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Very Low Energy Houses

November 2006
by Pascal Lenormand and Dr Anne Rialhe, AERE
email p.lenormand@aere.fr


With the ever-increasing attention on environmental protection and energy prices, the
once exclusive low energy dwellings are now getting more and more popular in Europe.
There are presently more than 6 000 such dwellings in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria
alone. Nevertheless, the term ’low energy houses’ covers a large variety of concepts and
technologies which need to be placed into their proper context. This is the subject of this
Since the Rio Conference and the Kyoto Protocol, many have become aware of the problem
of global warming. Energy is the cause of 85% of all greenhouse effect gas emissions.
Efforts have been made, but two sectors keep increasing: transportation and buildings.
The current energy situation further strengthens the case for low energy construction.
This article demonstrates that, although technologies and design play an important role,
individual behaviour has a great impact on two levels. The first is on the selection of
technologies, which is always the result of a human choice. The second is on the manner in
which the technologies are used day-to-day, in real life. It is therefore extremely important
to focus on the training of inhabitants in low energy houses.
Retrofit remains a critical point, since Europe has a very large number of older dwellings,
which are not at all efficient. NegaWatt mentions that, for France only, reducing energy
consumption in every pre-1975 building to 50 kW h/m2 .y would require the retrofitting
of 450 000 buildings per year for 45 years.
One point remains unclear: the local capacity to build such low energy dwellings, as well
as the cultural acceptance by the building industry. We demonstrate that construction
materials and processes need massive improvement. How ready are construction compa-
nies to accept these changes in their work today? How can local regulations be adapted
to encourage best practice regarding energy, as has been done with electrical appliances
in the past?
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1 Introduction - The path towards very low energy houses 3

2 Variety of housing regarding energy 4

2.1 Types of Houses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
2.2 Residential energy consumption in the European Union . . . . . . . . . . . 5
2.3 Various national labels for low energy houses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
2.3.1 PassivHaus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
2.3.2 Minergie° R . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
2.3.3 LEED . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
2.3.4 Comparison between PassivHaus, Minergie° R and LEED . . . . . . 10

3 Residential Energy Use 12

3.1 Heating . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
3.1.1 Passive systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
3.1.2 Active systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
3.1.3 Behaviour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
3.2 Cooling . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
3.2.1 Passive Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
3.2.2 Active Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
3.2.3 Behaviour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
3.3 Electrical Appliances . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
3.3.1 Technologies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
3.3.2 Behaviour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
3.4 Hot Water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
3.4.1 Technologies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
3.4.2 Behaviour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
3.5 Cooking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
3.5.1 Improved traditional cooking equipment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
3.5.2 Alternative energy cooking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
3.5.3 Behaviour . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30

4 Benefits of Low Energy Construction 31

4.1 Financial . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
4.2 Social . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
4.3 Political . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32

5 Conclusion 32

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1 Introduction - The path towards very low energy


With the ever-increasing attention on environmental protection and energy prices, the
once exclusive low energy dwellings are now getting more and more popular in Europe.
There are presently more than 6 000 such dwellings in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria
alone. Nevertheless, the term ’low energy houses’ covers a large variety of concepts and
technologies which need to be placed into their proper context. This is the subject of this
Definition: what is a low energy house?
Although the basic concepts are widely known, research and development in different
countries have led to various interpretations of the low energy house concept.
Wolfgang Weiss, inventor of the PassivHaus concept, established his benchmark for low
energy houses using a comparison to the average energy consumption for heat. In Euro-
pean dwellings, this is around 200-250 kW h/m2 /y.






existing "low energy" "low energy" Passive
individual collective houses
houses dwellings

Figure 1: Definition of low energy houses by comparing heating

Going much further than low energy houses in improving energy performance, passive
houses are defined as having a mean heat demand lower than 15 kW h/m2 /y. This is less
than 10% of the average standard dwelling.
It is also necessary to mention the evolution of passive houses towards the so-called zero-
energy houses, or even positive energy houses. These are houses employing one or several
renewable energy production units added to a building so that the total energy balance

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(total annual production versus total annual consumption) is zero or positive1 . This, of
course, only makes sense for a building that is already strongly optimized, if not passive.

In this paper, we will first have a look at the differences between buildings. This will
clearly establish the need for adapted solutions. There are a large number of possibilities,
but some, defined through the labelling process, have gained more recognition and offer
concrete guidelines for a project.
Having once established the overall framework, it will then be possible to discuss the var-
ious technologies that are available for each energy use in such very low energy buildings,
without losing sight of the important role played by individual behaviour.
In our conclusion, we will broaden our view by examining the various impacts (financial,
social, and political) of a massive reduction of energy consumption in dwellings.

