Rory Bergin from HTA Design LLP explains why building standards are devised, the pros and cons, and why people adopt voluntary standards. He also gives an overview of the Active House standard.
Interview with Rory Bergin
Rory Bergin runs the Sustainable Futures Team at HTA Design LLP, a multi-disciplinary consultancy that encompasses architecture, landscape design, communications, sustainability and planning.
Most Standards Focus on Energy Efficiency
With the construction industry pursuing a low carbon or zero carbon agenda, most of the standards that have been developed in recent years focus on energy efficiency.
These include Minergie in Switzerland and the Passivhaus standard in Germany but some countries also have legislation in place to reduce carbon emissions. For example, France hopes to have carbon positive homes by 2020.
Voluntary Standards Generally Exceed Building Regulations
Rory believes that meeting a well researched, comprehensive standard takes you a long way ahead of the market.
It also differentiates you as you feel it is important enough to do this.
Standards Sometimes Don't Transpose Well
Rory thinks there always has to be a level of local adoption or local editing of a standard to make sure it works properly. He gives an example of a project where he was comparing the carbon footprint of dwellings across Europe.
Rory says: “You have to take into account the carbon intensity of the grid in each country, which is very different. So you don't get the results you expect simply because of the national energy policies in different countries.”
Standards Can Be Difficult to Interpret for the Consumer
While a standard may be a good framework for a developer or designer, it can be confusing to the end user.
Rory feels this is a failing of many standards because the information gets too technical and therefore is difficult for the homeowner to understand.
More Useful Information Could Aid Home Buyers
One current project at HTA Design LLP is looking at the labelling of homes. In addition to the regular sales information, such as the number of rooms et cetera, they have suggested that developers provide details on things like the amount of storage available, the daylight factor in each major living space, the running costs and how much maintenance will be required to keep this building intact.
A Good House Should Go Beyond Energy Efficiency
Active House is a specification developed by a group of pan-European industrial companies, manufacturers who provide many of the components that go into modern homes across Europe.
They were concerned that most of the standards currently being used focus entirely on energy savings. Although clearly important they believed this was not the only measure and that air quality, good ventilation and daylight should all be taken into account.
CarbonLight Homes – photo copyright VELUX
The Active House Prototypes Showed the Potential
Rory describes how having built these houses and carrying out a study over 18 months, the occupant feedback was far beyond their expectations. They reported sleeping better and feeling healthier too.
Active House demonstration buildings have also been built in the USA, Canada, Denmark and Germany (to name but a few).
Without These Standards Homes Might Just be Built to the Lowest Common Denominator Standard
By this Rory is talking about Building Regulations, which are in place to protect us from problems from failure, but are not aimed at giving us a good experience. Even if a house is built to Building Regulations and gets planning approval, it does not mean that it will be a pleasant environment in which to live.
The Active House and other similar standards are different because they focus on providing a healthy and enjoyable quality within the building.
The Active House Standard Allows for Independence in Achieving Outcomes
Unlike the Code for Sustainable Homes which dictates for example “if you need to achieve A, then you must do B”, the Active House specification simply says that certain things, such as daylight levels and air quality, need to be achieved but leaves it up to the individual to decide how they wish to do it.
It is Early Days for the Standard But They are Hopeful of Greater Take Up
Now that the testing and demonstration phase is finishing, the Alliance are looking at ways of encouraging people to use the standard and are working towards developing a set of guidelines to help people understand how they would need to design the building and what they would need to do to achieve the specification.
There is a Danger That the Standard Could be Perceived to be a Ploy by the Manufacturer Members of the Alliance for Their Own Gain
Rory however believes that while it is fair to be mindful of where standards come from, the outcomes in this case are aimed entirely at the health and environmental benefits.
With the test of any standard being how well the building functions and the quality of the end user experience, the success of it can be measured in creating buildings that people like and want to live in.
The Aim Moving Forward Should be for Carbon Positive Homes
We’re still some way from that though, and Rory doesn’t believe we need to achieve that to achieve good quality buildings. The costs of achieving carbon positive homes are falling however and it wouldn’t be too difficult to manage on individual dwellings, however on high rise and high volume housing in cities it is virtually impossible.
Get Involved to Help Shape the Direction of Active House
Rory encourages interested people to go the website, activehouse.info, for further information and to sign up as members. With the standard being at an early stage of adoption he emphasises that the more people that get involved, the more they can help shape the direction of the standard from here on.
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