It’s great to be posting the first instalment of our ‘A to Z of Best Practice Low Energy Building’.

The A to Z will be a regular feature on the blog and we’re delighted to say that we have some fantastic, preeminent in their field, guest bloggers lined up.  All instalments will be loosely arranged in alphabetical order (so that we have the flexibility to revisit or add in if necessary).  It will be neutral / applicable to all house building (rather than specific to Kiss House) and as such we hope it will be a useful resource for all self-builders / custom-builders alike.

The idea of an A to Z originates from our passionate belief that ‘best practice low energy building’ is the only way to build and that it must underpin all that we do.

We’ve worked tirelessly for many years to deliver exemplar one-off building projects and now we want to apply this knowledge and experience to repeatable housing.

Be sure to sign up for our news and occasional updates so you don’t miss out!

Please contact us with suggestions for subjects you would like us to include OR if you would like more information on anything.

Enjoy!

The Kiss House Team

ACCOUNTABILITY:

Written by Mike Jacob

Kiss House Founder / Director.  Managing Director Trunk LEB / CLT.  Chartered Construction Manager. Certified Passivhaus Tradesperson.

The construction industry is a tricky one.  It can be defensive; like a teenager with a propensity to ‘go off on one’.  Quick to point the finger, to hide, to shirk, to move goal posts, to deny, to blow hot and cold.  With the context for this complexity being a scale, from the relatively benign to the fundamental and catastrophic.

It can also be amazingly, unpredictably positive.  Changing lives, providing shelter, security, inspiration, wonder, innovation and worth for the sake of humanity’s wellbeing on a deep and meaningful level.

Success will manifest itself in cultures where individual agents care about the greater good – sincerely – from the commissioning client, to the delivery agents, in other words the designers, the legions of consultants, the statutory bods and of-course the contractors and their further legions of subbies and supply chains, in networks expanding ad infinitum.

But care about what?  Surely they care quite a lot already don’t they?  Well – perhaps, but if that were generally true then all would be well in the world –  and anyone who has been involved in commissioning or delivering construction projects will know that that is far from the case.

Boiling it right down to basics, in order for a project to have the greatest chances of success (by which I mean meeting a well-defined brief) the client must ‘employ well’.  But how does she employ well if she is misinformed, or naive, or misguided?  What underpins a client’s decision-making process is as broad as it is long and in the self-build sector we must look to those areas of influence such as magazines, professional bodies/associations and certain key websites to ask what they can do to ensure that those first critical appointments will set the tone for a cohesive and bouyant project.  One where every link in the chain has an inbuilt sense of accountability for the next and last.

This is a way of saying that the client is ultimately accountable – and yet, should only logically be held so if the industry itself is inherently accountable for supporting that client to make good buying decisions in the first place!

Of-course those dream team projects where everyone is pulling together and collaborating in joyous harmony to achieve a clearly defined outcome – with a sense of purpose and motivation – are only possible because someone has been influenced to a greater or lesser degree to bring them together as a team.

If things are not going to plan the tell tale signs are usually there:

Does the lead designer possess specific relevant experience?

Do they command the respect of the team and set the tone for an enjoyable project?

Is the consultant team industry-appropriate, as it is very common to see commercial consultants working in a residential setting and missing the point somewhat?

Is the consultant team complete, as it is very common to underestimate the importance of certain disciplines (M&E mainly) and leave it to the market or a contractor at arms’ length to define?

Is someone ensuring that delivery/construction is part of the conversation very early on?

This list could go on.  Success is joined at the hip to collaboration – where accountability is not about who to blame, but how to help each other.

The self-build sector would be well-served by a new mantra, to replace ‘Cheapest is best’.  One which enables clients to become enlightened and to focus their efforts on assembling the best possible team and embracing joined-up thinking.  Perhaps: ‘Surround yourself with the best – be brave – collaborate!’.

This way more clients will realise projects to specificiation, on time and on budget – and who knows, our industry may even become a consistently enjoyable one in which to work.

 

AIR-TIGHTNESS:

Written by Mike Roe

Kiss House Engineer.  WARM Low Energy Building. Certified Passivhaus Designer. Chartered Engineer.

What is it?

Building air-tightness is a measure of how much external air can infiltrate into a house.  This can occur through gaps in the external walls, roof, floor, doors and windows.  Passivhaus buildings have an air-tightness approximately 10 times lower than standard new (building regs) houses.

