How the transition towards nZEB is going to change the market

The target date for the EU requirements on nZEB becoming mandatory in Ireland is set for 31st December 2018, for all new buildings owned or occupied by public authorities, and for 31st December 2020, for all remaining new buildings (EPBD Recast, 2010). In the UK, the upcoming Brexit may leave the NZEB policy in an uncertain position, however, it is believed the UK building regulations will be amended in line with the EU requirements, due to the UK’s general need to reduce Carbon emissions. With only three years to go, the shift in the construction sector towards nZEB is raising a complex challenge that will affect developers, constructors, architects, designers, and the industry of building products, which will all be challenged to rethink the traditional approach to the building system.

Table 1. nZEB performance standard in Ireland. Source: DCLG, 2014

Table 2. On site performance target, nZEB UK. Source: Zero Carbon Hub, 2013

The Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), in collaboration with ZEBRA2020, published in 2016 a handbook titled “Boosting the nZEB market transition” (BPIE, 2016), providing recommendations for policy makers and stakeholders. After examining information and data from the construction sector across the EU countries, the report identifies eight main barriers to the uptake of an nZEB market:

  • The absence of accessible and reliable data concerning the European buildings.
  • Better skilled workers are needed all throughout the value chain to ensure a smooth transition to nZEB and beyond.
  • More robust compliance and monitoring regimes are also required to ensure quality.
  • The reliability and usefulness of Energy Performance Certificates are often questioned.
  • The wide variety of national nZEB definitions (of which many have not yet been adopted) and concepts makes a meaningful comparison across borders difficult.
  • Non-existing lighthouse role of public buildings.
  • Energy poverty and vulnerable residents is a European-wide problem.
  • Lack of a clear forward-looking perspective to guide the market.

On this basis, the analysis undertaken results in the following recommendations:

  • A broader stakeholder’s engagement
  • The need for long-term strategies
  • Continuous assessment and review, based on data collection and quality assurance
  • Empowerment of local and private initiatives

At a national scale in Ireland, the Irish Department of Environment, Community and Local Government published the guideline “Towards Zero Energy Building in Ireland” (2012). The Plan set a national definition for nZEB and outlines a guideline for new buildings; public buildings and existing buildings.

Figure 2. Source: DCLG, 2014

While setting a strategy towards Zero Energy Buildings, the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, explicitly mentions Passive House as design strategies [that] should be incorporated and prioritised in all new build projects and, where practical, in existing building projects; and continues asserting that the Department’s passive house research strand is one area of focus that will address potential requirements for new buildings to consume ‘nearly zero’ energy.

The idea of buildings’ energy efficiency combined with renewables is far from being something new or unfamiliar for Passivhaus. The Passive House Standard is very much focused on energy efficiency, rather than energy production. The current renewable energy sources, such as solar PV, is still affected by seasonal gaps and storage issues, making the building fabric efficiency an important aspect of the solution. The small energy demand of Passivhaus buildings makes it easier to cover the energy needs and represents the ideal method of achieving nZEB. The recent additional Passive house certification standards, of Passive House Plus and Passive House Premium, recognise the role of reducing the Primary energy demand by the implementation of on site or off-site renewables. From the perspective of a market transition, the renewable sector is expected to experience a significant growth, especially for domestic usage when nZEB is mandatory.

Despite ambitious national strategies, the Irish market is affected by a severe skills shortage. The recent economic crisis forced a substantial number of skilled workers to relocate outside Ireland, depriving the construction sector of some of its best expertise. As reported by the Irish Building Magazine, “the demand for LEAN, BIM and Green construction practice poses new challenges for the sector and requires specifically qualified and skilled professionals. Concern about the skills shortage within the Irish building sector has been expressed by the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), which commissioned the report “Demand for Skills in Construction to 2020”.

By 2020, three years from now, the European Directive on building energy performance will be fully in place, requiring all new buildings to be nZEB. According to the CIF report, the average annual growth rate in terms of construction volume in the period between 2016 and 2020 is projected at around 9 percent, with 32,500 new buildings completed and entering the market. Assuming positive and similar trends for the future, the Irish construction sector needs the appropriate professional capacities and expertise to deliver the expected output, in accordance with the EU requirements.

Ahead of the institutions, a section of the private sector is working already to deliver a new range of quality products capable of addressing better ‘U’ and ‘ψ’ values and the new challenges that nZEB is posing. This is the case for Quinn Building Products whose recent seminar, entitled “bridge the knowledge gap” tackled the subject of thermal bridge design for energy efficiency and nZEB. The technology needed is based upon Passivhaus principles of thermal bridge design, and will better address nZEB requirements for the construction industry.

The same innovation in product design is made by Kingspan, Ecological Building Systems, Passive House Academy and other PHAI Patron Members, whose commitment is to develop and deliver higher quality products and upskilling programmes for the nZEB requirements.

The building market is facing the need for a rapid change. With this in mind, building to the Passivhaus standard, makes the gaining of the nZEB standard not as difficult as first anticipated. The energy efficiency of Passivhaus construction means that achieving the nZEB Primary Energy use of 45kWh/m2yr, is achievable with only a moderate amount of additional renewable energy. This benefit granted by Passivhaus is demonstrated by Madeira Oaks, the Enniscorthy scheme recently developed by Michael Bennett & Sons in County Wexford. The Madeira complex is a 12 unit low energy residential development, fully compliant with the Passive House (PH) Standard and also achieving the Near Zero Energy Building (nZEB) requirement. The units were built according to the passive house standard and then equipped with solar photovoltaic panels to generate electricity. The developer accepted the challenge of demonstrating that for the building sector, going passive is not only possible, but it actually allows to go beyond and acts as a facilitator to reach nZEB. Bennett & Sons also proved that all of this can be done at reduced cost, whilst simultaneously providing exceptional comfort and quality construction.

Figure3. Madeira Oaks development, Enniscorthy

The Madeira Oaks development attracted the interest of Wexford planning authorities in applying passive house method to social housing schemes. An increasing number of developers and builders are planning low-energy developments as well, driven by EU Directives and national legislation. Developments similar to Madeira Oaks are expected to spread nationwide over time. Passivhaus benefits builders and clients at the same time, and enables an easier transition to nZEB. If the market is going to change towards nZEB, the construction to Passive House standard and certification are the ideal means to achieve this transition.

Related Reports

Zero Carbon Hub, Zero Carbon Homes and Nearly Zero Energy Buildings: UK Building Regulation and EU Directives

Zero Carbon Hub (2013) Zero Carbon Strategies. For tomorrow’s new homes

Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (2012) Towards Zero Energy Buildings in Ireland. Planning for 2020 and beyond