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Connecting Passive House and the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In 2015, the UN set 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be reached by 2030. Envisioned as a ‘‘blueprint to achieve a better and a more sustainable future for all’’ [UN 2020] they cover a wide array of fields and topics. The international Passive House Standard plays a direct role in achieving many of these global aims for the built environment. This article outlines the main topical areas where Passive House aligns and contributes to the SDGs.

The Passive House Standard and its association with the SDGs

Out of all the SDGs set by the UN, only certain topics can be connected to the Passive House Standard. In order to identify how Passive House contributes to the SDGs, a list of relevant and recurring themes was derived from reviewing the targets and indicators of the individual SDGs, which were then summarized into eight umbrella categories:

  • Health and well-being: Contributing to health and well-being by providing a cost-efficient, resilient, and healthy environment for building users.

  • Economic and job creation: Boosting the economy by providing job opportunities across a spectrum of building professionals, ranging from manufacturing and construction to design and development.

  • Social housing and energy poverty: Helping combat fuel poverty and climate change by lowering heating and cooling energy demand, and thus carbon emissions, through high energy efficiency.

  • Education: Building capacity and spreading knowledge, both locally and internationally, by educating professionals and the public on the impact of building construction on climate action.

  • Resilient and innovative buildings: Creating durable buildings, which through energy efficiency, are resilient to fluctuating energy prices and bloated fossil fuel demand, as well as mould and moisture damage.

  • Sustainable consumption and production: Improving access to affordable clean energy by reducing energy demand and making use of renewable energy resources.

  • International Cooperation: Promoting climate protection and sustainable construction methods by building a strong international community.

  • Climate change protection and accountability: Ensuring accountability for meeting our construction thresholds and climate goals by providing quality assured buildings based on a transparent, performance-based building standard.

Using these categories, SDGs with relevant targets or indicators were evaluated as being associated with Passive House, while others were considered unrelated with no tangible link of the Passive House Standard meaningfully influencing the particular SDG. As such, 10 applicable SDGs have been carefully selected from the original list of 17. As the UN has sub-categorized multiple targets and indicators under each overarching SDG, only SDGs with at least one target which Passive House contributes towards are considered to fit within one or more umbrella categories as listed above.

2.1 SDG 1 – End poverty in all its forms

The Passive House Standard contributes to SDG 1 in two main ways: Firstly, Passive House makes a notable contribution to social housing and reducing energy poverty. Social housing is a necessary service for communities. By ensuring it is built to the Passive House standard, councils invest in equal access to healthy and comfortable homes for the vulnerable, as well as in climate resilience. The extremely low heating and cooling costs in Passive House buildings also aid in tackling fuel poverty, which the European fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency (EPEE) consortium defines as when a household finds it difficult or impossible to ensure adequate heating in the dwelling at an affordable price. The EPEE study shows that 1 out 7 homes in Europe are at a risk of fuel poverty, clearly indicating that this is a major and widespread problem [EPEE Project, 2009]. By reducing auxiliary costs in the home, the Passive House standard also plays a role in financial security, allowing this money to be saved and put to use on other necessities, benefiting not only the individual family but also the wider economy. Secondly, Passive House ensures that economic growth is inclusive and provides sustainable jobs by covering the whole spectrum of building professionals including architects, planners, scientists, tradespeople, suppliers, manufacturers, contractors, and, property developers. This is also key to growing the international Passive House community which promotes equal access and further learning opportunities for novices and experts alike.

2.2 SDG 3 – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all

Modern life sees many of us spend much of our day-to-day lives indoors. We work in offices, send our children to learn in schools, and also lead increasingly indoor-focused lives at home. A study conducted by the National Human Activity Pattern Survey concluded that on average, people spend approximately 86.9% of their time indoors [NHAPS 2001]. With lifestyles such as these, it is all the more important that our buildings provide a healthy environment. Two major considerations for meeting the Passive House standard are health and well-being. Building users benefit from high thermal comfort and high air quality. The uninterrupted thermal envelope and mechanical ventilation play a key role in the health of building users. Poor fabric design is one of the leading causes of mould and moisture build-up. By recognising that the thermal envelope around the spaces where we live is necessary to regulate indoor comfort and constructing this in a thermal bridge-free and adequately insulated manner coupled with mechanical ventilation for a consistent fresh air supply, Passive House buildings aid in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. High-quality construction also contributes to their longevity and thus, sustainability [McGuiness 2016]. The mechanical ventilation filters incoming air to ensure external pollutants do not affect the fresh, internal air supply, thus reducing the rate of respiratory issues [Rosemeier/ Brimblecombe 2017]. Along with implementing the Passive House Standard for the well-being in residential buildings, the standard can also be implemented for non-residential projects. Schools, offices, and other commercial buildings benefit from a lack of draughts and low levels of carbon dioxide owing to the fresh air supply, which has been shown to support students’ concentration in Passive House schools. Together, these health-based benefits can substantially reduce the rate of illnesses caused by air pollution and contamination and by these means improve the health outcomes of building users.

