Tuesday, 21 January 2014

PassivHaus in Cambridge

60 UK pounds - your annual fuel bill. It’s for this reason that there was a hive of activity just over a week ago, around the Passivhaus that Jon Seaman of Integrity Build was building for a client .

Situated off the ring road and set back from the front of the other houses, the building plot was on a former derelict small orchard. A crowd of architects, councillors and the curious professionals were being taken on a fascinating and informative tour of the building, mid-construction.

The message to take away was that constructing a new Passivhaus now only cost slightly more than a conventional build for a single project. And if you were dealing with a larger project, such as a new estate, the pricing was now about equal. The supply chains were much more mature, but regrettably it was still cheaper to buy and import from abroad.

Then it was on a quick dash to try and beat Cambridge traffic and gets to the TTP building on the Melbourn Science Park. It was the first major Cambridge Cleantech event of the year - and very well attended.

The main talks were by Prof Doug Crawford-Brown of Cambridge Retrofit, looking at how Passivhaus standards can be incorporated into more historic buildings; and Andrew Miller of PRP Environmental, looking at solutions services and products that deliver on targets. The usual spotlight pitches followed.

The key message that I came away with, was the Cambridge was adopting some very ambitious energy-saving targets for its housing. What’s more, these could be easily achieved by targeted Passivhaus construction and retrofitting. Reductions in energy usage by up to 60% for the area could be achieved with new construction and even with retrofit, a 40% reduction was possible.

But the most important aspect of any energy efficiency construction projects was the need for education, education, education! You could build fantastically energy efficient homes, but if the occupants didn’t know how to manage them, you might make no savings or even spend more energy than before.

The networking was good too - and I met the man who insured the Loch Ness Monster - but that's another story!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Can architecture help in a disaster?

Floods, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes. Does architecture have a role to play here, either immediately or in the longer term?

In the immediate aftermath, that is the days following a catastrophic, disaster event, the answer is probably not. The immediate need is food, water and shelter. For shelter, the International Federation of Red Cross and red Crescent societies has even moved away from providing tents. Instead they have kits that are cheaper to produce and distribute, that contain waterproof sheets and tools. The objective is to provide the survivors with a practical and flexible set of tools so that they can make their own waterproof shelters using materials around them. IFRC Shelter Kit.

Architecture can start to become relevant when considering what is going to be rebuilt after the disaster. Probably the most useful and constructive advice is that which can be given to, and used by, those immediately involved in rebuilding. In many poorer areas it can well be the residents themselves.

Building in flood prone areas.

Bangladesh includes areas that are prone to widespread flooding. I was impressed by the simple, illustrated, no-nonsense guide, the Handbook on Design and Construction of Housing for Flood-Prone Rural Areas of Bangladesh
It provides practical advice on laying foundations and simple building techniques that are more flood resistant. A combination of photographs of people working on site and illustrative, amusing cartoons present the information in an accessible manner to local people.

As we know in the UK, flooding can occur here as well. The Royal Institute of British Architects have also provided a guide on designing for Flood risk in our country, though it is designed more for planners, architects and those in construction.

Hurricanes and Earthquakes

Architecture For Humanity is an organisation that, after the Haiti earthquake, has provided a number of useful documents. There are The  General Recommendations for Improved Building Practices in Earthquake and Hurricane Prone Areas.

It looks at the stresses caused by wind on a building.The document gives advice on appropriate shapes for both the basic plan and the roof. It suggests using independent units in construction, so that one does not lead to the destruction of the other.

And then there is also the local Haitian manual provided by Architecture For Humanity. Written in the local language, it follows the same principles as the Bangladesh flood risk Handbook mentioned above.

An example of a European response to the earthquake disaster in Abruzzo,  Italy, is the use of new materials, cross laminated timber or CLT, the rapid reconstruction of new homes. Since 2000 and 9/4000 properties have been built with CLT in Abruzzo. Work by the architect Pierluigi Bonomo with CLT to replace a damaged brick house is mentioned here.

The masters of dealing with earthquakes are the Japanese.

