McGonagall: green visionary

By Zoe Holliday

Today is Burns Night and what strikes me most each year is not just the length of the Address to a Haggis (which ensures that your food is at best tepid by the time you receive it), but also that Robert Burns seems to get a disproportionate amount of recognition when it comes to Scottish poetry – how many other Scottish poets can you name? 

One Scottish poet who is worth a mention is William Topaz McGonagall, whose poetry is widely regarded as some of the worst in the English language. He’s most famous for The Tay Bridge Disaster, a poetic disaster in itself that demonstrates a lack of metaphor – and of imagination, when he rhymes the word ‘Tay’ with… ‘Tay’. But as you might expect from a tale about a bridge collapsing, the poem does at the least have an important moral. His address to the bridge concludes thus: 

… your central girders would not have given way,

At least sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses.

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed. 

And this lesson in forward planning is one that is as pertinent to the sustainable energy sector as it is to bridge building. With ever-increasing pressure to build more affordable housing, energy efficiency elements can be the first to be cut from new developments. But the technology and capacity exist to build homes with dramatically reduced energy demand that will reduce bills for tenants/owners and make these homes much more “affordable” in the long run. 

One particularly inspiring energy efficient house building trend is the aim to build to Passivhaus standards, which set out extremely high standards of thermal performance, airtightness and ventilation levels. By taking a ‘fabric first’ approach to the design of these homes, heating demand is reduced to the point where a traditional heating system is no longer considered essential, and space heating requirements can be reduced by 75% compared to other new buildings.

The first Passivhaus property was built in Darmstadt, Germany in 1991; since then the heat load of this house has never exceeded 7.4W/m2, even during particularly cold winters. More impressively, this has been achieved without the detriment of indoor air quality or thermal comfort levels, which have both been monitored during this time. 

In January 2008, in its Action Plan for Energy Efficiency, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to introduce a requirement “that all new buildings needing to be heated and/or cooled be constructed to passive house or equivalent non-residential standards from 2011 onwards.” While our building standards are becoming more stringent, we’re still far from that mark at the beginning of 2012, especially in the UK. Of the 20,000 certified Passivhaus buildings worldwide, only around 20 projects across the UK have been certified with the Passivhaus standard: you can see where they are on this nifty Google map of all the current certified Passivhaus projects, and we’ve also got a few case studies of projects using Passivhaus standards in the housing section of our very own website.

Given that Passivhaus properties have been around since 1991, why is it that 20 years later, the uptake of this concept is so slow? As per usual, it probably all boils down to the money. But according to the Passiv Haus Institut in Germany, while the quality of passive construction components tends to be reflected in higher costs, “in the long run, annual energy savings… [as well as tax breaks in Germany] make Passivhaus homes more economical than conventional construction.”

Given the rising cost of energy and the number of households that are in fuel poverty, we need to start thinking about this bigger picture; when considering the affordability of homes, it’s important that we take into account not only initial outlay, but also energy savings in the long run. In short, 

Building to Passivhaus standards is laudable,

As, long term, it makes homes that bit more affordable. 

Ain’t that right, Mr McGonagall?