building efficiency

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Why our 9+ Star Superpod® House Barely Reaches 7 NatHERS Stars

2D South Elevation Drawing

Why our 9+ Star Superpod® House Barely Reaches 7 NatHERS Stars.

This is the street frontage of an old house, showing a Superpod® house extension going up soon (peeking out from behind) in an old established part of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The house at the front is very old. In fact, the houses in this street are 130 years old.

The Superpod® house extension at the back is over 200 sqm with 2 storeys, 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, kitchen, dining, and 2 lounges. You won’t see it much from the street. It’s the shaded orange part in this image.

The extension, if it was rated under the NatHERs energy rating scheme, would be a 9 star house.

Sounds good, but we think it’s better than that. That’s because the NatHERS scheme doesn’t fully recognise all the benefits of our certifiable passive house system. Like the performance of our fully imported windows. Or our thermal breaks. Or our airtightness.

Check out one of our previous stories on this: NatHERs star rating doesn’t test airtightness

But, alas, we can barely reach 7 stars with this whole building. That is, taking into account the old house together with the super performing extension. Retrofitting the old 1890’s house at the front isn’t going to make it easy. It faces south. It’s got single glazed windows. And insulating the poor old walls will be a trick.

But let’s focus on the good part. We are facing climate change head on. We are providing optimum comfort and health. We are loosening the hold of the ever growing power bill. All this without solar panels. It’s the good building that counts. Jewellery on the roof doesn’t replace decent clothing in the fabric of the building.

PS Our Superpod® system is a fast, easy way to achieve the world’s best practice for energy efficiency and comfort. The International Passive House Standard. Our patent pending system (United States next, here we come!) is available for licence to designers, developers and builders. From tiny pods to high rise and commercial buildings.

I know, it’s hard to get your head around. Licensing a building system? After years of developing our IP we think it’s worth it. Innovation is often hard to get your head around. We look forward to co-innovators who want to work with us!

2D South Elevation Drawing
2D South Elevation Drawing
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Just Who Is Fiona McKenzie?

Fiona McKenzie Podmarket

A feature article about our founding director, Fiona McKenzie, which partly explains her training, expertise and passion for rigorous and creative thinking.

This article was originally presented in the February 2018 issue of the Law Institute Journal of Victoria.

Building for the future

Fiona McKenzie
Fiona McKenzie

By Karin Derkley

01 Feb 2018

The rigorous discipline associated with law has been the perfect foundation for designing a failsafe building system.

Barrister Fiona McKenzie is not one for sitting around watching TV after work. Instead the administrative law specialist has been using her spare time over the past couple of years boning up on physics and engineering and poring over spreadsheets to devise sustainable building systems and design award­ winning furniture.

“I’ve always been interested in design and artistic expression as well as the law,” she says. “I’ve never been just a bookish person or just a creative person – I like having a balance between those two sides of me.”

Helping out family and friends with their renovation projects started as a way of “feeding that other part of my brain,” she says. But then the lawyer part of her brain became intrigued by how to make buildings work better.

“I became very interested in the engineering aspect of how buildings perform and affect the comfort of their occupants,” she says. “I put on my legal research hat to interrogate these things.”

That led her to what she says is the best building standard in the world, the International Passive House Building Standard, which uses physics­ based engineering to create buildings that reduce energy use by up to 90 per cent.

Evenings and weekends were spent reviving her high school maths and physics to calculate exactly how a building can be designed for complete control of the indoor environment. “It is about designing a thermally sealed building envelope that ensures there are no air leaks, while also providing fresh filtered air all year round.”

That involves designing carefully designed joins, double or even triple glazed windows depending on the local climate and orientation, and high levels of insulation.

“The idea is to create a building that is completely comfortable for its occupants and that is also beautiful,” she says. “Things have got to work practically but they also need to be well ­designed and look and feel good.”

Ms McKenzie built her first prototype Superpod passive house in Cape Paterson in 2015, which was recognised with a Good Design Award. She decided it was so important and useful she has refined the system to offer to others. “Once I got the building envelope right, I wanted to look at a more holistic offering and offer different looks.”

That part has been a challenge. The building industry is resistant to new ways of building, she says. So she is relying on commercial projects in the educational space, other markets such as ecotourism operators and healthcare providers, and even owner builders to recognise the benefits of the system.

