Closing fast 10: With a clear conscience
by Adeline Seidel | Dec 10, 2015
Screenshot of Google results for the search "Passive house + prefabricate house".

It was by no means only a fad, and more an architectural summer fairytale: the passive house so-called. A house where the heating requirements were by definition not more than 15 kilowatt hours per square meter and year. And thus an architectural solution intended to help stop global warming. The first such passive house was erected a good 24 years ago in Darmstadt: Four private terraced houses, developed by architects Prof. Bott, Ridder, Westermeyer. Owing to the fact that few standard components could be used, the construction costs were considerably higher than for conventional buildings, and Hessen’s Ministry of the Environment therefore weighed in to support the project. After all, the heating costs were far lower than those for houses built the normal way.

Between 2005 and 2007 the label “Passive House” hit its all-time media high in the “Google Trends” analytical tool. It was the age when the then still fresh and zippy beverage “Bionade” was trounced as “Bionade Biedermeier”, while supermarkets boasting organic food were popping up like mushrooms in the hip parts of Berlin. In the trade press, the notion of the “passive house” had already been the subject of attention in the late 1990s. And colleges and universities were starting to praise passive house construction as the ultimate form of new “green” architecture. As time passed, so an entire brand universe arose around the concept. There is the Passive House Institute, based (yes, you guessed right) in Darmstadt, not to mention countless Websites where “fans” swap information. The market today even features prefabricated passive houses, and, taking things one step further, the “bio-passive house”, which according to the makers get by “without ventilation equipment, moisture and vapor barriers”.

Without doubt, the passive house was regarded as salvation by all those who were grateful that there was suddenly a solution to all the annoying environmental problems without them having to change their lifestyles, let alone lower their living standards. So essentially it was something for all of us. Exactly as the Neo-Cons proclaimed: Consume sustainably and you will save the Planet. No need to have to forfeit anything.

Since then the enthusiasm about passive houses has gradually waned. According to the German Federal Statistical office in Germany between 2001 and 2009 on average 28 apartment blocks were built each year to the passive house standard. In 2011, the number surged to 311 and in 2012 hit a high of 408 new builds. Since 2013 the figure has plummeted and in 2014 only 216 new passive houses were constructed. And now a study on this form of building has trashed the very foundations on which it rests. Wiesbaden’s residential housing company GWW started a unique trial in 2012, nationwide: Four identical multi-family dwellings were erected, two according to the then applicable building laws, the other two as passive houses that ostensibly required no or only very little heating. While the two passive houses both checked in with heating requirements that were just short of 18 percent less than that for standard dwellings, at the same time they used almost three times as much electricity. One probable reason: the operation of technical plant, e.g., ventilation. Moreover, the tenants of the passive houses had to pay higher rent. In other words, while heating energy was saved, the passive house blows the savings out the window by gobbling up electricity. And given the acute housing shortage and rising rents in conurbations, the higher construction costs for the passive houses are also a major negative.

So beneath the line, you save nothing, neither energy, nor money. Could we have expected this? To date, haven’t all the standardized off-the-cuff responses to environmental problems come to nothing because they were never really thought through at the outset? Was not the lamp bulb banished from our homes at some expense in favor of energy-saving bulbs, although the latter counts as toxic waste given the mercury it needs and therefore requires highly elaborate disposal chains? Don’t we in Germany still insist on the morally correct “Dual Disposal System” although part of the carefully separated household waste ends up getting trucked abroad instead of being recycled? And aren’t we busy insulating our houses with polystyrene although we very well know that this simply produces a mass of toxic waste again and can also lead to dangerous fire loads? And yes, we don’t even shy away from dusting off a specialist forestry term that is a few centuries old and then using it emphatically to advertise services, products and notions of how we should live, very much to the sustained delight of the manufacturers and lobbyists. Yet none of this has had any notable impact to help prevent global warming and support the environment.

Yet, fear not, there is new hope! The new salvation is said to be promised by the “Active House”, the “Energy-Plus House” or even the “Active Energy House”. In architectural terms, such houses differ from passive houses usually only by the fact that they have more spacious windows. Maybe simply in order to declare: “I’m allowed to, after all I generate my own energy.” The European Parliament has in its wisdom resolved, in order to boost energy efficiency and get us closer to the European Union’s CO2 targets, that from 2018 onwards all new builds must themselves generate the energy they consume. That’s all very good and well, if it functions. But this again has very little to do with truly innovative and sustainable, socially and aesthetically compelling and thus far-sighted architectural solutions. Be it passive or active houses, the time we could afford to make mistakes is fast running out.

Screenshot of Google results for the search "plus energery house + prefabricate house".