2 Variety of housing regarding energy

2.1 Types of Houses

The population of the European Union (EU-25) has been continuously increasing since
1945 to its present level of approximately 450 million people.
This population lives in 170 million dwellings for an average density of approximately 170
hab/km2 . This is representative of a strongly urbanized structure. As a comparison, the
population density in the USA is 30.2 hab/km2 .
There are different methods for classifying dwellings and they can be further divided into
individual and collective dwellings. This distinction, as we will see later, has an influence
on the construction techniques and energy systems that are available.
Another interesting way of classifying is by the age of the dwelling. The rationale for
this is that implementation of high performance technologies is relatively easy in new
construction (based on financial and cultural considerations). This is clearly not the case
when retrofitting older dwellings.
Usually, the embodied energy of the building materials, technical installations and renewable gener-
ation units is not included in the energy balance

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2.2 Residential energy consumption in the European Union

For direct information regarding residential energy consumption in the EU, we use data
from the Human Settlements Bulletin published by the United Nations Economic Com-
mission for Europe.
As already mentioned, the dwelling stock in the EU today is around 170 million dwellings.
Figure 2 shows the spread in age of these structures (data extrapolated from 15 countries
to EU-25):

Date of construction for dwellings in Europe

Percentage of total

Before 1919 1946 1971 1981 1991
1919 -1945 -1970 -1980 -1990 -2000
Construction Date

Figure 2: Age of dwellings in Europe

As we can see, around 50% of the dwellings were constructed before 1970, in times when
energy was cheap and abundant and climate change was not a concern. This usually led
to high energy consumption. Moreover, around 27% of the dwellings were constructed
after World War II, with fast, but usually non-durable, energy consuming techniques.
We should also note that between 1993 and 2003, 12% of so-called new dwellings were in
fact retrofit dwellings, indicating the weakness of this activity, and partially explaining
the very large percentage of older dwellings in Europe.
These three factors taken together lead to the average 200 to 250 kW h/m2 /y energy
consumption observed today in Europe (sources: www.passiv.de and La construction
écologique, ed. Terre Vivante).
Another important aspect to be considered is the evolution of stock. Figure 3 represent
the evolution of building stock, with regard to the number of dwellings and average floor

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Total number of dwellings in Europe Average living floor space

180 000 96
177 000 93

Surface in m2
174 000
171 000
168 000
165 000
162 000
159 000 1993 1997 2001 2002
1993 1997 2001 2002 Year

Figure 3: Evolution of dwelling stock since 1993

This clearly shows a significant increase for both parameters. This situation, if not com-
pensated for by tremendous improvement in construction techniques, will surely lead to
a constant increase in energy consumption, with all the associated drawbacks.

2.3 Various national labels for low energy houses

The necessity of improving the entire building process is readily apparent. Several coun-
tries have developed labels or design processes in order to standardize, control, and pro-
mote best practices concerning low energy demand dwellings. We will take a closer look
at three of these schemes: the German PassivHaus label, the Swiss Minergie° R label, and

the American LEED label.

Official and detailed information about these three labels can be found on the following
Web sites:
• PassivHaus: www.passiv.de
• Minergie°:
R www.minergie.ch

• LEED: www.usgbc.org/leed

2.3.1 PassivHaus

The PassivHaus Institute in Darmstadt, Germany is strongly focused on the energy aspect.
It provides the Passive House label for structures meeting its standards. The technical
definition of this label is very clear and straightforward for climate conditions between 40
and 60 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere.

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More precisely, a house can be certified as a PassivHaus (Passive House) when the follow-
ing three criteria are met:
1. A comfortable inner climate can be maintained without the use of a central heating
or cooling system. The annual heat demand for such a dwelling must therefore be
set at a value lower than 15 kW h/m2 /y in the project plan.
2. The comfort criteria must be respected in every room of the house, both in winter
and in summer. With this goal in mind, the label requires very precise levels of
insulation for every construction element:
• Every external surface with U-values lower than 0.15 W/(m2 K)
• Every window with U-values lower than 0.8 W/(m2 K), as well as strong re-
strictions on the relative window surface
There are also strong restrictions on orientation, surfaces, and opening and clo-
sure possibilities for each translucent element, depending on the orientation and
construction of the dwelling. Ventilation rates are strictly controlled.
3. The total use of primary energy for all uses combined (heating, hot water, and
specific electricity) may not exceed 120 kW h/m2 /y. The calculation is included in
the project plan.
Every building is checked at the completion of construction, with particular attention to
the integrity of the hermetic sealing. The PassivHaus Institute also proposes a labelling
service for stand-alone elements (doors, windows, wall elements, etc.). This process guar-
antees that projects really meet all requirements when finished.
Since the 1980s, when the concept was created, more than 5 000 projects have been
realized in Germany, 1 000 in Austria, and, more recently, around 100 in the Benelux.