2.3 SDG 4 – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote learning opportunities for all

Passive House is effective for building users who benefit from a better living, learning, and working environment; and also provides opportunities for further education and best practice implementation worldwide. Passive House training is available for architects, engineers, tradespeople, and a wide range of other professionals in the construction chain. This is because knowledge transfer and training are a fundamental part of the quality assurance process of Passive House. The substantial number of courses and training providers continues to grow, increasing the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills for employment and entrepreneurship. This in turn ensures that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills required to promote sustainable development.

2.4 SDG 7 – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all

Passive House buildings are reliably energy-efficient and benefit from comparatively low fuel costs. By reducing operational energy demand in the building and optionally integrating renewable energy sources, Passive House substantially improves the level of energy efficiency and encourages energy supply from renewable sources. To provide an example for the order of magnitude: A Passive House new build has around 90% reduced heating demand compared with the existing German building stock. This data has been proved through statistically significant empirical studies and has been confirmed in a large number of projects [Passive House Institute 2015]. Reducing the energy needs to the low levels of a Passive House is a prerequisite for enabling and achieving a sustainable renewable energy supply on a large scale. With the focus on energy efficiency thus directly contributes to reducing reliance on fossil fuels and making sustainable and modern energy a possibility for all. The higher Passive House classes (plus and premium) go the extra mile by calling for varying levels of renewable energy integration into these highly energy-efficient buildings. This is important in not only increasing the share of clean renewable energy in the energy mix, but also in localising the energy market, often to the extent of having on-site energy generation. In some cases, this means surplus energy can be sold into the grid.

2.5 SDG 8 – Promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth and productive employment for all

Energy efficiency is a job-creating sector. McKinsey published a study this year showing that as a sector, energy efficiency provides more new jobs than the fossil fuel industry and even the renewable energy sector [McKinsey 2020]. In the case of construction, a lot of these jobs must be done locally. This helps smaller, local job markets thrive and creates opportunities for small to medium enterprises. A spectrum of jobs ranging from design and energy consultation, to construction and manufacture of components is generated. Today, with the threat climate change poses to economies of the world, investments in this sector not only serve to create and capacity building opportunities but also to combat climate change while building resilient industries and buildings.

2.6 SDG 9 – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation

According to the International Energy Agency, building construction and operational costs alone makeup 36% of the global final energy consumption and 39% of total direct and indirect CO2 emissions [IEA 2019]. The Passive House Standard is not only quality assured with no performance gap, but it also significantly reduces operating costs and emissions and supports the uptake of renewable energy. This makes Passive Houses resilient to fluctuating energy prices and bloated fossil fuel demand. Along with the many strengths of Passive Houses, they also stand the test of time, are resistant to mould and moisture damage. Due to their high level of insulation and airtight and thermal bridge-free design, draughts, as well as excessive heat losses, are eliminated. As an innovation, this standard is not only applicable across all climates, but it is also public; meaning anyone can design and construct a Passive House building. This makes Passive Houses a novel and comprehensive solution to taking urgent action to combat climate change, meet sustainability goals for human settlements, and aids in the innovation of building materials and components to a more cost-effective implementation into a range of climates. Passive House is constantly evolving thanks to its close link between research and practice to develop solutions and push market development. Thus, there are increasingly new and improved components, building typologies and construction materials and methods made available to achieve the Passive House standard.

2.7 SDG 11 – Make cities and human settlements safe, resilient, inclusive, and sustainable

SDG 11 tackles many of the aforementioned issues, but on a city level. Health and wellbeing, resilient and innovative buildings, sustainable consumption and production, economy and job creation, and climate change protection and accountability all play a role in making cities and human settlements safe, resilient, inclusive, and sustainable. Thus, the aspects of Passive House that contribute to these topics, also contribute to this SDG. Buildings are the fabric of cities and are the key to climate protection in urban environments. By integrating the Passive House Standard into building regulations and guidelines, cities can unlock a more sustainable future for the people.

