Interview with Jeff Colley, editor of Passive House Plus Magazine

December 23, 2019

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Michael Ingui and I recently had the chance to interview Jeff Colley, editor of Passive House Plus magazine, a major inspiration for us at Passive House Accelerator. The conversation ranged from Big Pharma, to Green Party building reg reforms, to Passive House innovation as a way to attract young talent to the construction industry, to Jeff’s assessment of where the Passive House movement is headed internationally. Enjoy!

Zack Semke: Can you start with what motivated you to start Passive House Plus?

Jeff Colley: When we rebranded as Passive House Plus back seven or eight years ago, we were heavily influenced by the works of English journalist and medical doctor Ben Goldacre. He wrote a column in The Guardian for years called “Bad Science.” It was mainly a column where he was taking on pseudo-science, initially in the alternative medicine world where people were making absurd claims about nonsensical treatments, and he made a lot of enemies in that world purely through picking apart their bogus arguments and publishing it. He then published a book called Bad Pharma, where he applied the same principles to the pharmaceutical industry and talked about the manipulation of data there. So, everybody hates him, and I think everybody hating you means you’re doing something right.

Michael Ingui: That’s so true.

Jeff: One of his big campaigns over the last few years has been this AllTrials campaign. So, in medicine, he made the point that, although we have this ability to learn and to understand about medications and treatments through this double-blinded, randomized trials, that’s prone to manipulation. You get publication bias, you get trials of promising-looking medications or new medications being abandoned if they don’t show the results that are intended, and then other trials of the same medication that show a better result being published. The bad trials don’t get published and the good ones do, so you end up with an incomplete picture that may be misleading. AllTrials is meant to encourage the big pharma companies to publish all their data so that you’ve got a complete picture.

His general approach about applying these ideas from evidence-based medicine into other areas of life influenced us as publishers of a sustainable building magazine, which we started in 2003. Over time, we learned that a lot of attempts at building notionally low-energy, healthy, low environmental impact buildings didn’t work, and for a bunch of different reasons. The more we learned about Passive House, the more we found it was an approach that appeared to work.

In Ireland, I’ve been privy to the whole process of the creation of building regulations or the updating of building regulations, and it’s a political process. Science does come into it, but you have public consultation, you have stakeholder consultation, and you have officials creating regulations with a view to what the industry wants or what industry is willing to argue against. More insidious than that is the kind of self-censorship of officials being fearful about advancing standards too much because they think industry won’t like it, and you can end up with a kind of half pregnant result as a consequence of that.

The beauty of Passive House, on the other hand, was the fact that it was created as a voluntary standard by engineers and building physicists without those kind of pressures, and they were able to take a different approach, and develop it organically over time and prove it works. I think that’s where we came from.

So, you know, for me it was an important exercise in learning the importance for us of trying to cut through the bluster. There are charlatans out there and there are people who are well-meaning, who are making bogus claims or overclaiming or whatever, but we just need to try to make sure that we’re only promoting approaches that are credible and science based.

Current issue of Passive House Plus.

Current issue of Passive House Plus.

Michael: One of the things that I’ve always loved about the magazine, and you can see it in this edition in the article you did on the Sterling Award. I’m sure you developed this over time, but I think it’s a perfect combination—it’s a beautiful-looking article, but it also has so many interesting nuggets of information. It’s not so detailed that you can get bored, but yet it gives you all the great data and information. I think you’ve found that right mix.

Jeff: Well you have to try to, don’t you? It has to sit on people’s coffee tables and feel like a nice magazine to flip through. It has to work on that level, and architects, who are really some of the main people who we’re trying to influence, are visual creatives. They’re magpies, really. There’s also a lot of very worthy buildings in our area that we consider writing about, but we unfortunately have to turn down because they look like the back end of a bus. And that’s often the case when you have a low energy building standard, where the design is often informed by pursuit of just meeting those standards rather than thinking about it in aesthetic terms—that can be a risk.

