Grand Revelations

Over the past few months I’ve cultivated a set of guilty indulgences to help get myself through the final gruelling stages of my PhD. These indulgences range from edible treats, to peaceful walks on the beach, to rekindling my voracious reading habits.

One thing I’ve found myself particularly enjoying is watching Grand Designs. I think the attraction has many facets — emphathising with the difficulties of managing such a large project, Kevin McCloud’s insightful comments, and of course the inspiration of sustainable buildings.

The most recent episode to air in NZ was about the Crossway house in Kent, crowned by a beautiful parabolic arch and built to high sustainable standards — in fact it’s so sustainable that it subsequently became one of the first UK houses to receive PassivHaus certification.

A passive house is a house that does not require any active (externally powered) heating or cooling. Instead sunshine, insulation, strategic shading, and ventilation systems contribute to a comfortable living environment. Any other energy requirements in the Crossway house are met by solar panels and a biomass burner. Their water needs are also met on-site by rainwater harvesting. During his final visit, Kevin McCloud asks whether the house lives up to its goals as a passive house. The owners, Richard and Sophie, reply that instead of paying electricity and heating bills, they actually generate excess power that they can sell back into the grid for a profit.

Let’s stop and think about that for a second: They don’t pay utility bills. Instead they receive an income for the energy they generate. Isn’t that a revolutionary concept?!

Why do we trudge along in our daily lives, switching out an old light bulb here, turning off a running tap there, hoping that all our little savings will make a difference? If we’re to survive the profound changes that we will encounter in the coming decades, incremental gains in efficiency just won’t cut the mustard. We need radical transformations in the way we do things and this will only come from radical shifts in perception. The revolutionary idea that our homes can generate more than enough power to meet our needs is one of these.

Of course, not everyone can afford to build a brand new passive house. And, quite frankly, if we all tried to then the impact on resources like land and building materials could be devastating. But the financial and environmental arguments for passive design principles are strong, and all new developments and renovations should strive to create passive buildings for the benefit of us all.

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