2.3.2 Minergie°

The Minergie° R label, which is presently only available in Switzerland and Liechtenstein,

is quite similar in principle to the PassivHaus concept. It stipulates very precise energy
usage levels, particularly in its Minergie-P°R version. The Minergie version is applicable

to any kind of building (collective dwellings, hospitals, industrial buildings, etc.).

There are two different paths to obtaining a Minergie°
R certification. The first one is

to use the standard solutions. These are only applicable to individual houses. These
solutions cover three points:

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1) Very precise insulation values for every construction element

Construction element Value if in contact with Value if in contact with non-

external environment, or heated rooms, or buried more
buried less than 2 m than 2 m
Roof, ceiling 0.25 W/m2 K
Wall 0.28 W/m2 K
0.20 W/m2 K
Floor 0.28 W/m2 K
Floor with heating system 0.25 W/m2 K
Windows 1.30 W/m2 K 1.60 W/m2 K
Doors 1.60 W/m2 K 2.00 W/m2 K

Table 1: Insulation requirements for Minergie°

R standard solutions

2) A choice among five technical solutions for heat production and distribution

Standard 1 2 3 4 5
System Geothermal Wood boiler Automatic Waste heat Air-Water
heat pump + solar water wood system (industry, heat pump
heater incinerator,

Table 2: Available technical solutions for heat and hot water in Minergie°
R standard


With all of these systems, the use of a double-flow heat exchanger with a minimum
efficiency of 80% is mandatory.
3) The additional cost for using Minergie°
R standard solutions may not exceed

10% of the cost of conventional solutions (15% in Minergie-P°).


The second way to obtain a Minergie° R certification, which is in fact the only solution for

collective dwellings, is to utilize a control process on the building’s performances. These

are very detailed, but we should focus on some aspects of these requirements:
• They are different for private houses and public dwellings
• They are different for new buildings and renovation projects
• They are adjusted to specific climatic conditions (mainly altitude)

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Building Collective Individual Commercial Hospitals Industries Sport

type dwellings housings dwellings installa-
Maximal 42 42 40 75 20 25
value (all
uses) in
kWh/m /y

Table 3: Some requirements in the Minergie°

R scheme

The Web site www.minergie.ch reports more that there are approximately 5 700 structures
with the regular Minergie°
R label. Since the later Minergie-P° R label does not as yet enjoy

the same name recognition, the institute has also recently launched a new premium label.
It is known as Minergie-Eco°
R and concerns the use of environmentally friendly materials

and processes.

2.3.3 LEED

LEED is the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Its Green
Building Rating System° R is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for develop-

ing high-performance, sustainable buildings. The US Green Building Council developed

this framework, and seven labels were created; each label corresponding to a certain type
of construction project (LEED-H for houses, LEED-EB for existing buildings, etc.).
The certification process is based on a full list of criteria, which goes far beyond the use
of energy in the houses. Aspects such as transportation, visual impact on the neighbour-
hood, use of local materials, etc. are also taken into account. LEED uses the ’Energy
Star’ label requirements as the basis for the consumption of energy in houses. These claim
a 15% reduction compared to 2006 IECC (International Energy Conservation Code) reg-
ulations. These very detailed regulations are finely attuned to the local climate and
impose construction elements and techniques accordingly. Full information can be found
on www.energycodes.gov.

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Figure 4: Climate zones, as defined in IECC 2006

Some basic levels are mandatory for certification. Improved performance confers a bonus.
The final notation consists of four performance levels (certified, silver, gold, and platinum).
Although most projects have been implemented in North America, some are also located
in Europe.
LEED is a good example of a vision that is broader than just low energy building; taking
into account not only the energy uses inside the building, but also the entire cycle of
construction, activity, useful life, and demolition.

2.3.4 Comparison between PassivHaus, Minergie°

R and LEED

Since requirements for energy consumption, when they exist, vary according to climatic
conditions and specific project parameters, the simplest way to compare the labels is to
compare their technical requirements, particularly the required insulation values.
In the figure below, we compare some requirements, the EnergyStar being estimated for
Zone 5, based on the IECC requirements.

