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Passive House Design Theory

Somehow at this time of year I have what seems at least one conversation a day with clients and colleagues about how cold their homes are and why there is a lack of good insulation in new and existing New Zealand homes. You would think that after decades and decades of long cold winters that we would all be masters of passive design by now, as well as all designers incorporating mountains of good quality insulation in our new homes wouldn’t you? Well now the weather is f…f…f….freezing everyone is cranking up their heating to full blast and paying for it handsomely. Even in the summer air-conditioning is cranked up wasting energy that the environment can ill afford.

So am I cranking up our heating? No, in fact our heating hasn’t even been turned on yet – that’s the beauty of good passive design, good insulation design and good quality building materials. And believe me it doesn’t cost the earth either. You just need to consult a competent designer or engineer who understands these basic design principles and wants to build you a healthy and energy conscious home.

So what is Passive Energy Design? Well one definition I found on the internet read as follows:  “Passive solar design refers to the use of the sun’s energy for the heating and cooling of living spaces. In this approach, the building itself or some element of it takes advantage of natural energy characteristics in materials and air created by exposure to the sun”

Basically in New Zealand we should try to orientate our big windows to the North for maximum solar gain and our small windows to the south. We also look at sun angles and shading, airflows for cooling and maximising good quality insulation and building materials for every external element around the entire building envelope. Obviously it goes into a little more detail but these are the core elements that most professional designers should really understand already. And it isn’t just winter that we suffer; when I was renting a brand new  house in Warkworth (north Auckland) one summer (while I was building my current house) it was so hot in the house during the afternoons that we had to shelter from the blistering heat in our garage. Seriously this single glazed house with standard eaves heated up like an oven and again it was a new house built to current New Zealand building codes.

So our current house that we designed and built a few years ago (video) is one such example of what I believe all new houses should be achieving – regardless of size, location and budget. It really doesn’t add significant cost to a building if designed well from the start. Just think how much money and energy everyone would save with a little better understanding of what is really just a simple design consideration.

So the moral of this diatribe is if you’re building a new house soon be sure to test your designer’s knowledge about passive design. If they don’t understand the principles enough then maybe look for someone who does because you and your family with truly thank you for it.