Thankfully, as it grows in popularity as a standard, we’re starting to see more high-end architecture Passive Houses being built, which truly helps. Then again, there’s also a risk for having exclusively beautiful buildings in the magazine. Maybe we’re overthinking this, but the concern is that you don’t want an ordinary self-builder to think that this is only an elitist magazine. That’s the great thing about the Goldsmith Street project, the Sterling Prize winner; it’s a lovely piece of architecture, but it’s social housing.

Michael: Yeah. It’s gorgeous.

Jeff: There’s a simplicity to it. It’s not showy, but it’s really beautifully detailed and well considered in terms of the broader sustainability. It’s not just a massive kind of Bond villain-style, 800-square-meter Passive House in the middle of nowhere. It’s doing so much more. We’re still suckers for jaw-dropping pieces of architecture where they happen, even if it sometimes might feel like a monument to its owner or its architect, but we do want to think about context and about materials and about these broader issues, too.

Michael: Yeah. I agree.

Zack: Jeff, just stepping back a moment, could you give a snapshot of Passive House Plus magazine to Passive House Accelerator readers who may be new to it.

Jeff: Okay. Sure. So we have two editions. We have an Irish edition and a U.K. edition. They will have similar audiences. Architects will be a large part; self-builders—I don’t know if you call them that in the states—self-builders would be a chunk of it because these are people who are building a house and invested in the long-term performance of it, so that helps. In Ireland the profile is a little different because our building regulations have moved well ahead of the U.K.’s. Basically, from 2007 to 2011, the Green Party was in government in Ireland, which is amazing, and I had the good fortune at that time to chair their buildings policy group…

Zack: Fantastic.

Jeff: It was just a wonderful opportunity to get things done, and we got pretty seismic changes through to the building regulations in terms of energy performance, specifically for new homes. The regs have now just been updated in November of last year for the first time since 2011 when the Greens were in. Basically, in 2011, we got a requirement that all new homes would have to be 60% more energy efficient than in 2005 building regs with mandatory renewable energy technologies, too. Air tightness testing was a requirement, too. That then ratchets us up to a 70% energy reduction now, so the heavy lifting was done in 2011. The new version now, which is described under the EU target, nearly zero energy buildings, or N‑Z-E‑B, is very closely aligned with Passive House. In fact, when we look at the kind of specs in terms of installation standards, in terms of air tightness, in terms of ventilation, and in terms of overall primary energy usage of these buildings, they’re very, very close. There’s documented, academic research showing that there can be no cost uplift in buildings of Passive House standard in Ireland.

But the U.K.’s a different kettle of fish. The U.K. being a much bigger market than Ireland, for one, and a large part of the readership there are people who are voluntarily coming along because they want to do this, and they want to build better. In Ireland, we were able to capture people who are being dragged—who have to do it whether they like it or not.

Zack: Right. Interesting.

Jeff: Yeah, it’s different. And with the Passive House Accelerator, you’re dealing more with people who are analogous to the U.K. audience, who want to do it for the right reasons, and they’re a nicer audience to reach in some ways, you know.

Michael: We’ve been following NZEB pretty closely, and I think what’s happening in the States and definitely in New York right now is that it is getting mandated. It is coming closer, and you’ve got a whole community of people who want to do it showing a group of people who know it’s coming no matter what and are going to have to do it. It’s been kind of an interesting experience to watch what’s happened in Ireland with NZEB and with what’s been happening in the U.K. and so forth.

Jeff: For sure, and there’s things that you learn. One of the things that the early adopters in these communities need to do as we make this transition towards mandatory targets, to enable this to happen as smoothly as possible and to give us the greatest chance of this being done with as few eggs being broken as possible, is we have to make it as easy as possible to de-skill this process. Like, training is always going to be an important part, don’t get me wrong, but we need to radically simplify how we describe all of this. We need to simplify the detailing work in terms of how to build these buildings, and I think you’ll occasionally find some disruptive products coming along that will help in that regard.

