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Move over Passive House, here come Passive Appartment Buildings

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PassivHaus in Sankt-Pauli, a miser that needs only 8 kWh/m2a to stay warm

PassivHaus in Sankt-Pauli, a miser that needs only 8 kWh/m2a

In Canada, when you say Passive House, if you’re lucky enough to find someone who has heard of the concept, you will likely hear about the fancy, environmentally efficient homes that need little energy. They exist; there are a few in metro Vancouver, one in Victoria…they are really nice, but more often an architect’s statement than just a regular living place.

Not so in Germany. While not exactly common, they are still much more common than at home, and the standard has migrated to apartment buildings over the last couple of decades.

To be certified as a PassivHaus (an unfortunate term, if you ask me), a home must require at most 15 kWh of heating energy per year per square meter of floor area (abbreviated to kWh/m2a). In Canadian terms, a 2000 square feet Passive house using electrical heating at 10₵ per kilowatt-hour would have a heating bill of $300.00 for the whole year (most Canadian households use about ten times that amount of energy). To get there, a building needs to have very thick insulation, triple-glazed efficient windows, and a ventilation system that pushes stale indoor air through a heat exchanger that warms incoming outdoor air.

It sounds complicated, and not the sort of thing you would entrust to a bunch of strangers in an apartment building. People may well be skeptical, whether they be home owners, renters, or mortgage lenders. So the government, keen to promote the technology, has published a number of case studies recounting the experience to date with these buildings. I wanted to see for myself what they look like and the kind of neighbourhoods they’re in – so here’s what a nice long walk in Hamburg reveals.

Villa Pinguine

Pinguine Villa

They look rather – well, ordinary. No special fancy features or anything advertising that they are super-efficient (except for one of the earliest one in Sankt-Pauli). The only noticeable feature that you learn to identify are the windows: they are set well back, indicating that the walls are unusually thick; and the glass often has an iridescent sheen characteristic of the high-efficiency, triple-glazed argon-filled windows.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet and interview residents. But I found a bunch of interview transcripts on the city’s website, so I translated some of them to get an idea of what it’s like. One thing that comes through clearly is the German preoccupation with fresh air and opened windows.

For instance, here are a few comments from residents related in an early report, Leben in Passivhaus (Living in a Passive House), published in 2007. Uschi L says that the air always feels fresh; she opens the windows only when she wants access to the balcony, or when she wants to cool the place down. In summer she keeps the windows open at night. She says she pays only 5 euros a month for energy.

Nana S says that she likes being able to sleep with only light covers in winter, but with the window closed; it feels like there’s plenty of fresh air. She says that she cranks up the ventilation only when cooking; and she no longer has the dry skin problems that she used to have in winter in her old place. Likewise, Renate L claims that she experiences no more joint pains since moving to an apartment in a PassivHaus. Alfons L says “I cook a lot, but even when I cook fish, the smells don’t linger.”

Pinguine Villa is a condo complex that features 387 apartments spread over two buildings near the Hagenbeck Zoo (hence the name). The experience of residents Seda and Anselm Schaumann has been profiled in a separate report. “We consider owning an apartment that needs so little energy a worthwhile investment. The reliable warmth, pleasant and comfortable rooms, and constant fresh air were other factors in our decision to buy here. We’re very pleased with the results: there’s never any stale air or cold room in the whole apartment. Our heating costs are very small, below 100 Euros per year even though we have a large apartment (123 m2) and we’re a four-person family. Mind you, our electricity bills are about 1/3 higher than our neighbours’, who live in the building across the yard.  That’s because theirs isn’t built to passive standards, so it doesn’t have an air exchange system, with a fan that runs all the time. Another advantage we find is that there are no allergy problems, since the air is always fresh, and there’s no need to open windows during pollen season. The air is never too humid and there’s no condensation anywhere. One inconvenient is that we cannot regulate the temperature in each individual room; the whole apartment has to be the same.”