The Cape Paterson house is available for holiday rentals so people can try out the system for themselves, and she has recently started the process of building a mini-­hotel near the Museum of New and Old Art in Hobart that will not only showcase the podhouses, but will also be fitted out with the PodMarket range of furniture designed by her fellow director and furniture designer Harry Strouzas.

The furniture range is designed along similar principles of sustainable design, Ms McKenzie says: “functional, and a minimalist use of beautiful materials”. PodMarket includes a range aimed specifically at barristers and solicitors – including storage, seating and tables. One of the tables has been nominated for the German Design Award 2018.

“In the same way we approached the issue of how do we solve designing buildings better, we looked at how we could resolve furnishing rooms better.”

Her training as a lawyer has come in handy for drawing up contracts and applying for patents, Ms McKenzie says. But the rigorous discipline associated with the law has also been the perfect foundation for helping her design a failsafe building system that appeals aesthetically to potential buyers.

“It’s a lot like when you have to present a brief to a judge,” she laughs. “You have to hold their attention and you know it’s going to be picked apart. You can’t have any loose threads.”

To see the article as it appears in the Law Institute Journal please follow this link:

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A Certified Passive House – Why Bother?

Passive House

Without a certificate, it’s just a passive house. Or is it?

I was pleased to be informed that I have been invited for the second time to present on this topic at the International Passive House Conference.  This one is in Munich, 2018.

Below is the abstract I submitted.


“Certificates are sometimes treated as a unnecessary label, and other times like a necessary evil. They can be ignored as irrelevant; or resented and feared as a barrier to entry.

The Passive House Standard requires certificates. Sometimes for building components. Other times for designers. At all times for the building itself. The physical building as built and tested.

This list of certificates makes it more difficult to achieve the Standard.

But, after all, it is a standard. It is not just a warm and fuzzy feeling (although it is that and much more).

Certificates for components can be hard to obtain. And certified components are not yet imported around the world.
Certificates for designers are hard to obtain. And certified designers can be thin on the ground in your country, let alone designers who have actually designed a certified passive house. Newly qualified designers do not have “runs on the board”.

And certificates for buildings are hard to obtain too. The process is so rigorous and laborious, from design stage to building stage to completion and testing. You can do everything well until the end, and fail the blower door test. What a disappointment that can be for all involved.

Because the certificates are hard to obtain, people find ways of dismissing their relevance. They can see the benefits of the Passive House Standard, but they can’t obtain them. So they start to appropriate the terminology of the International Passive House Institute and claim that their inferior buildings are equivalent. They call their buildings “passive house” buildings. And members of the public do not know the difference.

In some countries like Australia, this is complicated by the fact that solar panels are easy to instal. So people claim their houses are “net zero” ie better than passive, simply by adding a few solar panels to the roof. The customer may end up paying no power bills, so they are relatively happy, not knowing that the Passive House Standard could have produced so much more.  Because of ignorance in this field, and salespeople who are keen to sell their products and services, the benefits of potential certification are lost.

Sometimes people think that they can tack on or add on a certificate to a good quality building. But the road to certification is long and paved with obstructions. Without a certification aim, their design, insulation, connection details, windows, and ventilation will be sub-standard.

A certificate for a passive house building is not just a ticket. It is the result of a complex, rigorous process with commitment from all involved.

Certification makes a massive difference to the end product, the comfort for users, the existence of drafts, condensation and mould, and the power consumption.

For those who understand the Passive House Standard, we need to explain to consumers what it means. Perhaps explaining it will help people to choose true Passive House, instead of a poor alternative.”

With the Superpod® system, we aim for certification every time.  We are not content to stop when architectural lines are on a page.  We are content when the building is finished, tested, and certified.

What do you think?

Do you think solar panels and timber linings make a building sustainable?

Do you think any building with passive house elements can be called a Passive House?

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Australian High Rise Buildings Should Cut Glazing by at Least 50%

Melb CBD

Australian high rise buildings are inefficient.  They do not run efficiently.  They are not comfortable enough.  They waste energy.  They contribute to climate change.

The latest, state-of-the-art high rise office buildings I have visited, get too hot and too cold.  In one room you try to work, stifling in the Western sun. There’s no relief except for airconditioning, which is too cold and too erratic. The next room is cold as it faces South.  You are uncomfortable standing or sitting next to the glass in either room for much of the year.

