I stayed for a weekend at the Totnes Passivhaus B&B, in Devon. It is owned by Adam Dadeby (co-author of the Passivhaus Handbook) and his partner Erica Aslett. Visiting was an opportunity to experience the air quality and comfort levels of a Passivhaus.
Totnes Passivhaus is a ‘retrofit’ of a 1970s house: a conversion of a pre-existing home, bringing it up to Passivhaus standards. This involved fitting out the building to achieve levels of airtightness and insulation specified by the Passivhaus Institute. A heat exchanger, coupled with a whole house ventilation system, was required as part of this. (For an introduction to airtightness, insulation and heat exchangers see the article on energy efficiency.)
Preconceptions and Reality
Staying here was a chance to check some common questions about Passivhauses against reality.
Anecdotally, the most frequent concern when talking about a Passivhaus is “I would hate not being able to open the windows”. Well, I did open them. It was quite a warm Autumn. Like in any other house, occupants can open the windows; afterwards, like in any other house, the heating may need to be cranked up to compensate. Proponents would say that none of this makes a well insulated, cheaply-heated house undesirable.
The fact that the air was always fresh, even without opening a window, was a clear benefit. Likewise, the even temperature throughout the house was comfortable. Fuel poverty is a known issue, especially amongst the elderly, who generally need a warmer home but have a low income. This showed how it is possible to spend little-to-no money on heating, and nevertheless have a consistently warm house. Erica and Adam’s most expensive utility bill is their water.
Some worry that Passivhauses may be too ‘sterile’ inside; the full house ventilation system might feel like air-conditioning. Others may feel that the air tightness isolates one too much from the outside. On the other hand, Passivhaus can be thought of as a pragmatic approach to energy efficiency. What is lost, in terms of communication with the outside, can be mitigated by large south facing windows, and is compensated by warmth and cheap heating bills (not to mention reduced carbon release).
Meanwhile, the expense of building with Passivhaus-approved products and undergoing certification is a potential barrier. Aiming for Passivhaus performance is a tried and tested way to produce an energy efficient house, and testing the completed building’s performance can be both satisfying and useful. Testing building systems lets designers know what to reproduce or improve. That said, it is perfectly possible to save money by avoiding Passivhaus-approved products or certification, but still build a house that performs as well.
Passivhaus is originally a German system, and here the interiors were in keeping – simple, clean lines, and plenty of light. However, almost any style of Passivhaus is possible, with different finishes, window designs and materials etc. The building’s energy efficiency is specified by Passivhaus, not the materials used or the architectural style.
As well as having co-authored the Passivhaus Handbook, Adam Dadeby manages the Passivhaus store, an online supplier of building products designed for ultra-low energy builds. His team has also developed a Passivhaus building system, PH15 (under the brand Passivhaus Homes), which is suitable for individual self builds as well as developments. The structure is based around timber I-beams, forming a portal structure that is flexible in layout and finish. PH15 is intended as an affordable and simple way to build a Passivhaus.
Totnes Transition Town
As part of the Transition Network, the Totnes community has set up a charity called Transition Town Totnes. The aims of the organisation are ‘to strengthen the local economy, reduce the cost of living, and build resilience for a future with less cheap energy and a changing climate’. Projects include increasing low impact affordable housing, job creation, and reducing the carbon emissions associated with the town.
Closing Thoughts & Visiting Information
Overall, this was a comfortable environment to stay in. The ventilation system was not noisy, and the internal air was warm, without being stale. Overheating might be a risk, but there are ways to tackle this, for example with good solar shading to the South. For someone interested in how it feels to stay in a Passivhaus this was a useful experience. It was also an attractive place to stay, and the warm welcome and cooked breakfast were definite highlights. See the Totnes Passivhaus website for more information.