Fuel Poverty – An architectural assistant’s musings


Architype Associate Ann-Maire giving her presentation on Fuel Poverty at NLA

I must start off by professing that I am no expert in the field of sustainable energy or Passivhaus, I am a part one architectural assistant who has spent the first two years of his career working for Architype. I have been in the incredibly lucky position of working alongside some of the leading experts in the field of Passivhaus.

One of the many Passivhaus designers in the office who has influenced and converted me to the Passivhaus way of thinking is Ann-Marie Fallon. She has been my mentor throughout my time in practice and I can honestly say it has been one of the most influential periods of my life, defining and inspiring my architectural pursuits to learn about sustainable design and low energy buildings.

I am now addicted to learning as much as I can about energy efficient architecture and what Ann-Marie terms as ‘sufficiency’ in design.

Architype Associate Ann-Maire giving her presentation on Fuel Poverty at NLA

Photo credit: NLA

Fuel Poverty and how Passivhaus can change it:

I recently attended a New London Architecture lecture presented by Ann-Marie. I want to state for the record that I did not attend the lecture simply because she is my work mentor (although perhaps I would have received a stern look if I had not attended!)… I attended the lecture because she is a brilliant and passionate speaker. When I listen to what Ann-Marie has to say I always learn something new.

The presentation overview included background information on Architype and the fact that we are synonymous with Passivhaus design, summarising our ability to deliver at varying scales from small, to the very large. Through our 35 years of experience, Architype have been able to build up a portfolio of buildings that live up to their performance promises, designed using tried and tested data.

Within the presentation the Gov.UK definition for fuel poverty was highlighted:

–    people have required fuel costs that are above average (the national median level)

–    if people were to spend that amount, they would be left with a residual income below the official poverty line

When reading this definition I can imagine many people can relate to feeling stretched by the amount they spend on fuel to heat their homes each year – and with their remaining money, could attest to being on the verges of fuel poverty.

While reflecting on the statement I thought it useful to look for a definition for poverty – and it seems that it is incredibly difficult to define poverty, so much so the Conservative government scrapped the past definition of having… ’60% below the median UK income’ in 2015 and currently there is no formal government measure in the UK to define poverty, which ultimately leaves the official poverty line as a matter of interpretation.

The Social Metrics Commission have set their own measure of povertyat a threshold of “55% of median total available resources” – in effect creating a poverty line relative to what the average family has available to spend after paying for food, accommodation and childcare. A key principle of the measure is that poverty “should be related to the extent to which people have the resources to engage adequately in a life regarded as the norm in society”.

Ann-Marie highlighted how Passivhaus can help reduce or mitigate fuel poverty. While so many macro micro social and political factors feed into the fuel poverty agenda, addressing energy costs in housing is a simple way of reducing some of the burden while also increasing benefits to occupants in relation to their thermal comfort, health and wellbeing.

We all know living costs can vary vastly, depending on where you live. The cost of living and people’s family structures are far too intricate to throw everyone into one category. But one major element at the root of the problem is our current housing stock which is inefficient and not fit for purpose – especially when faced with the predicted temperature spikes and troughs and ever increasing fuel costs.

Passivhaus has the ability to accurately predict and lower fuel consumption in homes – if we can anticipate how much our homes will use, we can therefore plan with greater accuracy how much we will spend. The passive energy saving elements within the design of a Passivhaus also have the added benefit of reducing the need to heat our homes in winter through good airtightness, greater thickness of insulation for heat retention, optimum positioning of windows to warm through solar gains, and in summer appropriate sized glazing and solar shading to remove overheating. This has the power to transform people’s lives.

One example of the transformative nature of Passivhaus is evident when seeing it used for social housing.

Through better functioning buildings, overall energy consumption is reduced, giving better thermal comfort in winter, and leading to less demand to heat homes. This ultimately leads to less expenditure, elevating people from fuel poverty. Ann-Marie noted cases of people being able to go on holiday for the first time ever from money saved. The property owner also benefits from reduced maintenance bills and a building designed to cope with future predicted climate change.

Detailed practical examples and illustrations of the effective performance of Passivhaus buildings that Architype have designed and supported when in constructionwere presented during the talk. We were shown data comparing the performance of Passivhaus and traditional non-Passivhaus construction, which clearly demonstrated the superiority of the former.

The lecture made me think of my family home in the countryside which is built of solid stone – which makes for an incredibly fuel inefficient building and leads to high costs in trying to keep warm through the winter months. Ann-Marie made the point that retro fitting is a much costlier exercise than designing and building from scratch. The issue is that we have a large housing stock that is poorly suited to the efficient use of fuel. In the first instance however it seems to make perfect sense to ensure our new buildings are as fuel efficient as possible.

Ann-Maire explains Passivhaus onsite at Agar Grove 1b

Photo credit: Passivhaus Trust

What can Passivhaus do to reduce fuel poverty:

The recent emergence at the top of the political agenda of fuel poverty and green energieshas made energy consumption in homes a very topical subject in mainstream news outlets and more notably in the world of architecture and the construction industry.

When considering fuel poverty, climate change comes into very sharp focus with the goal of a 2050 net zero carbon target. Theresa May has recently committed the UK to meet this goaland the two issues go hand in hand. With Boris Johnson now prime minister, it is not clear where this strategy will now go to, however in his inauguration speech he did reaffirm May’s commitment to net zero emissions and stated “Our Kingdom in 2050… will no longer make any contribution whatsoever to the destruction of our precious planet brought about by carbon emissions,”

– time will tell how this pans out…

How Passivhaus has changed my architectural journey

I am now inspired by well designed and detailed buildings, with the requisite technical input from specialists. Alongside properly coordinated and implemented mechanical and engineering work, this will result in homes with lower and more efficient consumption of energy. This is good for the environment, helps in achieving political fuel reduction targets, and contributes towards reducing the incidences of fuel poverty.

An important factor to be considered is that the initial construction costs of a building form only one element of the economic lifetime cost of ownership. The ongoing cost advantages of a low energy consumption building, such as Passivhaus, need to be balanced against the sometimes initial higher costs for building Passivhaus in the UK. This appears to be due to contractors/builders pricing in risk of Passivhaus construction rather than working out if can they achieve the same delivery within the same budget (as we have already demonstrated is possible with a series of schools in Wales) or establish a ‘sufficient’ approach to savings elsewhere where obvious items like windows and MVHR do add cost. If a purchaser or client is made aware of the reduced lifetime fuel costs they will be able to make an informed decision about the Passivhaus option.

I consider it to be important for government to play a role in educating the public and perhaps offering incentives to direct demand in the Passivhaus direction. An increase in demand would drive down the costs of production, leading to little or no build cost differentials. It occurs to me that urgent and impartial education for the public and the construction industry is critical.

Ann-Marie, alongside many other colleagues at Architype, persuasively argues that the adoption of a Passivhaus philosophy enables numerous objectives to be achieved at the same time. She is very much on a mission to spread the word, that change is needed and that a solution already exists. It is fair to say that Ann-Marie is a passionate advocate for eliminating fuel poverty and promoting efficient use of energy resources through the application of Passivhaus principles.