crisis it seems to tick a lot of key boxes and its progress should be encouraged.

The Tasteful Eight

So as I’ve probably now given away my marketing background, finishing with a list of suggestions of what we could do to contribute to improving the UK’s buildings shouldn’t come as too much of a blow. How about:
1. We verbally pass on stories of Passivhaus to continue to bring it into the normal world?
2. We show more local exemplars to councillors, council officers, colleges through open homes events or private viewings?
3. We respond through public consultations to our area’s local plan’s detail on housing and sustainability?
4. We consider the Green Party’s flat pack campaign guide (14)?
5. We encourage more builders to share Best Practice on social media?
6. We look at the Passivhaus retrofit route “Enerphit”? 
7. Look out for The Passivhaus Trust local authorities campaign (15) this spring?
8. AND FINALLY see what The Green Register’s forthcoming Passivhaus training in London, Bristol or Manchester might offer you


Dan Weisselberg.
1st March 2017



1 http://www.emmettrussell.co.uk/
2 The homes were commissioned under ex architect, George Ferguson’s previous independent mayoral administration
3 See also Radio 4, ‘The Briefing Room’, on Thursday 2nd March @ 20:00
4 www.bristolgreendoors.org
5 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/fixing-our-broken-housing-ma…
6 https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/energy-efficiency/buildings/nearl…,
7 http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/mortgageshome/article-4201146/Bovis-…
8 http://passivhausbuildings.org.uk
9 Now merged with Affinity Sutton to become Clarion Housing
10 Though this experienced problems with water, tenants, compensation, and significantly certification
11 The Kingspan company specialising in  custom and self build timber frame package homes
12 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/affordable-housing-off-site-cons…
13 See http://www.cultdyn.co.uk/index.html).
14 http://www.passivhaustrust.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Policy%20papers/Green%…
15 http://www.passivhaustrust.org.uk/competitions_and_campaigns/passivhaus…