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ALEXIS ROWELL: Camden has been far too passive on Passivhaus

PUBLISHED: 13:23 24 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:40 07 September 2010

Camden has just been named best council in the country based on its Audit Commission corporate assessment. So you might think I d be happy. Well of course I am. And proud. But I m worried that the new school in Swiss Cottage and the proposed new civic off

Camden has just been named best council in the country based on its Audit Commission corporate assessment. So you might think I'd be happy. Well of course I am. And proud. But I'm worried that the new school in Swiss Cottage and the proposed new civic offices in King's Cross will not be exemplars in terms of energy efficiency. I'm worried that we're missing a golden opportunity to prove that we are the best in the country.

Our draft Local Development Framework says that developers should aspire to the Passivhaus standard, devised by German engineers more than 20 years ago as a way to create buildings so energy efficient that they don't need central heating.

Thick walls, triple glazed windows, the warmth of human bodies and electrical appliances - these are all you need in a Passivhaus building.

I recently went on a Passivhaus tour of Frankfurt, where all public buildings have to be built to this exacting energy efficiency standard. My colleague Cllr Paul Braithwaite has just returned from a similar trip to Austria where several regions now require new buildings to be Passivhaus. And last week Cllrs Abraham, Oliver and myself attended a packed Passivhaus Schools conference at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) just over the Camden border in Portland Place. We heard how schools in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium now have to be Passivhaus, both new and retro-fit.

Mairi Johnson, the director of design at Partnership for Schools (the public-private delivery vehicle for the Building Schools for the Future programme), said there was no earthly reason why Camden couldn't build a Passivhaus secondary school in Swiss Cottage. Indeed she said she'd welcome such an exemplar in central London.

Officers from Hampshire, Haringey, Oxfordshire, Powys and even Edinburgh council were at the conference. All are about to build new schools and are considering using the Passivhaus standard. No officer from Camden attended.

You might think that since Camden aspires to put "sustainability at the heart of everything it does", since our Local Development Framework says developers should aspire to Passivhaus and since so many councillors are pushing for Passivhaus, that our new school and civic offices would both be Passivhaus. Camden's executive member for schools recently said that the energy efficiency standard proposed for the new school was equivalent to Passivhaus. It's not true, but if it were, then why wouldn't we just specify Passivhaus?

Camden's first Passivhaus home is under construction in Fortune Green. Meanwhile in Islington a Camden architect is building five Passivhaus houses in Highbury. Wales has led the way; the first Passivhaus-certified office/residential development is in Powys and the Welsh government has just awarded contracts to architectural firms for a series of Passivhaus homes.

The Buildings Research Establishment (BRE) who are now able to certify Passivhaus buildings in the UK, has recently published a useful primer explaining the benefits. It explodes a few Passivhaus myths like the idea that you can't open the windows in the summer. The BRE document also says: ''The fabric performance requirements required for level six of the code [for sustainable homes] are based upon PassivHaus standard. With the exception of flats, it is not generally possible to achieve code level six without adopting a performance specification [meaning energy efficiency standard] similar to PassivHaus."

In other words, there is no other way to reach zero carbon homes without using the 20-plus years of research work that has gone into the Passivhaus standard. There is no other serious energy efficiency standard so let's stop trying to re-invent the wheel.

Passivhaus buildings are between zero and seven per cent more expensive. However if you add lifetime energy bills to the cost, or even 20 years of energy bills, then they are cheaper. Unfortunately in Britain lifetime energy bills are rarely included to the build cost. We are a nation of short-termists.

Perhaps worse than the short-termism is the impression I repeatedly get from talking to planners, developers and civil servants that Passivhaus is not suitable for British climes and frankly a bit German. This sort of mumbo jumbo confirms the key message of the conference at RIBA - the obstacles are not economic and technical, but political and psychological.

Camden won no green flags for environmental sustainability in its recent corporate assessment. Eighteen other councils did, including our neighbours in Islington and the borough that is, I think, the greenest in London - Sutton. We are some way behind in terms of eco action despite everything I and the Sustainability Task Force have proposed in three years.

Given that fact, it seems to me that the new school in Swiss Cottage and the proposed new civic offices in King's Cross represent a golden opportunity to set the record straight. Let us aspire to do the best we can, to live up to our reputation as the best council in the country, and truly put sustainability at the heart of everything we do.

q Cllr Alexis Rowell is Chair of Camden Council's all-party Sustainability Task Force


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