Oliver Steele is both an architect and builder with around 25 years of close quarter observations of how we build our housing. Not good, often poor, he says. Even for supposedly sustainable houses and apartments.
The rating tools are good he says, but their problem is “too much greenwash”, not enough post-occupancy evaluation, and an almost “criminally” low standard of compliance.
Result? (And he’s seen this with his own eyes) clients in highly rated green housing call the architect after they’ve moved in to say they are boiling in summer and freezing in winter. Leaves blowing in under closed doors. Electricity bills of $1500 a quarter are not unusual. Bigger houses have even steeper bills.
Oliver says he lives for sustainable buildings, he says, and appreciates the passive solar design he’s been trained in. But what happens when the site doesn’t allow for the optimal orientation?
Three years ago he began researchingPassivhaus, also known as Passive House, and found that it fills the gaps in passive solar design including airtightness, thermal bridging, controlled ventilation and constrained orientations.
Convinced by the scientific rigour of Passivhaus, Oliver committed to bringing it to Australian apartment living with the Fern: 11 high quality one bedroom apartments in inner city Redfern that will surprise the owners – with delight, not disappointment.
These apartments will be like a dream to live in, he says: pretty much no noise, no pollen, no dust and no bills. Just a clean, fresh, quiet place to relax.
They are so well sealed that cockroaches and other insects can’t enter “unless you open the door and invite them in”, he laughs.
The pollen-free home will be a godsend for allergy sufferers. So will the ability of the air filtration system to remove the toxic dust particles from car brakes and other pollutants.
Passivhaus was invented in 90s Germany by a building physicist and is now starting to take off with the kind of fervour that’s reminiscent of the most passionate days of the green building movement.
A detailed look at the Fern reveals why. Most impressive is the melding of form and function.
Here’s just a taste of the features: the windows and doors are triple glazed and they are timber framed. This prevents heat transfer that occurs with the use of materials more typically uses in apartments, such as aluminium, which is a great heat conduit.
The fittings are generous and beautiful, wrapping around the apartment and embedded in its walls like a piece of furniture. Pretty much all you need to bring is a sofa, table, chairs and a bed. A video on the website reveals the sophistication of the design.
Finishes are another element of generosity: herringbone timber floors, Carrara marble benchtops, stone bath and basin.
Underpinning the design is proven physics: it’s what delivers the great living conditions at the same time as the economic benefits.
“Air tightness is the elephant in the room in Australian building and green building in particular,” Oliver says.
“It was only touched on in my education and not taken seriously in the many projects I’ve been involved in. Now I see the importance of it.”
In Passivhaus you essentially “wrap a vapour permeable membrane and thick blanket around the whole building and make sure there are no metal skewers through it” so it’s insulated and airtight, then insert a heat recovery ventilation system.
The heat recovery ventilation, or HRV, is “very simple technology, precisely engineered”, Oliver says. It brings constant fresh air into the living areas and bedrooms and exhausts air from the bathrooms and kitchens.
“So Passivhaus is about controlled ventilation. The traditional view is that leaky building are good, in Sydney, because you get fresh air.”
“That’s true if there is nothing better, but HRV is far better.”
Oliver says he and his family recently moved out of a two-year-old apartment that had black mould growing inside the windows because condensation and thermal bridging hadn’t been managed.
He thinks it’s an issue that will be strong on the radar soon. The reason is we’re building more tightly closed buildings but not doing anything about the airflow.
Passivhaus’s ventilation system takes care of that.
The owners’ corporation has been set up to take care of all general maintenance to keep the property at optimum performance.
This includes tasks such as regular filter servicing in the HRV, air-conditioning and rangehoods, adjusting automatic shading devices and tending to balcony planter boxes. “We want to make it easy to live at the Fern. Rather than give owners a maintenance manual, we can simply add these services on to the regular strata services at very little cost. Then we know it’s done properly and fuss-free forever,” says Oliver.
Passivhaus dwellings in temperate climates use small airconditioning units for the hot, humid days at the peak of summer to maintain the very narrow thermal comfort range. At the Fern, the systems use just 350 watts, which is enough to cool the entire apartment even during heatwaves.
There’s no parking for cars – it’s just 300 metres from the station – but plenty of parking for bicycles.
The owners’ corporation will also manage the solar power and embedded energy network. The 27 kW of solar panels is estimated to be enough to recoup all the needs of the residents and common areas. If someone wants a large energy consuming appliance, though, the metering system will make sure they pay their fair share.
All this adds up to high quality, low cost living. “And the best thing,” says Oliver, “is that you can turn the city on and off as you wish. Get into the action all around you, and when you’ve had enough, retreat to your private cocoon to revitalise.”