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Requirements on insulation (U-Factor) for three different


U max (W/m2.K)

1 Fenestration
0,8 Wall
PassivHaus Minergie EnergyStar

Figure 5: Comparison of requirements on insulation values

The great influence of fenestration (the arrangement and number of windows), widely
known in thermal construction analysis, is very clear here. The three labels have differ-
ent requirements, PassivHaus being the most demanding, thus allowing a relatively easy
comparison on heating energy.
Nevertheless, the work is more difficult regarding other aspects, since the scope of the
three labels differs.
Heating- Other Natural- Transport Internal Water Training
Water Uses Local Air Mgt
Heating Materials Quality
Passiv Yes No No No No No No
R Yes Minergie- Minergie- No No No No
P°R Eco°R

LEED Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Table 4: Comparison of application field for three labels

Most of the aspects in table 4 have an energy dimension. Transportation is a good

example: a growing number of people are realizing that it is useless to build a low energy
house if one has to increase car use as a result.
Finally, it should also be noted that labels are only available through a monitoring orga-
nization, which may or may not be available locally. Minergie°, R as one example, is only

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available in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Nevertheless, the criteria and evaluations can
play a valuable role as inspirations and guidelines for any project.

3 Residential Energy Use

Labels define targets to be achieved in construction (new construction or renovation), and

sometimes give recommendations about technologies to be employed. Numerous energy-
efficient technologies can be used to improve the overall performance of any building,
based on its geographical environment and the pattern of use according to the cultural
habits of the users (especially how they dress in winter and summer).
Since technologies are nothing more than the tools used to convert an energy carrier into
a service, in this section we will provide a list of energy-efficient technologies classified by
We will also introduce a sub-classification for these systems, referring to the kind of energy
input on which they are based:
• Passive systems: intended to make optimum use of natural energy, without ex-
ternal energy input (whether electricity or any type of carbon energy)
• Active systems: using external energy (whether electricity or any type of carbon
• Behaviour: although not traditionally considered to be technology, behavioural
actions (that is, modifying the interaction between inhabitants and the dwelling)
are a key element in low energy dwellings
For each of these systems, we will provide elements on the requirements of various labels
and a description of the implementation possibilities.

3.1 Heating

3.1.1 Passive systems

General considerations The best way to reduce energy consumption is to take ad-
vantage of all available natural energy. This is the purpose of bioclimatic design, which
is one path to a low energy house. The bioclimatic approach operates at two levels:
1. let the energy of the sun come in
2. do not let it out again

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The best passive devices to let the energy of the sun come in are windows. In low energy
houses, south facing windows act as energy absorbers. The entire building can be designed
so that this energy can be distributed from the south façade.

Figure 6: BedZed, with sun absorbing south facing walls

Implementing large, south-facing spaces is usually quite easy in the design process of a
new building. It can be more problematic in retrofit programs, in particular because of the
global orientation of the building. In such cases, a simple widening of existing windows
can still be a great help.
Some elements such as reflective blinds can also help let more solar energy into the house.
When properly oriented, they can increase the energy input by 25% or more.
The second step in the bioclimatic process of maintaining satisfactory heat levels without
energy expenditure is to reduce energy losses. The list of possible measures is quite long,
but the most common are:
• Reduce exchange surfaces: design compact buildings, the goal being to reduce the
volume to surface ratio (fig 7). The aforementioned labels do not mention compact-
ness in their criteria, although LEED does it indirectly in the two sections:
– Land Use section: Optional Measures
∗ 5.1 Build homes with an average housing density of seven or more dwelling
units per acre of buildable land. (1 Point) OR
∗ 5.2 Build homes with an average housing density of ten or more dwelling
units per acre of buildable land. (2 Points) OR
∗ 5.3 Build homes with an average housing density of twenty or more dwelling
units per acre of buildable land. (3 Points)
– Materials and Resources section

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• Reduce heat losses through surfaces: use thick and efficient insulation on all surfaces
(walls, roofs, and floors); use efficient, double or triple glass windows. The labels
described above place the highest requirements on this aspect. Since materials are
normalized, and sold with a given insulation and performance value, this point
should be easily achievable.
• Avoid heat losses between surfaces: this aspect, which should be integrated by
selecting the right materials, is often ignored. In a well-insulated dwellings, the share
of ventilation losses in the building’s heating requirement becomes more important.
In passive houses, hermetic sealing of the building is as important as insulation.
Hence, the special requirement in labels like Minergie° R and PassivHaus to use a

blowing door test, which is mandatory before the dwelling is certified

Figure 7: Same volume, variable surface

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Figure 8: Points for home size compared to average in the LEED notation system

