Dublin City Council is on the brink of a bold planning decision – they are proposing that all new buildings in the city must meet Passive House standards. It’s out for consultation at the moment, and we’ll find out if it will become policy later in the year.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Passive House, it’s a set of construction guidelines for creating buildings with very low energy needs. By using smart insulation and ventilation techniques around an air-tight construction, Passive Houses require very little heating and in some cases none at all. They’re a key long term solution to climate change, a powerful tool in reducing the amount of energy we use for heating.
The Passive House technique has been around for 25 years. It was first developed by German and Swedish engineers, and then open sourced so that anyone can use the design principles. As more and more of them have been built over the years, and people have experimented with different materials, the cost of building to such a high standard has fallen. Eventually all houses in the Northern Hemisphere will be built this way, and Dublin is just getting ahead of the game.
Dublin is better placed than most to make this kind of call, as energy efficiency standards for buildings have been quite high for the last five years. Going one step further and aiming for Passive House quality won’t be a huge jump, so it’s unlikely to make houses more expensive or destabilise the housing market. That’s not necessarily true outside of the Irish context, but it ought to be possible to build up to it with intermediate targets.
One of the reasons I’m interested in Dublin’s approach is that Britain watered down and then finally scrapped its ambitious Zero Carbon Homes target last year. It was nine years into a ten year run-up, which means much of the groundwork was already laid. The cost of building to higher standards had fallen dramatically, and we could have taken a big step forward. Since the construction industry supported Zero Carbon Homes, I’m not entirely sure why the Treasury saw fit to scrap it, but presumably it was in order to speed up planning and boost the housing market. The energy companies will certainly be pleased that their profits won’t be undermined.
But if we lack the courage to mandate those standards nationally, then it will have to be done on a local basis instead, through local councils or city mayors. The standards can be applied as part of development plans, and used as a condition of planning consent. Councils can also lead the way through procurement, and all council houses ought to be built to zero carbon standards – like the social housing built in Oldham last year.
Obviously many towns have a housing shortage and are reluctant to add costs for developers, but the more zero carbon houses we build, the cheaper and easier it becomes. It’s a journey we should be taking, and a few flagship initiatives may help to return a sense of ambition to central government. London’s mayor Boris Johnson, for example, announced last year that London would implement the Zero Carbon Homes policy independently.