architecture

What is an Active House?

This week I dropped in on the EcoBuild exhibition in London, Britain’s biggest trade fair on sustainable construction. I was gathering future blog posts and looking for ideas to make my own home more sustainable, but the main reason I was there was to attend the Active House symposium. I hadn’t heard of the Active House before, but a friend who works for Velux told me I should come along and find out about it.

So what is an Active House?

According to the not-for-profit Active House Alliance, it is “a vision of buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without negative impact on the climate – moving us towards a cleaner, healthier and safer world.”

As the name might suggest, it’s an evolution of the Passive House philosophy, which creates low energy buildings. The developers of Active House wanted to take it a step further. Passive Houses put environmental performance front and centre, but not everyone values that. Active House adds comfort as a headline priority, making a much more marketable proposition. An Active House should be low energy, low impact, and great to live in as well. After all, most of us spend 90% of our time indoors.

One the key elements here is light. Buildings lose a lot of heat through their windows, so one of the easiest ways to make an energy efficient home is to add fewer of them. Windows on the south side will catch solar gain and contribute to energy efficiency, but on all other sides they’ll be leaching heat. The result of building purely for environmental performance is gloomy and airless homes, and as we’ve seen from previous posts on biophilic design, that’s not great for wellbeing.

To remedy this situation, Active House has worked with Velux to find ways of bringing in more light and air without compromising efficiency. That includes a combination of high tech solutions like electric skylights or sun tunnels, and simple solutions to do with room layout, orientation and how light reflects around interiors.

Is this a competitor to the Passive House? I’m not sure it’ll really work that way, since Passive House is a design standard rather than a brand. There’s also a lot of overlap. At the symposium we heard from an Italian architect who had won the 2016 award for the best new Active House. She is a designer of Passive Houses, but liked the way that Active Houses used natural light and ventilation, and incorporated those elements into her design. In fact, many Passive Houses would qualify as Active Houses, and vice versa.

What Active House brings to the table is a neat and holistic vision of what a sustainable home can be. It elevates the experience of living in the house to a top line priority alongside efficiency and performance, where it belongs. That makes it much more accessible to people, and various companies around the world have picked up on the idea as one they can sell. We need these sorts of ideas for popularising sustainable housing, making it desirable for everyone, not just the enthusiasts and greens. And one day, we won’t even need names like Active House or Passive House. It’ll be normal to build that way. The standard will have shifted. They’ll just be houses.

5 comments

  1. Dear Jeremy,
    Thank you for this interesting report.
    I am more familiar with Passive House buildings than with Active House ones, so I can only comment on your understanding of Passive House buildings. While Passive House buildings are mostly famous for reducing the energy demand, their main objective is to improve the air quality (thanks to airtightness, mechanical ventilation and free ventilation when climatic condictions are favourable) and the comfort of the occupants (no droughts, no temperature asymmetry, temperatures between 20 and 25° all year long). There isn’t a fix set of parameters to reach this standard: If you have a great view on the North side, you can of course have windows on the North facade and compensate with a better airtightness or more insulation amongst many other possibilities.
    In addition since 2015, the new categories Passive House Plus and Premium acknowledge buildings that actively cover a great part of their low energy demand with renewable energy generated on site.
    Feel free to contact me should you want more information on a specific point.

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