Passivhaus Affiliate

2019 International Passivhaus Conference: Achieve Better Buildings

The Trust’s Chair, Chris Herring attended the International Passivhaus Conference, the doppelganger of the big event later this year to be held in Gaobeidian, China in October.  300-400 delegates congregated in Heidelberg Altstadt to share knowledge & experiences on achieving better buildings. Below are highlights from Chris’s blog. Read the full article here.

Passive House Conference Heidelberg 2019


My journey this year to Heidelberg was by ferry from the north of England, and wonderful European trains. In fact, I am writing this blog while speeding up the Rhine valley – what could be more delightful! The Heidelberg conference felt quite different from any of the other International Passivhaus Conferences I have attended since my first in 2007. 


A climate emergency

The framing of this conference was the urgency of the challenges we now face. For me the change has been the deep emotional acceptance that this is an existential crisis for humanity which will have fundamental impact not in some difficult-to-visualise distant future, but for immediately following generations.  I look at my young grandchildren and can only wonder about the world they are inheriting.  The IPCC 1.5 C report late last year, the rise of Extinction Rebellion, the extraordinary impact of a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl – who could have even imagined this a year or two ago? And, as I write we have the publication of the report from the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, cataloguing the devastating impact we humans have had on natural systems and the potential for catastrophe in our planetary systems. So the huge question facing us all is: can we reverse all of this within a handful of years? We no longer have the luxury of time. I was heartened by Wolfgang Feist’s plangent introduction to the conference programme.  


We live in times that are confusing to many, where scientific facts are called fake news and fundamental ethical principles are called into question.  Such phases have happened time and again throughout history and it is necessary to remember that the resulting totalitarianism has never contributed to the solution. 

The science today shows us that we are overusing natural resources and on the brink of irreversibly changing the planet’s climate in a way in which a reasonable civilizational coexistence can no longer function.  This analysis may not suit us, but it does not make it wrong.  

A gradual transition to a sustainable economy can work: presuming, however, that we start now at the latest.  This means no new fossil fuel power plants…., no new vehicle lines with internal combustion engines, and in the long run no more fossil fuelled heating systems in our buildings.”

Professor Wolfgang Feist, Passivhaus Institute.


Regional Passivhaus Placemaking

Located in Heidelberg, the Bahnstadt project has been the largest scale Passivhaus project in the world (although I suspect this status has been, or will shortly be, eclipsed by Gaobeidian).  But there was much more going on here, from making it the second most bicycle-centred city in Germany, to having reduced the average citizen’s carbon footprint to 8.5 tonnes CO2 per person per annum.  There are subsidies for retrofitting old buildings, an innovative heat storage system, an innovation park where they are about to produce organic solar cells through 3D printing (if the simultaneous translator got this right!), to a whole new section of the city – the Patrick Henry village – building on the success of the Bahnstadt. 

The Bahnstadt Heidelberg The Bahnstadt Heidelberg

The big lesson here was that Heidelberg took control. By purchasing large areas and setting up its own development company, it was able to place planning requirements for the Passivhaus standard on all development here.  At first there was no contractor from Heidelberg interested in building or able to build here and the initial buildings went to outside contractors.  Now the picture is quite different.  As Professor Eckart Wurzner, Lord Mayor of Heidelberg said, cities must be pioneers in climate protection and to show leadership, as we have also seen in the UK for example in Exeter and Norwich

While much smaller than Heidelberg, the nearby city of Walldorf has also shown leadership with all Passivhaus new build, and an ambitious retrofit programme among other measures. 


Municipalities must be the pioneers’ to inspire their citizens. Climate protection is akin to fire protection – both absolutely essential. 

 Christiane Staab, Mayor of Walldorf

And if anyone doubts it in Walldorf she recommends they take a trip into their local forests, which are now dying.


Nearly Zero Energy Buildings

Several sessions looked at the different faces of NZEB.  To be effective we know that Passivhaus understanding needs to sit right at the centre of this.  I was quite shocked to find Germany, the great economic and moral driver of the EU, is actually failing to meet its mandatory targets and is likely to be subject to major fines over the next few years. The German government would not risk compromising the construction of new houses by introducing higher standards;  A story which is sadly all too familiar in the UK. 

Some interesting work was reported by the Affordable Zero Energy Buildings project looking at the key drivers to increased costs, and how these can be reduced.  Not surprising perhaps that the key message was one very familiar to those involved with Passivhaus – involving all parties at as early a stage as possible in the design process and including partnership working, thinking NZEB from the very beginning, the importance of getting the contract right and of including performance guarantees within it. 


Stratospheric scale

Passivhaus Gaobeidian, ChinaIt is only change at large scale that can now address the depth of crisis we face. We know that Passivhaus has the lessons to address at least some of the issues in the built sector. This must mean rapid scaling of Passivhaus both in the market, but perhaps more importantly through engaging with policymakers. This was undoubtedly a strand that wove through and underlay this conference, as speakers said throughout, and Helmut Krapmeier emphasised while chairing the final session, we need more government policy uptake and that means more lobbying. Can we get that message over, and can we do it in a handful of years?

The scale of construction in China and developing countries is on a different scale from anything we will see in Europe or North America – think multiple new cities the size of London within a relatively few years from now as the twin drivers of population growth and urbanisation continue to accelerate early in this century. Gaobeidian, is a completely new city being developed entirely to the Passivhaus standard. Where China leads other developing countries will follow, so the Passivhaus Institute has been working very hard to support Chinese colleagues in their aspiration to develop Passivhaus at a scale we can only begin to imagine in Europe.  

Holding the main conference in China makes sense because of these rapid developments, but it conjures a carbon footprint conflict for many. While we undoubtedly need to share knowledge across the world, we also have a moral responsibility to consider flying very carefully.  


The International Passive House Affiliates CouncilInternational Passivhaus Association Affiliates Council

The Affiliates Council of the International Passivhaus Association considered  how to develop Passivhaus at scale in our own countries, but also how to respond to the likely upsurge in interest. What is interesting is that complex systems do not change in linear ways, so we really do need to be ready for the societal tipping points where things change rapidly and unexpectedly. They might just give us the opportunity to make the change that we clearly need at this critical time. 

Are we ready??

Chris Herring is Chair of both the Passivhaus Trust and the International Passivhaus Association Affiliates Council, and Director of PHT member Green Building Store.

Hear more about mainstreaming Passivhaus for the masses at the 2019 UK Passivhaus Conference in Manchester this October.

Mainstreaming Passivhaus by 2030


Further Information

Green Building Store: Heidelberg Passivhaus conference: Achieve Better Buildings May 2019

Achieve better buildings: International Passivhaus Conference




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8th May 2019

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