The Passivhaus Concept Aimed at Helping The Environment and Communities

Sarah Devine surveys the potential for transforming homes and communities across Scotland using an efficient German concept

When a white circular tower block of 14 new social housing units named A’Chrannag – Gaelic for Crow’s Nest – was built in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute 15 years ago, it was considered to be the most energy-efficient social housing project in Europe by industry experts.

With airtight construction, triple-glazed windows and a mechanical ventilation system, the pioneering building, pictured, was included on the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland’s list of “buildings that make a difference”, received the Andrew Doolan Prize for Best Building in Scotland and was short-listed for the coveted RIBA Stirling Prize.

This innovative £2 million project, built by Stewart & Shields for Fyne Homes Housing Association, was a precursor to the building contractor’s adoption of the ground-breaking Passivhaus Standard.

The voluntary international standard for energy efficiency, which is used throughout Europe, is believed to be significantly better for the environment than other standards, reducing the cost of energy bills dramatically.

In fact, Stewart & Shields’ director Mark Shields points out that Passivhaus builds can reduce energy bills by up to 90 per cent, so a £1,200-a-year fuel bill could be reduced to as little as £120.

It is this drive for excellence that led Stewart & Shields to adopt the standard four years ago, and the firm, a Passivhaus Trust member with certification by the Passivhaus Institute, recently built Glasgow’s first Passivhaus building and the tallest of its kind in Scotland.

Cunningham House, designed by Page Park Architects and John Gilbert Architects, is located at Old Carntyne Church on Glasgow’s Shettleston Road and, when it opened in August, it was called “a landmark in how we build homes in Glasgow” by Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council.

It adheres to the five key principles of the Passivhaus test, which includes the tried-and-tested Passivhaus Planning Package design tool.

The other principles include extremely high levels of insulation, high-performance windows, airtight building fabric, construction without thermal bridges – highways of cold air getting in from the outside – and a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery.

The team’s commitment and push to further incorporate buildings of such a standard is an unprecedented step forward in reducing CO2 emissions to tackle climate change, ending fuel poverty and, ultimately, reducing rent arrears.

Shields, whose grandfather co-founded the Helensburgh-headquartered firm, explains that his team didn’t know what Passivhaus was at the time of the A’Chrannag build, but that the property would undoubtedly pass the test today.

“[Passivhaus] was created by the German physicist and professor, Dr Wolfgang Feist about 25 years ago as he wanted to understand why buildings didn’t perform the way that they were designed to,” says Shields.

“He did a forensic analysis on the construction methods before coming up with this performance criteria, which is now an internationally-recognised standard.”

Shields points to figures which show that some 35 per cent of families in Glasgow are living in fuel poverty.

“If somebody is on, say, £11,000 a year and they get 10 per cent [of the energy costs] back into the household income, it is massive. So that’s the end user benefit,” he adds.

Together with John Gilbert Architects, the firm has developed and is delivering “Passivhoos”, a range of affordable and sustainable new homes and social housing that meet the Passivhaus Standard and the Scottish Government budget criteria. So far it has delivered homes in the Scottish Borders, Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway.

“We have developed a number of house types so being able to do the same thing and repeat it is where the industry needs to go in order to build houses which are helping the environment as well as the people who live in them,” notes Shields.

“There is a massive skills shortage in the industry as people left it when the recession happened and there is not the correct level of skill to deliver quality housing consistently.”

But the firm is determined to provide opportunities to those from tough backgrounds through partnerships with charities including Street Soccer Scotland, Aberlour Children’s Charity and Action for Children, among others.

A Passivhoos prototype has been constructed at Port Glasgow, where Stewart & Shields has helped 16 apprentices, employed through such partnerships, gain hands-on experience in developing a building to this highest standard.

“A lot of firms almost veer away from people with challenging backgrounds but we are trying to harness that and show what can be done with people who generally don’t get a first chance never mind a second chance,” maintains Shields.

The work the firm is doing to provide apprenticeships and jobs to those in Govan, in partnership with Aberlour Children’s Charity, has been praised by political figures including Pollok MSP Humza Yousaf.

It is hoped that this combination of high-quality builds, significant improvements to the environment and residents’ energy bills, and education in partnership with third sector organisations will be the start of a transformation for communities across Scotland as well as its housing sector.

Shields adds: “If we want to build better quality houses or build houses to end fuel poverty, or want to build houses to reduce the carbon footprint in Scotland, the Passivhaus Standard gives a solution to all three of those problems.

“Somebody is going to have to put their head above the parapet and say we are prepared to invest extra money into that.

“We are at the start of this journey.”

Victorian venture sets new precedent

It is Stewart & Shields’ biggest 19th-century refurbishment and extension project and is Glasgow’s first multi-storey building for social rent to have been constructed to the international Passivhaus Standard.

With 19 luxury apartments for older people, including five units that have been independently certified by the Passivhaus Institute and the other 14 built using Passivhaus Principles, the conversion of Old Carntyne Church in Glasgow’s East End into Cunningham House for Shettleston Housing Association, pictured above, sets a new precedent for social housing in Glasgow.

“It was a challenging project but it will show people what can be done if the team works well together and the clients are forward-thinking enough to move away from what they have always built and offered,” explains Mark Shields, director of Stewart & Shields.

The design sensitively blends the old and new with the addition of a five-storey tower on the side of the formerly derelict church building that contains five new homes, while the former vestry is a self-contained three-bedroomed house. The two are connected by a fully-glazed corridor.

Each property benefits from high levels of thermal insulation, triple glazing and mechanical ventilation and heat recovery, all of which is expected to substantially reduce the cost of tenants’ bills.

The innovative building made it to the short list of the Small Affordable Housing Development of the Year for social rent category of the Scottish Home Awards, and the team at Stewart & Shields are inspired to build more Passivhaus buildings further afield following the project’s completion.

Shields adds: “The leader of Glasgow City Council has deemed [Cunningham House] pioneering, and the authority hopes to have many more buildings in Glasgow built to this standard.

“We are now looking to bring this across Glasgow further and then beyond into rural places.

“It is difficult to get the infrastructure needed in the Highlands and islands. Logistically, these people are almost cut off, so if we can build a house that is efficient, cosy and warm, without having to build

the infrastructure and supplies, then that all helps.”

This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s winter 2019 edition of Vision, A digital version can be found here.


Published: 12 December 2019

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