2.8 SDG 12 – Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

In many urbanised environments, new builds are not the major topic on the agenda, rather accomplishing a sustainable existing building stock is the major focus. In order to realise sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources in the building sector, a renovation wave will be necessary. However, achieving the classic Passive House Standard in retrofits of existing buildings is not always a realistic goal. This can be due to the orientation the existing building faces, basement walls that create thermal bridges even after refurbishment, and other associated challenges of existing buildings. For these projects, the Passive House Institute developed EnerPHit, the standard for certified highly energy-efficient retrofits, which can reduce heating energy demand significantly, close to the new-build Passive House level. EnerPHit can be achieved as a single deep retrofit or in a step-by-step fashion, exchanging components of the building as they reach the end of their lifecycle for high-quality Passive House ones. This ensures life cycle appropriate consumption patterns and a high-quality retrofit that prevents lock-in effects and thus wasted opportunity and energy. Not only does retrofitting reuse of existing building stock, thus reducing waste generation by preventing the need for new builds – a more sustainable production pattern; but by achieving highly-energy efficient retrofits, Passive House reduces operational energy demand, ensuring sustainable energy consumption.

2.9 SDG 13 – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

With the Passive House’s grounding in physics and clear, scientific, performance-based criteria, the impact on energy demand and carbon emissions is substantial and unparalleled. Passive House currently focuses on the operative side of energy footprint and the standard does not prescribe a particular building design, but rather sets a transparent performance criteria based on building physics. Thus it can be concluded that the Passive House Standard is not just for new builds, but can also reduce heating and cooling demand in retrofit projects, a major topic in existing, heavily built-up environments. It is significant to note that while developed urban environments may not achieve the Passive House standard for new builds, the EnerPHit standard for retrofits is available to avoid future so-called “lock-in” effects due to energy-inefficient retrofitting strategies. By taking an ‘if it must be done, it should be done properly’ approach, the EnerPHit standard prevents missed opportunities to combat climate change.

The Passive House standard is not only internationally applicable, but also transparent and replicable. When implemented by municipalities, beacon projects can serve to inspire better local building practices and guidelines and create entirely new high-performance districts, such as the Heidelberg Bahnstadt [PHI 2015]. The city has been able to gain valuable experience from the construction of Passive House buildings including a gymnasium, school, and fire station, and apply this to further development projects, while serving as a role model for other cities to follow worldwide, including Gaobeidian, China. Furthermore, the Passive House Standard is public and available to all, resulting in a proven solution for the private and public sectors, with solutions for new builds, retrofits, residential and non-residential buildings. Over 25 years, the Passive House Institute and more recently the International Passive House Association have advocated for better building policies and increased uptake of the standard worldwide. By building better and passive, the public and private citizens, businesses, and authorities can be assured that the building is doing its part to combat climate change, just as the results in PHPP illustrate.

2.10 SDG 17 – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

The International Passive House Association (iPHA) was founded in 2010 to increase the international knowledge transfer and uptake of the Passive House Standard. iPHA is an international network for Passive House stakeholders, which facilitates the dissemination of Passive House knowledge globally. Together with a global network of architects, planners, suppliers, manufacturers, scientists and research partners, policymakers, property developers, training centers, building certifiers, and Passive House professionals, the Passive House community is truly international. This network provides access to Passive House education and implementation worldwide and with the affiliates, iPHA has improved awareness and policy uptake of the Passive House Standard in municipal codes.

3. Conclusion

If both the public and the private sector increase their implementation of the Passive House Standard, the results on a larger scale can lead to a substantial reduction of the total building-related carbon emissions, meet development targets including health and wellbeing, climate action, affordable and clean energy, and responsible consumption and production among others. In a period when policymakers and the private sector are making decisions about the direction their building guidelines and business development will go, it is important to highlight the way the Passive House Standard can lead to better health, social, economic, and environmental outcomes. As a well-known and widely used tool to explain the direction the UN encourages leadership towards, the SDGs are an ideal backdrop to illustrate where the Passive House Standard fits into global aims. It goes without saying that, with these 10, Passive House fits in well.

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