Pinnasberg PassivHaus on the waterfront (yes, the palm trees are fake)

Pinnasberg PassivHaus on the waterfront (yes, the palm trees are fake)

Pinguine Villa, despite its whimsical name, is in a fairly ordinary, suburban like environment in Northern Hamburg, and maybe it’s not surprising that its concept, aside from the energy efficiency, is quite standard: developer-built condo building. But some are rentals; the very first Passivhaus apartment block, in fact, was built as a demonstration project by the city, in Sankt-Pauli (of all the buildings I saw, this is the only one that announces itself, in discreet letters, as “PassivHaus”); a super-performance building with 10 residential units and two stores at street level, it needs on 8 kWh/m2a to stay warm (the tenants, who pay utilities, are said to be “super happy”). Or sometimes they are started as a cooperative; the most high-profile of these is probably the one on Pinnasberg, an eight-storey, 19 flat building right on the Sankt-Pauli waterfront completed in 2003. The group of owners contributed 13% of the costs down, the rest coming from the city’s mortgage corporation. The building features solar collectors and requires only 13 kWh/m2a.

My favourite may be the building at 24 Telemann street in Eimsbuttel. It has 18 units of varying sizes (55 to 120 m2), as well as nine underground parking stalls. This is a social housing project for 25 adults, including seniors, and 12 children or teenagers. It was meant to be accessible to all, from single-parent families to people with disabilities, as well as multi-generation families. It is a “socially committed housing project linking low and higher income residents, who are committed to ensure the highest possible level of participation in the management of the building.” So that’s the website pitch; what do residents actually think?

The PassivHaus in Eimsbuttel.  Lots of windows on the south side!

The PassivHaus in Eimsbuttel. Lots of windows on the south side!

Some find the lack of temperature adjustments a problem. For instance, Sabine Reineke: “sometimes I switch on the oven to warm up”, but other feel the suites are cozy and warm. Frank Fockele:”I like to be able to walk around in shorts in the middle of winter. The walls and floor are always nice and warm.” The windows don’t open and there is very little noise inside. Hanna Esslinger:”Sometimes I would like to hear more outdoor noise like birdsongs, wind or voices. It is rather like being in an igloo.” But the ventilation system keeps out noise as well as pollen and other outside allergens. Residents also complain about the very dry air in winter. Humidifiers are a no-go, as their electricity draw and moisture would defeat the PassivHaus performance. Instead, wet towels are hung here and there.

Architect Christine Reumschüssel says that much has been learned since, and that a central ventilation system would no longer be the choice for heating; radiant heaters would be used, allowing room-by-room regulation.

In a later report about this building, two children, Lukas (11) and Jorid (12), were interviewed for their thoughts. What does it mean for you living in a Passivhaus? We don’t need a heating system, it all comes through the vents. We are not supposed to open the windows for too long in winter. But when we cook, we have to use the ventilation! Is it complicated to figure out? Nah, it has a dial that goes from 1 to 6, 1 is cold and 6 is really warm. In the bathroom and living room we have a radiator, but we rarely use it – only when we want to dry stuff. Is the ventilation loud? No, except when Marian, upstairs, plays his drum set; sometimes we hear that through the vents, kinda like a radio. What is life like in a housing co-op? Great! There’s a kids common room, and a adults’, too, and there always someone there we can play with or do something. Every year they organise a canoe trip and a barbecue for everybody. This is the city; do you have enough room to play? Yah! There is a garden with a small lawn in the back. Three girls from our building wrote a letter to the mayor because they wanted a monkey bars set. And it worked! The cars are parked underground, even though for our building we only have five cars, because people do car-sharing. The rest of the parking, they rent to others.

Bikes are stored in front of the Telemannstrasse building,

Bikes are stored in front of the Telemannstrasse building,

Eimsbuttel is a neighbourhood in transition, still mostly working class, but highly sought after by the upwardly mobile. It is dense with apartment blocks, but very green with mature trees that form a canopy over the streets, and it has great street life from shops and restaurants nearby. I was quite impressed with the garden behind the building, with its vaunted monkey bars and other amenities for kids, but also space for gardening; the street itself has a traffic calming feature at one end and is very quiet.  I’d live there in a heartbeat.

Aside from the variety of the PassivHaus apartment buildings (and there are many more than what I could describe here), what strikes me is how social housing needs and environmental performance are merged. It may be by design; in Hamburg, these constructions are regulated by the BSU, the Behörde für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt, which translates as the Ministry for Environment and Urban Planning. A nice way to set priorities.


Note: sources for are mainly from four reports: Zukunftsfähig, Nachhaltig, Ökologisch (link here), Hamburg Team 2009/2010 (link here), Leben im Passivhaus 2007 (link here) and Wohnbau in und um Hamburg 2012 (link here).


Written by enviropaul

December 30, 2015 at 2:28 am

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