The energy over-consumption is threatening the very existence of the human civilization on the planet is a view echoed by scientists – and indeed, everyday citizens – the world over. The question of course is what can be done about this most basic of existential threats.
The Passive House concept goes back to the late 1980s and early 1990s and is derived from the basic physical low conservation of energy. (Dr. Feist is a physicist by training.) Passive Houses aren’t so much architectural designs as they are voluntary standards that builders agree to adhere to in order to build extremely low-energy houses whose ecological footprints are tiny. The Passive House standard is a unified standard across the globe, based on solid science, but is not uniform for every country because the standards are wholly voluntary. Passive House Korea (PHIKO), for example, stipulates that Passive Houses use 5L of natural gas per square meter per year – as opposed to PHI’s (Passive House Institute based in Germany) recommendation of 1.5L. Still, Dr. Feist says, any improved standard, even if it is not passive house, is better than nothing.
With the Earth reaching her regenerative capacity, the Passive House movement has caught on worldwide. Today, there are roughly 20,000 Passive Houses all over the world (depending on the certification criteria), and energy efficient construction is gaining traction in China.
Korea IT Times met with Dr. Feist to discuss the Passive House activity in Korea.
Q: What kind of support does the German government currently have for Passive houses
A: There are no special subsidies. But there is a general subsidy for using energy efficient technology. And this general subsidy can be used of course for building Passive Houses. The general subsidy is actually really helpful.
Q: Korea's greenhouse gas emissions account for about 21% of the total construction sector. What do you see as the main challenges for Passive House in Korea, and what kind of policy support do you think the Korean government needs to provide in order for the Passive House concept to thrive
A: You need two things. First, know-how and qualification for engineers and architects because at the most basic level there is a need to know how to design such energy efficient homes. So you need education. The government could help to establish an education system, established at universities for basic architectural and civil engineering. It would just be a few hours of building physics and building technology for architects and civil engineers. Also, they could create the possibility of post-graduate education so that architects who are already practicing can get their needed education. You need it now – you can’t wait for the next generation of students. So education is very important, for the new generation of architects as well as for those practicing right now.
Second, there is a need for the building industry to produce the appropriate components and make them easily available on the market; for this to happen, you need to encourage industry to further develop the components. There can be big progress if industry is motivated to do the research. So there should be a good research and development (R&D) program.
Q: The Korean government's zero energy certification system and the Passive House certification system were both designed with similar intent. However, different certification schemes are used. What efforts are needed to systematize and unify Passive House standards
A: The Passive House standard is a unified standard all around the globe and is based on solid science available to everyone. But I don’t think that we need to have a uniform set of standards everywhere. It’s no problem to also have some competition in the approaches. Anyways, most of these things are just protectionist – that is what I see in Europe. Every country in Europe comes up with its own standard, and if you analyse why they are different, you see the influence of certain lobbies. I don’t like it, but I don’t see a way to overcome it, either. Our approach [at PHI] is to have a general approach just based on the science, which is available everywhere. And what we try to do is to get it at least accepted everywhere. That would be a way to ease the path.
Everywhere in the world, the Passive House standard is much more challenging and rigorous than every national standard. So, if the government just accepts the Passive House standard it would be fulfilling their regulations, which would ease the development.
Q: Many government officials affiliated with Korea's energy and construction sectors attended today’s conference. What would you like to say specifically to them
A: First of all, don’t be so afraid of innovation. It’s been proven again and again from the whole history of technology and industry that innovation is the most important part for improving the living conditions. The second thing is don’t be too influenced by special interests because in the end, it doesn’t help. The third thing is – and this takes courage – of course, if you give subsidies for R&D, there is always the risk that some results might not end with real progress. There is that risk. My recommendation is to take that risk because with really good R&D, you cannot guarantee its success in each individual case. But there will be a lot of success in some of the projects and this will outweigh all the others that won’t be as successful. This, however, does take courage. But it is one of the problems with politics I see everywhere – that politicians don’t have this courage.
Q: How do you feel about government subsidies It seems counterintuitive, but you seem to suggest that the Passive House concept works better without a lot of unnecessary subsidies.
A: We are always trying to convince the governments to not give too much subsidies -- to subsidize only those things that wouldn’t be done anyhow. Why give a subsidy to someone who is buying a new car if he’s going to buy it anyway You could give him a subsidy if he buys a more efficient car – that’s ok. Too many subsidies make the innovation process lazy.
As an example, the concept of the city of Beijing is a good idea to stimulate innovation. Their energy efficiency incentive programme is a subsidy of 800 RMB/m² this year, 600 RMB from 2019, 400 RMB from 2020 … and so on. This will really help to initialize the market. And it is being combined with strict quality demands: These buildings will have to be as efficient as Passive Houses. I'm quite sure that this will help to start a strong development in China.
I'm not in general against subsidies, but they will have to be well placed to foster innovation and help investors to choose sustainable options. My recommendation always was to have fixed values (not dependent on the prices), which are not too high, as it's not necessary to cover all the costs. And there should be a plan to reduce the subsidies from year to year.
Q: After you founded the Passive House Institute (PHI) in Germany in 1996, (1991 was the first Passive House demonstration project), the cumulative effect it has had around the world in reducing greenhouse gases has been significant. Please briefly describe what you see are the greatest accomplishments of PHI.