A key reason for all of these problems is the amount of glazing on our high rise facades.  It’s excessive.  It’s wasteful.  It makes little sense.

But it’s cheap.

Perhaps the designers will tell you that people want it, and the builders will tell you that people will want it.

But do people really want all that discomfort?

It’s doubtful.

Do people really think pure glass facades are so beautiful?

It’s not likely that people are so wedded to how the building looks from the outside as they stand on the street looking up to the 20th floor.  How often do they look up to the full height of the façade from the ground down below?

In any event, is glass so beautiful?  Is it that much more beautiful than solid materials?

More important that a perception of aesthetic beauty from a vantage point nobody will ever use, is the true beauty of living well in a space, and the beauty that comes from designing well for human occupation.  If we redefined beauty in this way, (ie good design), would we allow our building codes to enable such inefficient buildings?

Compare our high rise buildings with the Cornell Tech Building in New York.  This 26 storey 350 unit residential building on Roosevelt Island on the East River, is the largest Passive House-certified structure in the world.

And it was built to a tight budget.

Projects like this are inspirational.  With a fast-built wall panel system, making airtightness simpler (similar to the concept we have devised for our passive house facades under the Superpod® banner), the building has a modernist appearance, with white solid bands around the glass.  The glass is not floor to ceiling, but is enough to enable spectacular views for the occupants.

The glazing makes up only 23% of the beautiful façade.

And the beauty of this building is not merely aesthetic.  It is “deeply” designed, with great attention to materials and details that you will never see.

Of course, part of the attention to detail is the actual quality of window.  The glazing is not cheap single glazing in a certified passive house building.  Rather, it will be triple glazing, or sometimes double glazing, with very thermally efficient frames.

All this is done to achieve a beautiful living environment, with comfortable temperatures, fresh air, and a power consumption a mere fraction of what is standard in Western countries.

One of the consultants on the New York Cornell project, Lois Arena, mechanical engineer, has been a key member of the team.  I was fortunate to meet her and hear her speak at the New York Passive House High Rise Symposium in New York a couple of years ago.  It is clear that it takes dedicated, committed leaders like Lois to achieve a certified passive house of any size, let alone the largest one in the world.

And the true beauty of Cornell would not have been possible if a key member of the design team had insisted on a fully glazed building.

Similarly, the architects’ involvement and support was integral as it is in any passive house project. An interview of Blake Middleton, architect, published by “the Architects Newspaper” on 3 April 2017, reports that while the client was enthused about Passive House after a trip to Europe, the development team were initially unsure if they could achieve the Passive House Standard.  Blake said: “Once deeper into the research and design process, and more familiar with what was required, all involved became more confident we could make this work. Everyone stepped up to commit to the effort.”

We can do better in Australia.

The high rise buildings I have occupied or visited in Melbourne in recent years have been unacceptable.  When you work in an office, you don’t think about how the façade looks from the ground.  You think about how cold you are when the sun goes down and the warmth in the room is sucked out of the glass.  You think about how hot you are when the westerly afternoon sun shines through all that glass unabated.

And during those times, when you ask the building manager to adjust the aircon, or you put back on your suit jacket, or you wish you could be wearing a t-shirt – do you really think about the fantastic views from all that floor to ceiling glass all around the building?

Again, part of the problem is the poor quality of our glazing in this country. We should at the very least be using double or triple glazed windows to bring a more comfortable living environment into our buildings.

The Passive House Standard is relevant in Australia, and every time you feel discomfort in your building, remember that the designers could have done better.  And our building codes could be improved.  And we could all step up to commit to a better Standard.

Not just aspirational components here and there.  Not just passive house principles.  But true blue, properly designed and constructed certified Passive House Standard buildings.

We need to let go of our obsession with architectural renders of high rise buildings covered in cheap, shiny glass.

Designing properly, to achieve the energy-efficiency and comfort of the Passive House Standard is possible.  And it’s relevant.  And it’s what true beauty in buildings should really be about.

When you’ve experienced a passive house building in any of our Australian climates, as I’ve had the privilege to do in a Superpod® podhouse®, you know it’s both relevant and possible in this country.

As it is in Frankfurt, and London, and New York.