It is oft said that to really make a difference to the way we live we must address our existing ‘cold and drafty’ housing stock.  Think of ‘air-tightness’ as this process of dealing with the cold and drafts. It is the process whereby we seek to exclude drafts.

In best practice low energy building we design in an air-tightness strategy from the outset.  We then methodically test the performance of the building throughout the build before finally testing and signing the building off at the end – only when it has met the standard.  In Passivhaus, the international gold standard of building, we require 0.6 air changes per hour or less.

Important:

To those who are not familiar with ‘air-tightness’ in this context, or indeed the wonderful occupant comfort that is inherent in Passivhaus, the term ‘air-tightness’ can cause concern.  It is not uncommon for people to imagine an air-tight box somehow hermetically sealed rendering it unable to breathe.

This negative perception is entirely false!  Firstly an air-tightness strategy always goes hand-in-hand with a ventilation strategy in Passivhaus.  Thus air-tightness should be considered in these terms:

As a strategy to ensure that instead of building a cold and drafty home with uncontrollable ventilation you build a warm and comfortable home with controllable ventilation.  

Why is it important?

Air-tightness is one of the essential elements needed for comfortable, low energy homes. Cold air leaking into a home is uncomfortable for inhabitants.  The cold air needs to be heated which increases  energy use and causes uncomfortable drafts.

Further it is not enough to attempt to deal with heat that is lost through the building fabric by adding additional insulation because this merely highlights the effect of drafts causing air leakage to become very significant and more problematic.

Low air-tightness comes from good design, use of the correct products and high construction quality. Every Certified Passivhaus building is tested during construction to ensure it meets the standard.  The correct air-tightness strategy also stops moist air entering the building fabric which in turn helps to reduce damage and maintenance.  Better still good air-tightness results in good sound insulation.

Don’t you need fresh air in the building?

Yes – never fear opening windows are needed and fresh filtered air comes from a ventilation system!  More on ventilation systems another day!

 

ARCHITECTURE:

Written by Adrian James

Kiss House Founder / Director.  Managing Director Adrian James Architects.  Registered Architect.

It’s always open season on architects. People who are otherwise mild-mannered and polite have no compunction about robustly lambasting a building, or a plan for a building, or the architect of the building to their face. You have to be pretty thick-skinned to be an architect because you can be damned sure at some point you are going to get it in the neck when you present your ideas to neighbours or planners or the press.

Quite right too. We architects must always bear in mind that our creations are not confined to art galleries, they are out there on the street in the open imposing themselves on passers-by forever. We must be sure that our civic duty trumps our ego tripping whenever we put pencil to paper or mouse to pad.

But that doesn’t mean our buildings should kowtow to their context. Being meek or insipid or apologetic is not the answer. Firstly, honestly, most of the existing streets and buildings in the country are not that great; if we only try and do as well as them with our new infills we are aiming way too low. In banal contexts we should be aiming to step up and improve them, to set the bar much higher for quality, inspiration, and joy. Yes, the neighbours will moan because they’ll be unnerved by change, but in ten years – if we get it right – they will be treating our radical intervention as a much-loved old friend; they will be using it as a benchmark for the next new arrivals.

And in those lovely old conservation areas; well yes obviously we must be sensitive and respectful but that still doesn’t mean being insipid. Copying old stuff just muddles things; it devalues the originals, and it doesn’t say much for our contemporary culture if we can’t produce something as well-crafted and well-proportioned in our own style as our predecessors did centuries ago in their own style. If we can’t do anything better than replicate then all we are doing is Disnefying our towns and villages and turning the country into a toy-town for tourists.

But the fact is we can do better. For a start our buildings are so much more efficient, comfortable, light-filled and spacious than they have ever been. And these functional changes make for new appearances and styles which can, in their way, be just as beautiful as the old stuff. Yes, we must be sensitive, yes we must be dutiful and yes we must take the knocks and yes we must be bold.

The architect’s role is more complex than it has ever been. Some say too much is expected of them and yet they are duty bound to keep many, many balls in the air. Three (balls) in particular, which require deftness and skill to prevent from crashing to the ground, are the oft-opposing themes of aesthetic design, sustainability and cost. Achieving harmony and success here is enabled by taking a step back; by repeating the mantra ‘less is more’ and ultimately by keeping things simple!

p.s. Look out for B’s in about 10 days when we’ll have guest contributions by Elrond Burrell and Geoff Wilkinson.