BRICKS & MORTAR: A lack of energy in passive housing

By bne IntelliNews January 25, 2011

Bogdan Turek in Warsaw -

EU countries are slowly gearing up for the implementation of a new requirement that will require construction of only low-energy houses after 2020. Emerging Europe, unsurprisingly, trails far behind Western Europe in building this so-called "passive housing."

In an effort to slash the use of energy by homeowners by some 40%, the European Commission outlined late in 2010 the energy-saving programme in the draft document Energy 2020, which in 18 months is expected to take legislative form. It will emphasize the need for better insulation needs of houses by 2020; afterwards, only houses with very low energy use that process the warmth generated by the occupants into heating energy - will get permission to be built.

Jan Popczyk, an energy expert in the Politechnical School in Gliwice, southwestern Poland, said that construction of super-modern passive houses will revolutionize the building industry and drastically cut the demand for energy. "At present, the awareness is growing that construction of passive houses and low-energy houses is within reach," Popczyk says. "The people must also be aware of the fact that after 2020, only such houses will be allowed to be built."

Construction experts say that out of the total of global energy generated, construction-related industries use up to 40%, an indication of how great the potential in the sector for energy saving. "If we implement the rule on the construction of passive houses, all the projections dealing with the use of energy will be turned upside down," Popczyk claims.

Low maintenance

Passive houses built according to special construction systems get required heating and air conditioning at low cost. They do not need a traditional heating system. Good insulation, the use of solar energy and heat generated by household appliances, and heat recovery from ventilation reduce demand for energy almost to zero. It has been calculated that a passive house does not use more than 15 kilowattt hours of energy per square metre (kWh/sqm) annually, while the average annual use of energy in Polish houses amounts to 180 kWh/sqm and, in the countries of the original EU, the average is about 85 kWh/sqm.

The "old" 15 EU members have already taken the lead in building energy-efficient houses. In Finland, they account for 93% of all the houses built. Germany goes green with about 30% of its housing construction, followed by the UK with 20% and Austria with 12%. The Czech Republic trails far behind with 2%, Slovakia with 1%, and Poland - which must spend €90bn by 2020 to cut emissions by 20% and increase energy efficiency by the same amount - languishes at the very bottom.

Szymon Firlag, a leading construction expert in the Institute of Passive Houses in Warsaw, says this part of the construction business is not valued by the government, though Poland is the first country in CEE to have several energy-efficient houses built near the city of Wroclaw. "There is a growing trend, but the growth rate is not satisfactory," Firlag says. "Unfortunately, the government does not support the idea and the developers are left alone."

Popczyk says that not only high costs of the construction of passive houses but their unattractive architectural design discourage potential owners. The houses have bigger windows than traditional houses and the window panes are specially designed to generate energy from the sun. Roofs are steeper in order to hold solar panels. "We pay a lot for the look of a traditional house not thinking much about the energy," says Popczyk. "If we decided to pay less for the look, we could spend more money for the energy-generating technologies and overall cost of the house would not have to be very high."

Making old new

Before Poland and the other new member states get to the point where only high-tech passive houses will be built, they must improve energy efficiency in old houses. "There are several million old detached houses in Poland and about 10,000 new detached houses are being built annually," Popczyk says. "There is a huge potential for thermo-insulation of all of them to boost energy efficiency before the construction of passive houses after 2020."

The construction firms admit they must look to the future and insist they are discouraged by the higher cost of modern investments. "Energy efficient housing construction is slowly creeping into the Polish market," Bartosz Turek, an analyst of the real estate business, says. "The low return of profit from this kind of investment may deter because the return of profits is expected to take place in many years to come."

"The developers who build such houses are getting an upper hand over the competitors who do not do it," Turek says, adding that already now about 20% of new housing projects employ energy-saving technologies such as solar panels or heat pumps.

The developers also say that tough energy efficiency rules, which are going to be compulsory after 2020, prompted them to take over the initiative in promoting and building energy-efficient houses. "We enrich our offers [by] introducing more and more energy-efficient technologies and later we will reach the final target, which is construction of passive houses," Marcin Gesing, an official for Skanska Poland, says.

Office space in so-called Green Buildings, where energy use is about 25% less than in traditional office buildings, are becoming more and more popular. "The energy efficiency is becoming an asset for which the clients are ready to pay higher prices at a time when costs of energy are growing," says Paulina Misiak, an official in the Cushman and Wakefield Company.

At least eight environmentally friendly office buildings are operating in Warsaw, and more are to be built in Gdansk and Katowice. Most of them have been awarded ecological certificates such as the BRE Environmental Assessment Method or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

BRICKS & MORTAR: A lack of energy in passive housing

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