Figure 9: Blowing door (www.fh-ooe.at)

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Influence of energy content One question that can be asked is whether the energy
content of the insulation is reimbursed during the lifetime of the material, i.e. whether
reinforcing insulation improves environmental performance. Figure 10 show a calculation
for glass fibre of density 12 kg/m3 , λ=0.041 W/˚C.m and energy content 7.34 kWh/kg
(source: ekoinventare for Equer, www.izuba.com, calculation AERE). The first graph
shows a comparison between the total energy content of the insulation and the total
energy consumption over the lifetime of the material. As long as the straight line is under
the curve, the energy invested in more insulation is paid back over the material’s lifetime,
and is thus worth doing.
As seen here, for the conditions specified (lifetime 10 years, 2400 h heating period with
∆T=20˚C), with an insulation thickness of up to 47 cm (which, in this case, means
R=11.4 m2 .K/W, 60% more than required in the PassivHaus label), the glass fibre reim-
burses its energy content over the lifetime of the project.

Tot a l e ne r gy con t e nt com pa re d t o t ot a l loss o ve r l if e t im e


Tot a l e ne r gy ( k Wh )

Total energy content

(kW h/m 2)
200 Total loss on lifetim e
(kW h/m 2)


0,01 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 45
I nsula t io n t hick ne ss ( cm )

Figure 10: Comparison of energy content and energy savings

Figure 11 presents the same data from another perspective: for a given thickness of
insulation, how much an extra centimetre of insulation will save over the lifetime of
the material, and comparing this to the energy content of this extra centimetre. We
can then calculate, for a given thickness, the reimbursement or payback time for an
extra centimetre. When this time exceeds the material’s lifetime, then the cost is not

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Reimbursement time (in heating seasons)

Reimbursment time (in seasons)




6,0 Reimbursement time (in

heating seasons)


0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 45
Insulation thickness (in cm)

Figure 11: Reimbursement (payback) time of an extra centimetre of insulation

Here again, we can observe that the insulation can be increased up to 47 cm and still
reduce lifetime energy consumption.
The cost is not justified except in some extreme cases (extremely short lifetime, very short
and/or temperate heating season, etc.). The influence of energy content is also clearly
visible, showing the benefit of insulation materials with low energy content, like most
natural materials (hemp, cellulose, wood wool etc.). These materials provide the best
benefit in terms of overall energy efficiency

Inertia Less known is the use of inertia. The idea here is to use massive materials or
thermal mass that can store heat in their structure, and release it when the temperature
drops. The positioning and dimensioning of such architectural elements has to be done
very carefully, so that the building behaves in harmony with its environment and the
needs of its inhabitants. This parameter, very important for summer comfort, also plays
an important role in the way the building manages passive solar inputs.
The best example of an inertial system is the Trombe wall, in which a massive element
is placed behind a window. As long as the sun is shining, the wall stores heat, and will
continue to release it even at night. In fact, massive elements play a regulatory role in
the same way as a dam on a river.
In some particular situations, it might be beneficial to plan inter-season heat storage
to increase the inertia effect. The goal is to store excess summer heat in a huge or
massive element (sometimes underground using the ground itself, sometimes in the form
of enormous water tanks).

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3.1.2 Active systems

Ventilation systems Once the heating demand has been reduced to a minimum through
proper overall design, a complementary heating system might be necessary, especially in
renovation programs or collective dwellings, where individual adjustments might be more
difficult to achieve solely through passive solutions.
An active system is already included in the passive house concept to reduce the energy
demand to a minimum. As we have seen, low-demand houses are very nearly airtight,
ventilation being assured by a HVAC (Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning) system,
which is in fact an air-air heat pump working on extracted air, leading to an efficiency
of 75 to 80%. This particular heat-pump system is in fact a keystone It is mandatory in
Minergie° R and PassivHaus systems, and a constant in all normalized low energy build-

ings. For additional efficiency, such a system can be coupled with an Earth-Air Heat
Exchanger (EAHX, often called a ’Canadian well’ in Europe). The fact that heat loss
through air renewal represents one third of the losses in classical buildings, and up to 70%
in well-insulated constructions, justifies the attention given to such systems.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that such equipment, although quite easy to implement
in new constructions, are more difficult to add to retrofitting actions, leading to heavy
works (installation of bi-directional ventilation system). However, they are used today in
a variety of contemporary buildings, both individual and collective.