I remember Sebastian Moreno, who I’m sure you know, talking about the Brussels Passive House requirements and how there was this fear in the industry there when it came in, that it would lead to massive disruptive changes in supply chains: how they’re built. But they found products like some of these new paint-on air tightness membranes that are starting to emerge that enables air tightness. They’re not a silver bullet, but I presume you’re familiar with the products. Blowerproof being one, for instance.

Michael: Yes. What’s fun for me is I’m doing four houses within ten blocks and we’re using several of them. We’re using Blowerproof and Partel and STO, and we’re trying to figure out the differences between them, and which one works better. Wo I’ll report back to you on that one.

Jeff: Oh, fantastic.

Michael: Because everybody’s got their favorite.

Jeff: We tend to find the perception that “innovation” and “builders” are not two words you tend to put in the same sentence. You don’t tend to think of us as a very technically advanced way of addressing the climate crisis. Consequently, I think a lot of people don’t necessarily take much pride in their work in the sector. It’s possible that things like Passive House, and standards like Passive House, will allow people to build genuinely world-class buildings and, through leading edge science, become a critical part of our solution in tackling climate change, both in terms of mitigation and in term of adaptation—building buildings that are robust and hopefully with good design that’s not prone to overheating and so on. So, I think for the industry, in terms of attracting in young people into the sector, making them think that this is an exciting, positive industry to be involved in—that’s innovative and a really concrete way of taking action on climate change—I think that message needs to get out there. It allows people to feel that they’re contributing to something enormously positive and it doesn’t have to be extremely complicated at the same time.

Michael: Yeah, I agree with that. I really do.

Zack: It might be a segue to another question I have. I wonder if you could reflect on where Passive House has been and where it’s going. How would you characterize the Passive House movement, past and future?

Jeff: That’s a good question. I think there’s a couple of things that are going to happen here. I take great heart from projects like the Goldsmith Street project winning the Sterling Prize in the U.K., the top architecture prize in the U.K. Not from the fact that it’s a Passive House project, but for the fact that it’s a social housing project. They’ve never had a Passive House project shortlisted before, or a social housing project shortlisted before, and yet we’ve had a project like that win. There’s a sense that—in the U.K. and in Ireland too, and I hope internationally—the architectural community is beginning to grapple with these issues a little bit more, and to understand that the kind of showy approaches and quite glib approaches to sustainability are not working. We’ve kind of moved passed that, and we need to start producing really robust, quality, sustainable buildings now in a way that’s socially equitable. So that I would take a lot of heart from.

In terms of the general direction, and it will vary from market to market, but I think our experience in Ireland—and I think in lots of parts of Europe—is that you’ll find that a lot of people will build buildings that are heavily influenced by Passive House. That’s a much larger market than those who build Passive House, from our experience. It might be that there are political reasons for this. It might be that a national government can view what they consider to be a proprietary standard, and there’s a fear that they’ll think of it as a brand, and talk of it pejoratively for those reasons, and view it as a threat to their own regulations. We’ve certainly seen that in the past in Ireland. But the likes of these moves over the last year or so on climate change, notwithstanding the disappointment of COP25 last week, but the general awareness, the public consciousness of the need for urgent action, that greatly helps things. We are seeing that manifest itself in policy.

In the U.K., there’s a lot of growth in Passive House in the absence of good standards in building regulations, you know. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the building regs have almost taken attention away from Passive House because they’re quite close to them, but I don’t really mind that so much, provided they follow the same sort of principles and have the same attention to detail in terms of design, in terms of detailing, in terms of evidencing and so on.

Michael: That’s great. Could you talk about the current issue of the magazine a little bit?

