Thoughts by D / Editor Gazella  / 
why don’t we build better?

story / Opinion / May 6, 2019

Sub-standard housing is a social issue. Big statement, I know. But at the risk of sounding like a massive lefty – it’s true. Since the industrial revolution each generation has experienced a better quality of living than the last. But it’s often said that the millennial generation will be the first to live worse-off than our parents.

So, basically given how shit everything is, I find it completely amazing how little we invest in good housing, particularly in Australia.

We have some pretty poor housing stock. I mean ‘poor housing’, in the sense of just generally crappy, draughty, cold in winter, hot in summer, energy guzzling houses, that are poor performers for the lifetime of the asset. Couple that with climate crisis and the rising homelessness, (particularly impacting older women over 55) and it’s no wonder that as an architecturally trained professional in the construction industry – I find it constantly depressing that I can’t do more to foster the changes necessary to bring about better housing.

So, why don’t we build better? It’s something I agonise over quite often and having gone to the South Pacific Passive House conference, it’s something I will now agonise over even more. But then I’m highly altruistic and therefore to my mind it’s a no-brainer to build for the greater good.

The SPPH Conference jogged memories of my childhood. I lived in a brick skin house, with large full height, single glazed windows. I’d wake up as a kid to play with the condensation on my window as I sat on the duct of our in floor heating. No wonder I had asthma growing up. No wonder our heating ran for three quarters of the year. Australia has a housing stock of single glazed, poorly insulated, often poorly oriented houses, that use energy at an alarming rate, particular for heating and cooling.

Without getting technical in any way, Passive House is based on five fundamental, research based and lead principles; thermal insulation, passive house windows, comfort ventilation and heat recovery, air tightness and thermal bridge free construction.

At the conference we had a very apt discussion by a researcher and evidence agitator, Jess Berentson-Shaw, on ‘how to talk about passive house’. Having built one now, I still feel like explaining what it is, is an absolute nightmare. Particularly because I still feel like I know none of the technical aspects well and there’s always that awkward moment when someone is more technical than you and asks you a question you can’t answer. I mean, mate… I just built it.

We assume that if we explain the logic and the info behind Passive House, basically an instruction manual for how to ‘build better’, people will just get it and this will lead to action. But facts bounce off people. People have preconceived notions about how to build and about the world in general. And these can be hard to shift. We let emotions dictate the narratives we accept. Until we get the story straight, the social pressure, and the emotional push behind the drive to build better, no one is going to step out of the status quo and take up the mantle. There’s little imperative (money) for a builder or developer to spend more in the short term, for an end user that may save dosh in the long terms and the few that are doing it, have to throw serious cash behind the initiative. Cash heavy, custom design projects are themselves perceived as elitist (hardly design for the masses!)

But this is just plain wrong. Because bringing good design to the masses, will drive the costs down…and therefore democratise a performance driven standard for building better – whether that be Passive House specifically or something else.

To get a little technical again, a CSIRO report looked into the draughtiness of Melbourne houses and found that the average Melbourne house has 19.7 ac/h@50pa (that’s almost 20 air changes per hour at 50 pa of pressure – or in other words; bloody draughty). The building Multiplex just completed at Monash Peninsula achieved under the Passive House standard of 0.6 ac/h@50pa (or super, duper air tight). The tighter the building (provided there is a good ventilation and a heat recovery system), the less time (and money) spent heating and cooling. The less energy consumed. Since the media often panders to the political wrangling over energy prices, surely someone can get on the bandwagon here and offer better building as a viable solution.

At the moment the Australian market is immature with regards to building to the Passive House standard. Supply is tough, with windows and doors needing to be procured mostly from Europe. Air leakage isn’t a thing we are used to. And most of our buildings have serious thermal bridges. Our climate has been so temperate, that we have been complacent when it comes to driving innovation and performance through our built fabric.

In Europe, North America and now in China, this hasn’t been the case. The City of Exeter has been building social housing to Passive House standards for the past ten years (yes, TEN…that’s how far behind we are). The City of Vancouver has incentivised the standard so that in the past four years, their projects number in the thousands. Arguably more trying climates than Melbourne, which has perhaps prompted the greater need for a solution, but Melbourne prides itself on its livability…which won’t last long if we keep building rubbish performers.

I’m passionate about Passive House, not because I’m a convert, or a devotee, but because in a society trying to find new models of housing delivery, I see it as a way to help the most vulnerable and the most at need, to live healthy, productive and perhaps even more financially stable lives.

The legacy we leave when our millennial generation retires, should be a legacy of housing stock fit for the twenty-first century. We have the research. We have the technology. We need to get on board and build better.

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