Irish government in row over passivhaus eco building regulations

Local authority pushes for standard with high levels of insulation and ventilation, but Irish government says measure would slow construction of new homes

The Guardian, 17 June, 2015

The Irish government is fighting plans by a local authority in Dublin to make the super energy-efficient passivhaus standard mandatory for new buildings.

In a submission to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county council, the Department of Environment said introducing the standard would slow the construction of new homes.

Ireland’s building industry is experiencing a tentative recovery for the first time since the country’s property bubble began to collapse in 2007. The government is eager to accelerate house building in the capital, which has experienced a serious housing shortage.

The passivhaus standard, developed by European physicists in the 1990s, requires high levels of insulation, draught-proofing and ventilation. It is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems and to drastically cut carbon emissions.

The Department of Environment submission, obtained by the magazine Passive House +, said the move by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown would increase the cost of house building. It warned that the environment minister, Alan Kelly, would consider invoking a rarely-used legal clause allowing him to intervene in local planning matters if necessary.

Separately, Kelly and housing minister, Paudie Coffey, wrote directly to all four of Dublin’s local councils, warning them against introducing “unreasonable or excessive” housing regulations, after Dublin city council became the second local authority to propose adopting the passivhaus standard.

Advocates for more energy-efficient housing have criticised the interference from central government, saying it risks taking the country back to a quantity-over-quality approach that defined Ireland’s boom-era building activity.

“There’s a lot of people commenting about cost and providing absolutely no evidence to back up their concerns,” said Tomás O’Leary of the Passive House Academy, which has offices in Ireland and New York. “It’s not energy efficiency that makes a building expensive.

“Of course you can have a passivhaus that’s very expensive, but you can also have passivhauses which are cheaper than normal.”

He said it was extraordinary that the government department responsible for construction quality was objecting to higher standards. “By implication they’re advocating that we should go ahead and slap up buildings as quick as we can, it’s so short-sighted and worrying,” he said. “And in any case passivhauses won’t slow down construction.”

He said passivhaus construction is often quicker because of the thorough design process involved, and because the buildings are often prefabricated.

Europe’s cities have been at the forefront of efforts to cut carbon emissions from buildings.

Earlier this year the passivhaus standard became compulsory for all new buildings in Brussels, while other cities including Frankfurt and Oslo have made the standard mandatory for public buildings. Under EU rules, all new buildings in Europe must be “nearly zero energy” from 2021.