Gareth Huw Davies


Could housing go green as planners develop 2020 vision?

BBC Radio 4’s Start the week (Monday January 6) took the starting-the-New-Year theme of rebuilding, and featured as one of its subjects an innovative prize-winning council housing project in Norwich. But how innovative?

David Mikhail, whose architectural practice won last year’s Stirling Prize for this scheme, told presenter Andrew Marr what they had created there, on behalf of Norwich City Council.

Mikhail explained that the new development, a 10-minute walk to the city centre, was high density but low rise, in the tradition of old urban terraced houses. Acknowledging the climate crisis, they were built to be highly energy-efficient. Every house faces south, with big windows, to harness the free energy from the Sun.

He told Marr that the homes were built to the German Passivhaus protocol, “but it’s not it’s not rocket science, or high performance engineering.”

“Clad in radical bricks?” wondered Marr. “No”, said Mikhail. “They are just bricks. It’s not radical.”

Marr covers many subjects in his interviews, and can be forgiving for not knowing much about current house building practice, as could many listeners. But Passivhaus, a highly energy-efficient method of building, based on exceptional air-tightness and mechanical ventilation, delivering remarkable savings in heating costs, is not new. I wrote this in February 2011, on a development in an Essex village.

Ministers  in four successive governments – and this one will be the fifth – will have been be familiar with Passivhaus. The mystery is that it is not being applied on a much bigger scale. As Mikhail explained, the emphasis is on conserving energy and sustainability. And also, in a high density, but low rise, group of houses, on encouraging children to play and for people and streets not be dominated by the car. 

There is clear evidence that the Passivhaus protocol does produce lower energy bills. Hastoe, the specialist rural housing association that built the 14 homes (for local people at affordable rents) in the village of Wimbish, Essex, in 2011, has worked with the University of East Anglia to monitor their performance ever since. The results, it says, have been “startling”. The houses’ annual gas bill can be as little as £130, dropping to £62 for the flats. Performance remains consistent seven years after the development was completed. “That’s a huge annual saving for our residents, of around £500 compared to the national average.” Hastoe has built over 100 Passivhaus homes to date, and plans to always have one such scheme underway at all times. 

The idea of homes on safer streets, not dominated by the car, where there is a spirit of neighbourliness, where children can play safely, is not new either. The Dutch Woonerf concept, whose features include shared roads and traffic calming, with vehicles restricted to walking pace, dates back at least to the 1970s. Another version of it is the “Shared Space”, an approach that removes kerbs, road markings, traffic signs, and traffic lights. By making it unclear who has priority, planners expect drivers to cut their speed, reducing the dominance of vehicles. In Central London the two best examples are Exhibition Road in South Kensington, and Seven Dials, in Covent Garden.

Although the ideas discussed here are not new, it requires ambition, money, and political will to implement them. Town and city politicians, even if they know about Passivhaus, may not have sufficient interest to mandate their planners to implement them, (as Norwich City Council does), nor the funds to do so. Ultimately the onus must lie with central government to require, enable and fund councils to take on such projects on a much bigger scale.