Three strategies are currently used:

  1. Active dampening using a mobile weight – risky if there is a power cut.
  2. Shock absorbers and 
  3. The eccentrically braced frame.

Can you make a tornado proof house?

With the tornado season in the states unexpectedly running into November with severe damage, is it possible to make a tornado proof house in these areas? Well yes, if you can afford the equivalent of a nuclear bunker to withstand winds that can range from 150 to 300 mph and the high-energy impacts from objects that are been flung around by the storm! But the cost would be prohibitive and you’d have to avoid windows and doors. The general advice is to construct a safe room within the house or below the house according to the International Code Council (ICC)-500 standard. http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2013-05/can-you-tornado-proof-home.

However one thing that you can do to minimise the damage that occurs during a tornado, is to increase building’s resistance to damage.  For this, homes must be built with what is called a ‘continuous load path,’ a series of reinforced connections that tie every element together from roof to foundation, like a chain. Important connections would include rafters to top plates, top plates to studs, studs to bottom plates and bottom plates to foundation. http://www.popularmechanics.com/outdoors/survival/tips/how-to-make-a-more-tornado-resistant-home-7148806.

You would still need that safe room though!


Good architecture can help. It’s key role is in the construction of buildings that will resist future disasters. Good architecture could work on multiple set of levels: From very basic construction guidelines for local people who are self building, to high-technology solutions for cityscape construction. But there will always be catastrophes and disasters. There will always be a need for an immediate response from the emergency services. Architecture’s a role in the long term is to try and keep this need to a minimum in the aftermath of a major disaster.

Further reading . Here are some other more individual examples and solutions for particular disaster environments:

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Lego, solar steam and cooling canals

I hope you appreciate my dedication to sustainability. Rather than get into a heated car, I mounted my bike at 6:15 on a dark frosty morning and my way from Milton to Waterbeach rail station. Somewhat naïvely I took the river route but fortunately the light was sufficiently good to avoid falling in.

Waterbeach station. Sun still below horizon kissing clouds.
Arriving in time for the Peterborough Eco Cluster Business Breakfast 13 November 2013, the sun had just risen and a cup of hot tea and breakfast pastries awaited.

The first speaker was David Hall from the Ideas Centre Ltd, on the cost of culture. I like his definition of creativity as accommodation of novelty and usefulness, followed by innovation being the means of making money out of creativity.

The issue many of us are facing in business, is that we are experiencing a period of unprecedented change on an exponential basis. Yet our brains are tied to our past experience and knowledge, resulting in a reality gap between where we are really could be. In order to unleash creativity, we have to throw off the shackles of existing pattern recognition, which pervades our minds and learning. David gave us some entertaining examples which demonstrated susceptible we were to using existing patterns. Even touched on some tantalising suggestions on how we can break out from these. To that stuck in my mind were fingerpainting for executives and using Lego’s www.seriousplay.com.

It was good to see the Tom Kelly from the Lark Fleet group again. Tom had risen to the dizzying heights of business manager to Karl Hick, Group Chief Executive. In his overview of the group, we learned how Lark Fleet had grown from a housing and construction company to develop an interest in related businesses ranging from: Lark Energy; Lark renewables; Lark Fleet homes; with additional interests in companies providing specialist timber frame construction, waste and plumbing,  development and health care in retirement.

Some of the current projects that intrigued me on the renewable side were vertical wind fences and the solar steam plant as well as photovoltaic projects in challenging locations. Lark is a smaller player amongst the larger construction firms and this is allowed it to be innovative. They were some of the first to use a local source of stone which is now become a highly desirable commodity as the larger competition suddenly saw the benefits of the material.

Sometimes you get pleasure from hearing about really simple ideas that can make a big difference. How many of us might view the waterways and clouds that threads through Britain’s industrial heartland as a relic of a bygone age, only suitable for tourism. Paul Adams of Linden Environmental had a cost-effective application for businesses in the 21 century, cooling.