A: This is a difficult question because we are still on the forefront fighting for these developments. Take the example of Europe. The European energy consumption is declining. When we first started to try to convince society and politicians to invest in energy efficiency, they laughed at us. They didn’t believe we could even stop the growth of energy consumption. In 1986 we made a study for the German government about what would be the possibility of higher energy efficiency in the future. And we showed several scenarios – one “business as usual” where energy demand would have grown, a second which would have it stabilized and even one with a reduction. And they decided to not even publish that part on reduction because they thought it unrealistic. They thought maybe we might be able to cut growth, but now we are actually on that declining path. So you see it’s been a really successful development. However, this is not only “our” accomplishment. There are many scientists and engineers working in that field all around the globe. We might have contributed to it.
Q: As of 2016, Passive Houses were classified into three levels: Passive House Classic, Plus, and Premium. Please briefly explain the differences between these three levels.
A: Classic is the basis for the solution to the climate problem. If everybody would go with the Classic Passive House, we will not have any problems in the future because in this case the generation of renewable energy can be developed in a way that will be sufficient for everybody.
Passive House Plus has in addition some renewable energy generation incorporated within the building that is designed in a way so that it is just enough if everybody would do the same thing. Now it’s clear that that won’t happen because there are some situations (shading in urban areas e.g.) where you just can’t do much generation. So there will of course have to be additional renewable energy generation by wind generators, biomass, tidal energy and other sources.
Passive House Premium is for you if you are lucky and not building in an urban agglomeration. If we are in an urban agglomeration with high-rise buildings, it’s very difficult to generate more energy than you are consuming because you have a very high density there, and solar remains the same whether you have high or low density. Now the high-density solution, from a sustainability viewpoint, is always better than one with low-density, because the low-density needs much more space.
Because you have high-rise buildings in urban areas, the amount of energy you can create there is limited. Passive House Premium is a way for those living in the rural areas to generate surplus renewable energy which can be distributed mainly by the electricity grid to the urban areas; like most of the agriculture is taking place in rural areas. So the Premium standard is much more conducive to rural areas.
Q: What are some of the new innovations in Passive House designs and building engineering in Germany
A: There is no such thing as passive architectural design. Architects have freedom in their design. There are many different architectural approaches but that’s difficult for me to answer as a physicist. On the technological front, there is innovation going on with respect to vacuum technologies, such as vacuum glazing and vacuum insulation and for building integrated HVAC-systems. At the moment it’s still at an early stage. There are some people who are very optimistic but everything we’ve tested so far has shortcomings still. For example, the technology to keep it vacuum-tight for decades, what you need in the building sector – is still a problem. But in my assessment, it will still take a few years. And it will be quite expensive.
Q: Would subsidies help with this problem
A: No. I would subsidize the research and development of vacuum glazing. I wouldn’t subsidize the product because the products are not better than the available triple glazings,the energy efficiency is the same. Subsidies will only change the market competition without any important environmental impact.
Q: Passive House Institute Korea (PHIKO) states that Passive Houses can be 5 liters (5 litters of natural gas). Because Korean government agencies have not established clear standards for Passive Houses there is a tendency towards PHIKO's opinions being held up. The need to manage some of these issues is necessary so that the right Passive House standard can be applied to Korea. How could PHI manage such differences in opinion
A: Then that’s not a Passive House. That’s an ordinary low energy house.
As for the need to “manage it,” we can’t manage it. It’s politics. It has nothing to do with science. And we are not a policy-making agency. So the only thing we can do is make recommendations based on solid science. This is a worldwide existing standard so if somebody really wants to build a Passive House, they can use our recommendations (that is 1,5 L for a real passive house) and they can use our logo. Watering down the standard does not help to create incentives for technological development.
Q: PHIKO has publicly stated that it will comply with the US Passive House association system, not the German PHI. However, they are linking the data of PHI in Germany and the IPHA homepage to promote it as if the two are related. What do you think about protecting the intellectual property rights of PHI in Germany
A: We don’t have a “property” concept. We are scientists. We have published the science behind our recommendations and everybody who checks the science can see that this is sound science. So the only property we have protected is our PHI logo. If there is anything misleading, I would be very saddened, but we are not going to fight legal battles all around the world about things like that. That would distract us from the science. So it’s more or less up to the politicians and press to show those issues. We have a scientific basis for promoting the Passive House design so I would want to urge and encourage people to follow those designs but we can’t force anyone to do so. But of course we can forbid the use of our logo because which has worldwide protection. A Passive House is a passive house, which means you don’t need active technology to keep good thermal comfort. If you try to define that to be 5 liters, it’s like trying to go to the moon in a hot air balloon.
Q: As reported by the Korea IT Times, the Korean government (MOLIT) has implemented the Urban Renewal New Deal and announced plans to invest $42 billion over the next five years. Each year, $8.3 billion is planned for new homes and facilities through urban maintenance and mini reconstruction. What are your thoughts on these plans
A: This is a good concept but I hope they use the money well. I would say, have a look at the Beijing government’s concept of giving money towards real progress compared to what will be done anyhow, regardless of the money. Don’t finance things that will be done anyhow.
In Germany, this is implemented by law. The government is not allowed to spend money on things that are going to happen anyhow. This is a principle that the government can demand mandatory actions, like, you have to build in a dust filter in an automobile, but if it’s made mandatory, we are not allowed to spend money subsidizing it. So you can only do one thing. You can subsidize it or you can make it mandatory - not both.