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Interview: Joanna Lindley

The recipient of a travelling fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, architect Joanna Lindley has just embarked on a year-long research mission to make the UK more at home with passivhaus. As she tells Mark Cantrell, once you’re into this energy efficient method, there’s just no going back

 

JOANNA Lindley is a fairly recent “convert” to the way of the passivhaus, so it is entirely appropriate that she undertook a “pilgrimage” to the place where it kind of all began – the Passive House Institute in Darmstadt, Germany.

The RIBA chartered architect attended the organisation’s 20th international conference in April, immersing herself in the expertise and knowledge-sharing centre of this global sustainable housing phenomenon; quite a start to her fact-finding travels courtesy of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT).

Lindley is one of 10 recipients of a travelling fellowship from the WCMT awarded under the category ‘new approaches to affordable housing’, and her chosen theme, of course, is to make people here in the UK more at home with passivhaus.

“The premise of the Winston Churchill fellowship is that you learn from examples and best practice, network as much as you can to hear everybody’s viewpoint on your particular interest, and get a much broader feel of how things are working in other countries,” she said. “You can then bring that back to the UK and apply what you can and make recommendations on how it can be improved in the UK. Although passivhaus is definitely becoming more popular in the UK, that doesn’t mean we haven’t got a lot to learn from other countries.

“Germany is where it all started, so that’s where you’re going to get the bulk of the passivhauses. I was joking that it’s a bit of a pilgrimage for passivhaus people, that you go to Darmstadt and see where it all began, and come together as what is a big international community now.”

For all that the UK is building a presence within that international community it remains the case that Britain lags somewhat behind its continental peers. One side effect of this lack of familiarity is that for some, passivhaus “feels alien” as she put it. Lindley wants to do her bit to change that; as she put it in her bid for the travelling fellowship, she wants to “elevate passivhaus from daunting to desirable” here in the UK.

“As someone who is a fairly recent convert, I can assure people that it’s not alien,” she said. “It’s just a slight shift in thinking and techniques, and I think by being able to demonstrate to people from examples of how it’s been done elsewhere, there wouldn’t then be any reason why it couldn’t be done here. It’s about demonstrating with international examples.”

So how did Lindley – who became a certified passivhaus designer in 2015 – discover her interest in the concept? By serendipitous encounter.

Lindley established her practice three years ago “with the mindset of pushing a more sustainable style of architecture”. Passivhaus wasn’t then part of the picture. The inspiration came at EcoBuild, where she was offering her services at the event’s ‘ask the expert’ consultation desk.

“A couple approached the desk, sat down and told me they wanted a passivhaus. At the time I knew very little about passivhaus,” she said. “We hit it off, so they appointed me to do their home and as I was getting further and further into it, I discovered I wanted to know everything about passivhaus.”

And things have led from there, culminating in her research project through the WCMT travelling fellowship. Over the course of the year, she’ll be making a number of overseas trips, to see developments first-hand – as she did in Germany – and meet developers, designers, policy-makers and thought-leaders, to expand her understanding of how passivhaus is applied in theory and practice. After that, she’ll be expected to produce a report and disseminate what she has learned.

“I will be going to Ireland. There’s an area of Dublin called Dún Laoghaire and they have made it policy that passivhaus is to be attained for all new developments,” she said. “I want to meet with the councillors and the promoters who managed to get that through, and talk about what process they took and the considerations that need to be discussed, and see if that is something that we can learn from and apply here.”

The United States and possibly Canada is on her itinerary too. For Lindley, the attraction of passivhaus isn’t just its sustainability, but its simplicity; the approach offers a flexible means to deliver tangible low carbon, low energy construction without compromising a designer’s creativity.

“Passivhaus is based on building physics, so there’s no guesswork involved. You’ve got a language that you can work with, and it sets certain parameters and values, but it doesn’t limit what you can aesthetically achieve with the design. It’s a tool to create a sustainable home and then you can take it any direction,” she says.

“It doesn’t really limit what you make the building look like on the outside. It doesn’t really limit the construction systems you use. Although there are things that you have to reconsider when you come to piecing a building together, you can still make it out of masonry, out of timber, out of steel, and that can make it more approachable for different communities. In the States, for example, there might be a lot of steel usage; here there’s a lot of masonry. To know that you don’t have to reinvent everything is another added benefit of using passivhaus.”

But what about the ‘affordability’ aspect of her research project? After all, in the UK context at least the word has rather lost its meaning, regardless of how a home is built.

“Yeah, well, that’s true,” she laughed. “That’s partly why I am taking this process. I don’t feel I have got to the point where I know all the answers yet, but what I did learn is that a lot of the moves that you take to make something more sustainable also happen by wonderful coincidence to be affordable.”

Ultimately, of course, the problem of affordability is a matter of the political will to challenge the decades-old failure to build enough homes to meet need, as industry figures say time and time again.

Passivhaus in itself can provide no solution on that front – and it would be unfair to hold it in that kind of expectation – but Lindley has no doubt that it forms part of the UK’s solution for delivering lower cost, better performing, more sustainable homes.

To that end, Lindley has her mission, to learn and discover and bring it home; it’s up to us to open our ears and minds to what she will have to say at the end of her fellowship. “Once you are into passivhaus there’s really no going back,” she said.

 

This article first appeared in the June/July 2016 print edition of Housing magazine

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