The combination of energy efficient construction, use of large areas of glass to light buildings and the heating effect from using lots of electrical equipment, all these mean that commercial buildings and offices are actually prone to overheating. The current solution is expensive air conditioning. The novel Linden Environmental solution is to use the call water from the canals and waterways, a pump and a heat exchanger for a far more cost-effective cooling. The most surprising aspect was, how little water was actually required and that the outflow of warm water very rapidly cooled down within a few metres of the outflow. One company even made a virtue of the new cooling system, by making a water feature, cascading in small waterfalls, as part of their outflow.

If you haven’t heard of the Enterprise Europe Network East of England, now is the time to visit their site (East of England). Chris Woodward made us aware of Horizon 2020, the newest seven-year funding programme from the EU which specifically aimed to benefit SMEs. There is funding available for proof of feasibility for new ideas support for innovation and also for the commercialisation phase of new products. The programme is ongoing with two deadlines for applications per year. On top of this the Enterprise Europe Network is now the largest partnership network, covering EU countries and surrounding neighbours. If you’re looking for partners to collaborate with throughout Europe, this is the place to go http://www.enterpriseeuropeeast.org.uk/eox/

The eco-cluster breakfast is organised by the Peterborough Eco-Cluster, part of Opportunity Peterborough. Held once a month on Wednesday, they are a good networking opportunity. Have a look at their webpage http://opportunitypeterborough.co.uk/support/ecocluster/.

The Use of Traditional Materials in Contemporary Architecture

Guest blogger Louise Thomas

On the 18th October 2013, the Norfolk Association of Architects held a conference on the Use of traditional materials in contemporary architecture. This conference, held at the Kings Centre in Norwich, consisted of five different talks about a range of topics. Not only this, but sponsors of the event also had stalls located around the room ready for the visitors to converge on during the coffee break halfway through the day.

The first talk, by Rob McLeod, was titled 'Another hot Summer – do materials matter? The performance of low energy buildings in a rapidly changing climate'. Although one of the more interesting talks of the conference, it was full of graphs, facts and figures about the problems of overheating in buildings with the imminent climate change.

According to the figures given, due to the modern insistence on low U-Values, buildings are no longer able to lose heat once its been gained, thus producing inside temperatures of 30ºC +. The World Health Organisation stated that 25ºC was the maximum that was acceptable. As can be shown from the figures, our houses and rooms are becoming warmer and warmer. So, what can be done about it? There are passive and active solutions architecturally, we can produce more accurate models and future scenarios, allowing a better understanding of what is happening.

However, it is only the architectural solutions that were interesting to me. It was no surprise that one solution to the problem was to design the buildings to deal with the rising temperatures themselves, rather than attempting to make it as warm as possible. Firstly, ventilation. It can help so much to just have a change in air temperatures flowing through the building/room/construction. Use windows that can open fully, rather than those that can only open 10cm. Allow for these problems to occur and design with them in mind. Second solution: Shading. Admittedly, this can be a little bit harder to design for as the sun likes to move around us, causing all sorts of problems - and by problems, I mean the height of the sun. In the winter, the sun sits low in the sky, and makes many forms of shading useless, as they are normally designed for the summer sun which sits high in the sky.

Mr McLeod went on to talk about whether Passivhaus was actually better than other construction forms, coming to the conclusion that, yes, they were but only marginally. Also, surprise surprise, he also stated that smaller windows meant that buildings were not overheating as much. It's not like the heat could get inside the building easier that way at all. So, what did I learn? That architects are getting too obsessed with loss of energy from the buildings, and do not see the problems that can be caused. If they only stopped to think about what the house would have to go through, climatically, then i'm sure they would look to the solutions mentioned above.

The second speaker, Ben Humphries, gave a talk called 'A modern take on thatch – The Enterprise Centre, University of East Anglia'. This talk reminded me very much of my lectures as an architecture undergraduate, as it focussed mainly on the design process. I'll admit, it was quite interesting, however he went so quickly through the slides it was very difficult to remember what materials were used at what point of the project.

Of the information that I did manage to get, it was emphasised that the project was designed using local materials from a 100 mile radius from the site. A good idea, and they managed to find lots of different materials to use that would create an interesting building. The brief of the project included to achieve Passivhaus certification, Breeam outstanding, be a 'Carbon Sink' and have a 100 year design life. They achieved all this and more.

