Learning from Passivhaus Building

The people of Green Building Store (UK) have generously produced and published a freely available online movie about some of the challenges they faced in a Passivhaus construction project in the UK. Though I am wary of taking on the Passivhaus standard as is (reservations I’ve written about in posts about Passivehaus and Rural Studio) I am also trying to be careful not to pour the baby out with the water. There is a lot of common sense in Passivhaus and much of it is excellently communicated in this movie. You can view all the parts here or possibly start with this embedded video and then continue to each consequent part:

So, with much curiosity and interest I watched the movie (reviewing some of the chapters numerous times) and made some notes of things that I hope to incorporate into our building process. This list does not include the core-issues of Passivhaus construction (insulation, minimal thermal bridging, air-tightness, ventilation and passive solar gain) which deserve careful context and consideration – especially when it comes to hemp-lime construction which introduces unique qualities to both the construction process and the resulting structure.

Design & Details

It is invaluable to spend time designing and paying attention to details before the actual construction process. Construction is an established process and skill which carries with it a taken-for-granted attitude. Professionals have a way of doing things and will prefer to do things the way they’re used to doing them – which may lead to cutting corners in design and to on-site improvisation.

This can be destructive in a project where new standards of building, new materials and new techniques are involved. Taking the time to plan things in advance, to drawing diagrams & making calculations creates a thoughtful path towards a desirable result. Of course it is inevitable that unforeseen challenges will arise during construction and that some changes and improvisation will be required – in which case a plan gives some indication of how far you’ve deviated and what you need to do to get back on track.

Special attention should be given to details. I’ve been working on a wall-to-floor detail for weeks – compiling all the information and knowledge I have come across, reconsidering it in the context of hemp-construction, our house design, minimizing costs, minimizing the use of concrete and relying on locally available materials. There is no ready-made template for what we are doing, there are many options to choose from, there are many considerationt to incorporate. We could take the easy path and hire foundation contractors and let them do their thing – but that would lead away from the kind of warm, pleasant, ecological and efficient house we hope to live in and bring us to the standard cold and humid house that contractors have been building in Romania for may years.

Team Work

A typical construction process tends isolate and compartmentalize knowledge and skills. We would consult with an architect to design our house. Then we would pass the plans to an structural engineer who would need to figure out how to support our house. Then we would pass the architectural and structural engineering plans to a heating engineer who will try to provide an adequate heating solution within the existing constraints.

This kind of approach can lead to an inefficient process and an inefficient house. A good engineer can provide a structural solution to meet almost any need – but at what price? How much extra work, materials, construction effort and waste may be required to implement the engineered solution? Similarly a heating engineer can theoretically heat any space – the question is how expensive and complicated will the system be and how much energy will it consume? This is a brute force approach.

We are trying to put together a team that will work together during all phases of the project. We’d like everyone to be there to provide input at every stage of the project. We’d like the architect to provide input on choosing good land and on siting of the house on it. We’d like the structural engineer to make suggestions on architectural decisions that may lead to simpler and more efficient construction using less materials. We’d like a heating-engineer to review the size of our spaces and to make suggestion that may improve the energy-efficiency of the house.

It takes integrated and out-of-the-box thinking to create the kind of integration that leads to a house that facilitates an “eco” existence.

Opening Details

I have been wondering about how to go about properly insulating openinsg like windows and doors. The movie offered some very useful tips about these issues and these are the ones I noted:

  • Windows should be placed at the center (depth) of the wall.
  • Windows should open inwards – placing the thicker part of the frame on the outside for better insulation.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Contega FC) should be applied between the rough structural opening and the internal wall and then covered by the the internal render.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Tescon) should be applied between the window frame and the rough structural openings.
  • A concrete slab should not extend to the door opening to prevent heat loss through it.
  • The door opening slab requires an insulated and weather resistant material (such as fiberglass).

A big thank you to the people at Green Building Company. This movie has been very educative and helpful.

Choosing Land

We are going to buy land – a special piece of land where we will make a home. What should we look for when buying land? At first we didn’t know how to begin answering this question. But by now we have a better idea of what we want and we put together this list of wishes we hope to balance together:

  • Designation: land that is designated for both construction and agriculture – the majority of which is for agriculture. Sometimes there is one part of the land where the house is built and the agricultural lands are separated. We are looking for land that is a combination of both. In Romanian this is called “intravilan” – land that is “inside the village” – meaning the housing area. We have plans for additional structures on the house – including a birthing center.
  • Orientation: North-South orientation – with a view in the south. That way we can enjoy both the view and passive-solar energy by having south facing windows (the north wall will be fairly closed to insulate from cold winds. It is preferable that the house can be placed in such a way that the entrance is from either the south, east or west (as the north is an uninviting fron).
  • Fertile Land: We want land that is easy to cultivate for diverse crops. Preferrably without stones, comfortable summer climate (not too cold so we can grow crops like wheat which suffer from cold weather) and ground that is not too acidic or salty.
  • Water Table: We expect to pump our water from a well. The water table should be between 4 and 10 meters. A water table that is too high can damage house foundations. A water table that is too low can be more difficult to pump and is more likely to dry up in dry seasons.
  • Flowing Water: Hydro-electricity is one of the most reliable and affordable green-electricity solutions. We hope to find land with running water with enough head to generate eletricity.
  • Near Water: If there isn’t running water on the property then we would like to live within walking distance from a body of water.
  • Proportions: We prefer land that is well proportioned – not too elongated. It should also be at least 50 meters wide to accommodate the potential length of our house (15-20 meters) with additional space on both sides (10-15 meters on every side).
  • Accessible: We prefer a town that is accessible by public transportation (bus or train) to and from a near city. Our land should be within a short driving distance from the town – preferrably even a short walking distance of ~ 20 minutes.

There are also a few things we know to look out for. Thanksfully this list it small and we hope it stays that way:

  • Altitude: If the area is prone to be flooding then our land should be located at a higher altitude so that water can easily flow away from and not accumulate on it.
  • Quiet: The land should not be situated on a main road.

Where to Place a House?

So you purchased some land and you are wondering where and in which direction to place your home?

We currently know of three considerations which pretty much answer this question:

  • We sleep with our heads in the east and our feet in the west.
  • We’d like to benefit from passive-solar heat – which means most of our windows (and thermal mass considerations) will be facing south
  • We’d like to have a great view

The order they are in is not random – it reflects our priorities. It’s hard to enjoy a nice view from a cold house. It’s also hard to enjoy a nice view in a warm house unless we sleep well. So sleep, warmth and view is how it goes.

Once that is set it can be useful to get more specific about the actual position of the sun over the months and seasons of a year. You can then place the sun relative to other natural elements in the landscape (hills, trees,etc.) and then decide where is best to place windows to make the best of what sunlight is available.

One way to do this is to actually be on-site for a year and make measurements. When this is not possible there are solar calculators to do the trick for you.

To do this you will need a solar map calculator – a few of which are available online:

  • I think the easiest and friendliest calculator is at PVEducation – where you can easily shift the time of year to see the solar path change.
  • A simple and useful charting tool I found (so far) is SunPosition Calculator which has basic free functionality and extended paid options.
  • A more complex and elaborate tools can be found at SunEarthTools.

To use these tools you will need to find the latitude and longitude of your site location. You can do that here or just search the Internet as there are many freely available online options.

Heating Resources

We want to have a really pleasantly warm house when it gets cold outside. Building with hemp insures that we enjoy a wonderfully insulated home. Now we need to deal with heat – which includes both environmental heating and water heating.

In typically built houses which tend to be cold when it gets cold outside it’s more a brute force challenge. With an ecological house it is actually more complicated because it’s easy to design a system that overheats the house. We still don’t have a clear picture or understanding of our heating needs – though we are working at it.

In the meantime I wanted to share with you some great resources that we are using to educate ourselves:

  1. Stoves Online (UK) – it s great resource for learning about the different elements that make up a heating system with a very rich offering of solutions if you happen to live in the UK.
  2. Boiler Stoves (UK) – seems like a sister website which specifically explains how boiler stoves work and can be incorporated into a smart and efficient heating system.
  3. Radiant Design Institute – though not an appealing website has a lot of really well-grounded and useful information I believe can be very useful especially to do-it-yourselfers.

You may also want to visit these two pages:

  1. An animated demonstration of a boiler-stove at work
  2. An article that debates whether radiant-floor-heating is at all appropriate in well insulated eco-buildings

Concrete Basics: A Guide to Concrete Practice

I’ve been struggling to understand on if/why a concrete slab is necessary. I completely understand the need for footings and foundations – but slabs are not that clear. It’s somethinge eveyone seems to take for granted … but I am undecided on it.

Anyways …  I did come across this excellent free eBook generously published by Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia – which seem to have many more freely available resources on their website. IF we do end up building with concrete foundations (yep – that’s an if!) we will probably hire a contractor for it – it’s one of those jobs where DIY doesn’t seem to have much point/value. Even so – this eBook is a must read because at least I know what to expect, to relate to engineering/design choices and to make sure things are getting done right on site.

I will probably be spending some time with their resources – I’ll let you know if I find anything interesting 🙂

Evolution of Hemp Processing – A Story in Images

I came across this PDF presentation on the European Indutrial Hemp Association website – it has some great and educational images in it on the evolution of hemp processing.