Jeff: Yeah. Thank you. So other than that Sterling Prize winner, there’s another project in there, which really surprised us. It’s called Miesian Plaza. It’s a deep retrofit to the LEED Platinum V4 standard in Dublin. It’s regarded as one of the best examples of Miesian architecture, certainly in Ireland, and a famous bank right in the center of Dublin. When that project came along, and I got the press release on that first, I took what they were saying with a large dose of salt. I couldn’t really believe that that could be a sustainable building. The fabric performance wouldn’t be up there quite with Passive House level, but they’re pretty good and this is a listed building—a protected structure, effectively—where you’ve got great restrictions on what you can and can’t do. It’s an important part of our architectural heritage.

It’s been described as being analogous in some ways to the Seagram Building in New York. It’s a really interesting example of how to treat an oil age, glass building, and try to make it work for the 21stcentury. It feels to me like a genuine attempt to try to get that right. They found a way by deconstructing the façade of the building and replacing it with highly insulated glass and well-sealed glass to get good performance.

There’s also a longform journalism piece by Kate de Selincourt on what the evidence shows us on the relationship between retrofit and health. I think that’s an important attempt to carefully study the evidence rather than making fantastical claims. There’s also a lovely case study on a project in Wales, a company that manufactures timber frame buildings to the Passive House standard using highly ecological cellulose insulation—recycled newspaper insulation. They built their factory using this system. The factory that will be turning out the very houses using the system was built using that system, and their offices adjacent to the factory are certified Passive House using the same system. So it was a nice, well-rounded example. One nice feature of that story, and this will be of general interest to your readers, is that we used the new plug-in tool for PHPP called PH Ribbon, which, among its other functions, enables you to calculate the embodied carbon of buildings via PHPP.

Zack: Oh, cool.

Jeff: I processed the data that’s in there in terms of materials. Lifecycle assessment has been, up until now, a very cumbersome process. But with this plug-in, if you have a building designed in PHPP already, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done. So Tim Martel, as the developer of the software, has been able to use it to spit out embodied carbon figures for buildings in as little as half an hour, which is really, really great. So we’re using that then to assess the embodied carbon of that factory and office in Wales.

We need to start doing for materials what we’ve done for energy performance, which is to properly quantify the impacts. The Passive House Institute confirmed to us that currently there’s on the order of 10,000 licensed users of PHPP, some version of PHPP. If you were to draw a Venn diagram between the kinds of people who are interested in energy performance and the kinds of people who are interested in embodied energy and materials, I think it would look a lot like a circle.

Zack: Yeah. I think so too.

Jeff: So they’re obviously data obsessive people in lots of cases, and it’s just such a neat fit to be able to let them to calculate embodied carbon using a tool that they’re already trained in and comfortable with.

Jeff: Those are kind of the main takeaways. There’s a lovely Irish flat pack timber frame system, which goes together like Lego, which is used to build a couple of NZEB houses in Ireland. And then we have our international building section, which is a pictorial feature with easy-on-the-eye examples of Passive House building from around the world. In this case, we’ve got a lovely project in Murcia, in Spain, and it’s just a modestly-sized Passive House, but beautifully detailed, and nice to show Passive House performing well and to see the differences of specs in different climate zones.

Zack: Yeah. Absolutely. Awesome. Well, is there anything else you want to add?

Jeff: No, other than to commend you folks for what you’ve been doing.

Zack: Right back at you. We’re very inspired by what you are doing and what you’ve created with the magazine. And congratulations, also, on the important work with building regulations in Ireland.

Jeff: We weren’t doing it in isolation, thank you. Occasionally you get an opportunity where an opening like that will come up, where you’ve got a government minister and his advisers who are actually open and really kind of crying out for advice, and you’ve got to grab it by the hands when those chances come up.

Subscribe to Passive House Plus here.

Author

Zachary Semke
Zachary Semke
Zack Semke is Director of Passive House Accelerator, VP of Marketing with Zola Windows, and owner of Semke Studio, a marketing consultancy…

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