They managed to achieve, early on in the design process, a value of 168km CO/m² for embodied carbon. Given that M4i gave the benchmark value as 500kg while Atking stated it as 845kg-925kg CO/m², this is an amazingly good value – and theirs was for a 100 year design life while the others it was measured against were for 0 year. Brilliant. When they came to finally show us the finished design, with all materials given and taken into account when calculating the embodied carbon amount, it came to 440kg CO/m². Which, if you had been reading correctly, was still lower than the benchmarks!

So did I learn anything about creating a low energy building? No, not really. But I did listen to a really good case study that can be studied to gather ideas.

The third talk, 'Natural building materials: The story of a straw bale house' was given by Jim Carfrae. Once again, this talk was quite similar to a case study, as the speaker was giving us a virtual tour of his own house when it was being built.

They used straw as insulation and used it as a thermal bridging barrier. The windows would sit in plywood boxes, the whole house was vapour permeable but the differences between the interior and outside meant that no vapour that entered the walls actually came out the other side of the straw bale. What was interesting is that he used a small sun lounge of sorts, to create natural ventilation by leaving part of the wall open at the beams. Apparently there was no heat lost through these gaps in the winter and it kept the rooms nice and cool during the summer.

A calculation showing the difference between using straw bale rather than phenolic foam shows us that despite needing a lot more straw than foam, the differences in something (again, he went too quick to find out what) turned out in favour of using straw. In fact, it was 30 times better! So again, I didn't really find out anything, and I was losing interest at this point, but at least I now know to use straw instead of foam.

At this point, we had a coffee break, and everyone converged on the stalls to find out what they were selling and giving out. I grabbed some booklets, talked to a couple of people and then went outside to grab myself a spare chocolate biscuit to have on the train home. Sadly, all good things must come to an end and the final two talks started.

The next talk 'shaping a context that allows earth into contemporary architecture', by Rowland Keable. This was the talk that I thought was going to be the most interesting but it sadly turned out to be the most boring and slowest talk of the entire day.

The talk was all about how he has done some work in Africa, to help them get guidelines down for using rammed earth as a building material. Nothing overly useful about how we can use rammed earth in the UK to our own use. Sadly, this was the extent of the talk, other than the quote “When you give up control on site, you give up a certain amount of control” - Well yes, of course you do. I think this sums up the speaker in its entirety.

The final speaker was, in fact, the most interesting. Ron Beattie talking on 'A step change in building innovation'. This talk was all about a new way of building a house/building so that there were no insulation gaps. Very interesting.

Admittedly, I couldn't quite figure out how there was no thermal bridging, as they must put the cladding on the structure in some way. But, yes I will admit that their method of building a house so that there was a continuous insulation seal was pretty innovative. They also wanted to create houses, or even any other building as they mentioned that they wanted to build for any use, that would be fireproof, soundproof to 65dB and such.

The delivery of the talk was very informative, he gave us lots of fact and figures and talked us through a 3D computer version of the construction. Students would be making the structural form, helping them with gaining skills. So in the end, I didn't learn so much about how I could alter a design to be more energy efficient, but I was given a whole construction method that did just that for me.

All in all, this was the end of the day. Questions were asked and answered, and I made my way home. A mix of thoughts were going through my head, and by the time my train got back to Cambridge, I had forgotten about most of what had gone on and could barely remember anything other than someone having 166+ 'um's and 'er's and that the last speaker was the most interesting. For anyone interested in green architecture, there was very little to help you design better yourself, but plenty to gain an understanding of what is going on in the world.

Why living and sustainable architecture?

Living and sustainable architecture encompasses two ideas.

Living relates to different communities living and sharing in close proximity. It implies a social contract between two different groups. For example between socially minded students and senior citizens; or between young families and people with learning disabilities that still allow them to live independently.

Sustainable architecture refers to the living spaces. In a world of increasing energy prices and diminishing resources, we want to have the best, sustainable environment.

Articles in this blog will reflect people, institutions and events that I have attended with these interests in mind.

I would like to thank Sandra and Leif Tollé, of the German company is Tollé GmbH, who introduced me to this concept and inspired a continued interest beyond our collaboration.