© Fiona McKenzie, Superpod Pty Ltd

25 July 2017

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Climate Change Act in Victoria

Low Table with Plumen 002

Have a look at our latest article.   Make a cup of tea, this one’s a little more technical than usual.  It’s about how the Passive House Standard relates to Climate Change.

The Victorian Climate Change Act 2017 was passed in February and will come into operation this year. What does it mean for those who procure, design and build buildings?

It would be ideal if the Act meant something clear to improve our methods of building design and construction, because over 30 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions are caused by heating or cooling our built environments.

That carbon emission problem means all the buildings we are in the process of building right now are changing the climate for the worse, rather than minimising our impact on climate change. Right now, our buildings are poorly designed and built. We could be reducing our carbon emissions out of buildings by up to 90 per cent if we designed and built better.

The need to build better goes beyond incorporating renewable energy like solar panels. It goes as deep as the building fabric itself. We can drastically reduce our carbon emissions using existing knowledge and technologies, like the International Passive House Standard.

Professor Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy, spoke compellingly on this topic in New York at the Passive House High Rise Symposium in 2015.  She combined passion, great intelligence and deep logic on the importance of proper building design to ameliorate climate change.  She noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports are extensive and have been produced for many years now, but that the opportunities to reduce our climate change impact are being missed. It is good to see some of this panel’s important work being translated into local laws and policies, but aren’t we still missing important opportunities?

Has our Victorian legislation taken up the opportunity in the Climate Change Act to improve on our building structures to the maximum extent that it can?

Will the recently enacted version of the Act make a difference to our current, inadequate building strategies? I looked at it partly from the point of view of a barrister whose focus is legislative compliance, and partly from the perspective of a passive house designer, which role also involves extensive compliance. I did so without comparing this Act to its predecessor enacted in 2010.

Given the importance of this issue, what follows contains some extracts of the legislation word-for-word so readers can draw their own conclusions.

First, it is very interesting to see how our Parliament has taken on board the pressing concerns posed by climate change. Parliament has not presented this topic as a debate, and has not given any room for argument from any climate change deniers. Our Parliament has presented its conclusions as accepted fact. That in itself is a useful starting point, and could have far reaching positive consequences.

The Preamble to the Act makes Parliament’s view clear, with some laudable aims that are worth setting out in full:

“The Parliament of Victoria recognises on behalf of the people of Victoria that the international community has reached agreement to hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1·5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change and that global emissions will need to decline to net zero levels by the second half of the century if this global goal is to be met.

The Parliament of Victoria recognises that some changes in the earth’s climate are inevitable, despite all mitigation efforts. Victoria is particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and severity as a result of the changing climate. Impacts are felt differently and to different extents across individual regions and communities.  Although responding to climate change is a responsibility shared by all levels of government, industry, communities and the people of Victoria, the role of subnational governments in driving this transition cannot be understated. Through decisive, long-term action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Victorian government can help Victoria achieve an orderly and just transition to a net zero greenhouse gas emissions economy and remain prosperous and liveable. It will also enable Victoria to benefit from the global trend towards decarbonisation.

Victoria must also take strong action to build resilience to, and reduce the risks posed by, climate change and protect those most vulnerable.

The Parliament of Victoria recognises that the community wants and expects Victoria to play its part in global mitigation efforts and in preparing the community for unavoidable climatic impacts. This Act will help ensure Victoria remains prosperous and liveable as we transition to meet these challenges.”

It is interesting to note here that there are two key aspects highlighted by our Parliament: mitigating climate change, and preparing for climatic impacts.

Section 1 of the Act states a number of worthy purposes, including to set a long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, facilitate the consideration of climate change issues in specified areas of decision making of the Government of Victoria; set policy objectives and guiding principles to inform decision-making under this Act and the development of government policy in the State; and provide for a strategic response to climate change through a climate change strategy, adaptation action plans and emissions reduction pledges.

Then there is an interesting set of definitions in section 3 which are worth setting out. They might be useful definitions to be adopted for other discussions outside the legislation itself.

The term “built environment “means the places and structures built or developed for human occupation, use and enjoyment. Examples cited are cities, buildings, urban spaces, housing and infrastructure.

The phrase “built environment system” means the built environment, and how people use and interact with the built environment.

“Climate change” means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.

“Greenhouse gas emissions” means emissions of “(a) carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide or sulphur hexafluoride; or (b) a hydrofluorocarbon or a perfluorocarbon that is specified in regulations made under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act 2007 of the Commonwealth.”

