The new housing trend that could save you up to 90 per cent of your energy costs

With more people housebound and exposed to the quality of their homes during lockdowns, a new form of construction standard is emerging that embraces sustainable building practices at our front door.

Passive houses are built to have year-round natural climate control, are free from mould or condensation, and consume as much as 90 per cent less heating and cooling energy than standard houses. It is considered the most rigorous, energy and health-based standard in the design and construction industry.

NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes has said he is concerned the National Construction Code is not moving quickly enough to embrace sustainable building practices to achieve “our goal of net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest”.

David and Kerri-Anne Hellier with their children at home in Balgowlah. Credit:James Brickwood

“We need to ensure new homes and other buildings are built to minimise energy use, and easily adapt to a changing climate,” he said. “Best practice standards like passive house are crucial to ensure our homes are safe, efficient and fit for purpose.”

David Hellier and his family moved into their Balgowlah passive house in January last year.

David and wife Kerri-Ann’s oldest son lives with a Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a rare disease that grew a tumour on his skull as a three-year-old. Building a healthy home was a priority.

Inside the Helliers’ passive house.Credit:James Brickwood

“We didn’t know if allergens or mould can impact this type of disease, there’s just not enough research on it,” Mr Hellier said. “The health aspects of the house were first and foremost, and then sustainability came into the picture.”

It was not until 2019 that the first two passive houses (or Passivhaus buildings – it’s a German concept) were certified in NSW.

“It’s gone from a very niche, German rating system, with bad market awareness and very low numbers in Australia to something that most consultants and property developers have heard of and many are starting to make it the core of their business,” Australian Passive House Association Chairperson Chris Nunn said.

“There’s this expectation that we should expect more from our houses, especially with the high prices that we all pay for housing … we want a quality product for the money we’re spending – passive house is a standard that can deliver that quality and comfort conditions.”

Passive houses cost more to construct but save on energy in the longer term. The concept is most beneficial in high-use buildings, including schools and hospitals. It is best suited to new construction. However, new criteria has been adopted to apply certification to retrofits.

Mr Hellier’s architect Knut Menden said the 2019/20 bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic led to increased demand for passive houses.

“After the bushfires I think that a lot of people realised that being in your house, exposed to bushfire smoke constantly is not that great … you get the [passive house] building for heat recovery ventilation which then filters out the air that comes into the house,” he said.

“People have spent more time at home during the lockdowns and actually realised … how comfortable or how uncomfortable their houses can be.”

Minimum building codes have been blamed as a reason for energy inefficiencies in the conventional home, with air conditioners and heaters required to counterbalance the energy lost through subpar building practices, such as single-glazed windows and insufficient insulation.

A spokesperson for the Australian Building Codes Board, which oversees the National Construction Code, said the NSW government was represented on its board.

“The ABCB is progressing with incremental increases to the stringency of the energy efficiency provisions within the National Construction Code (NCC) in accordance with policy arrangements that exist amongst governments from time to time, the spokesperson said.

“[Passive House design] is not regulated through the NCC, which sets minimum standards for the construction of buildings in Australia.”

In April the NSW government permitted the BASIX assessment tool, a residential development requirement for all projects, to recognise the passive house standard as a pathway to meeting the thermal comfort requirements of the State Environmental Planning Policy, making it easier and more cost-effective to deliver sustainability outcomes.

Mr Nunn believes the industry understanding of passive house must evolve before it can become common.

“There’s a perception that this came from Germany, and is therefore only appropriate to cold climates, but I think once you crack through that and explain to people that this does work in Australia, then they’ll start to see the benefit of the Australian market,” he said.

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