“Net zero greenhouse gas emissions” means zero greenhouse gas emissions after “(a) determining the amount of total greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the State, including any removals of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere due to activities within the State; and (b) deducting from the amount described in paragraph (a) any eligible offsets from outside of the State.”

Interestingly, it would be theoretically possible for the amount of total greenhouse gas emissions attributable to Victoria to be the same as it is now, as long as eligible offsets are increased. Of course, this approach would not be enough to ameloriate climate change as drastically as we need to do. We need to reduce emissions, period.

Section 8 states that the Premier and the Minister must ensure that the State achieves the long-term emissions reduction target.

Section 17 provides that “Decision makers must have regard to climate change” in relation to decisions or actions authorised by particular Acts.

What decisions, actions and Acts are relevant here? It is actually quite limited. A few examples include management plans under the Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994, Coastal Strategies, certain recommendations of the Environment Protection Authority, a Council’s municipal public health and wellbeing plan, and a draft sustainable water strategy.

These particular provisions have no explicit or direct impact on our built environments.

Section 20 is broader than section 17, stating that “the Government of Victoria will endeavour to ensure that any decision made by the Government and any policy, program or process developed or implemented by the Government appropriately takes account of climate change if it is relevant by having regard to the policy objectives and the guiding principles.”

And the Minister may issue guidelines about “the policy objectives and guiding principles when making a decision or developing or implementing a policy, program or process” (s 21). Now we are starting to sound a little like a “Yes Minister” episode, where the actual obligation can sometimes be obfuscated. Hopefully, all Government decisions will “appropriately” take account of climate change. If they do, the impact will be significant.

The policy objectives of the Act are set out in s 22. Among other things, they aim to:

  • reduce the State’s greenhouse gas emissions consistently with the long-term emissions reduction target and interim emissions reduction targets
  • build the resilience of the State’s infrastructure, built environment and communities through effective adaptation and disaster preparedness action
  • support vulnerable communities and promote social justice and intergenerational equity

Here, we have a reference to the built environment, but not in the sense that improving our built environment will help us ameliorate climate change – only in the sense that our buildings can be more resilient. Still, at least there is a policy of having building resilience.

Buildings which have very good insulation, airtight envelopes, no thermal bridges, air ventilation units and excellent, properly placed double or triple glazed windows; are the sorts of buildings we need to be truly resilient. These measures should be coupled, of course, with proper building physics design, like that found in the International Passive House Standard.

Buildings that comply with the International Passive House Standard have significantly better resilience against extreme climatic conditions, improve the pressure on the State’s infrastructure, and can better support vulnerable people who are unable to pay high power bills for heating and cooling.

So this means that the policy of the State of Victoria as enshrined in law supports deeply energy-efficient building envelopes like those procured by the International Passive House Standard.

While the Act doesn’t say this, buildings that are resilient in hot or cold weather, despite the potential for power failures, happen to also be buildings that help to ameliorate climate change. That’s because those buildings have up to 90 per cent less power consumption than traditional buildings, in which case they are better for reduction of our carbon footprint world-wide, not only now but in generations to come.

Section 23 provides that:

“it is a guiding principle of this Act that a decision, policy, program or process—

(a)  should be based on a comprehensive analysis of the best practicably available information about the potential impacts of climate change that is relevant to the decision, policy, program or process under consideration; and

(b)  should take into account the potential contribution to the State’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

There is specific reference to the “built environment system” in section 34, which states that the relevant Minister must prepare an adaptation action plan in relation to this system (and other systems). This sounds like a good idea, but unfortunately it does not have to be done until October 2021. That’s nearly five years of no such adaptation action plan. We all need to act before this date regardless of what that adaptation action plan might eventually look like.

It’s great that the Victorian Government has legislated in this important field. All governments at all levels should be taking climate change seriously and ensuring that all government decision making takes the lead in this area.

However, there is nothing concrete that I can see in this Act that will drive improvements to the extent that we need them driven, in relation to the built environment. It will still take leadership both in government and in the private sphere to apply the principles in this legislation proactively, and to improve our built environment in our cities, suburbs and the rural areas.

It is still up to all of us – people who are buying and designing and building buildings, to take the lead along with government where we can.

See published also in  Climate Change Act Victoria – a missed opportunity for buildings