Heating systems In the case of passive houses, theory says that an additional heating
system should not be needed. The basic concept has this as its primary goal and is able
to maintain comfort solely with its occupants and parasitic heat. Nevertheless, it must
be noted that Scandinavian Homes, a producer of serial passive houses, adds a 900 W
electrical resistance to the HVAC system as security.
For more traditional low energy houses, the challenge is that the heating demand is greatly
reduced and is therefore too low for most devices available on the market. As an example,
a 100 m2 Minergie° R house with a demand of 35 kW h/m2 /y will need 3 500 kWh during

the heating season. This is a nominal power of around 3 kW for an average French climate,
and up to 6 kW for colder climates whereas small pellet furnaces have a typical power of
7 kW, and standard heating systems are rarely under 15 kW.
For individual houses, in fact, the question remains. As a reference, let us examine the
five standard technical solutions that are proposed in the Minergie labelling process. The
electricity mentioned in wood systems represents less than 5% of the total energy involved.

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Technical Solu- Energy input Primary en- Global coefficient of performance

tion ergy
Geothermal Electricity Carbon, 82-230%
heat pump nuclear,
Very efficient, needs sufficient
energy demand for economic
Wood + Solar Biomass Biomass 70-90%
(hot water) (+electricity)
Taking the energy service heating
largely off grid, but highly
dependent on the lifecycle of
energy source
Automatic Biomass (+ Biomass 70 to 90%
Wood system electricity)
Highly dependent on the lifecycle of
energy source
Waste Undefined Undefined 85 to 95% at the point of use
District heating unlikely to be
economical for low energy houses,
as the cost of distribution and
connection becomes too high
Electric + Solar Electricity Carbon, 30 to 92%
100% for solar, based on an IEA

Table 5: Comparison between heating solutions

Biomass systems can be a best practice, depending on the lifecycle and including transport
of the energy source. Waste heat systems (based on heat distribution networks) can be
advantageous but they demand a high density of heat use to be cost effective, and are less
likely to be economical in areas with a high density of low energy houses. Considering a
90% reduction in heat demand with low energy houses, a combination of generating resid-
ual heat with a solar-electric combination becomes attractive and could be instrumental
in allowing a higher penetration of ambient generation in electricity systems.

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The performances of heat pumps depend greatly on local geology. Some structures
(argillaceous, sand, etc.) are not suitable for the use of such systems. The congruency
between the site and the technical solution must be carefully studied, and can, in the case
of a heat pump, sometimes lead to a situation that is not cost efficient. This helps make
the case for more versatile wood-based systems.
The problem is easier to solve for collective dwellings, where all these small remaining
needs can be accumulated, and a heat network can be built. Occupancy rate and distance
between houses have to be carefully studied since these aspects are more easily optimized
in compact collective dwellings.
On the other hand, a more conventional heating system (but of reduced size) can be
designed for compact collective dwellings. Here energy carriers can be combined (such as
solar + wood) in a manner that is difficult to carry out in an individual house because
demand is too small. Since boilers have a limited optimal operating range, collective
heating systems have to be designed carefully.

3.1.3 Behaviour

The way inhabitants use their dwelling can greatly influence the thermal balance, and
thus the energy consumption. These influences can be classified in two categories.

Pure behaviour Fanger (1970, Thermal comfort, Copenhagen) has defined the con-
ditions of comfort for a person, and has shown that comfort depends directly on only six
parameters: ambient temperature, radiant temperature, humidity, air velocity, clothing
insulation, and activity level. It is indeed intriguing to observe the similarities in research
on low energy houses and human thermal comfort.
This clearly shows the very important interaction between inhabitants and interior cli-
mate: maintaining the balance when one parameter changes can be achieved by changing
another parameter. As an example, a decrease of one degree in the ambient temperature
in a house (a 5 to 10% economy) can be compensated by:
• The installation of a radiant heating device (+5 to 10% energy)
• The modification of the radiant temperature of walls - for example, by choosing a
low emitting material such as wood (a very common practice in northern Europe)
• Increasing clothing (no cost, except for the purchase of additional clothes)

Parasitic heat Today, many of our activities within a building entail the use of electrical
devices such as a refrigerator, cooking devices, lighting, computers, etc. These appliances
generate a certain amount of heat. The total amount of heat generated in a house today

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is far from negligible. Compare the typical values listed below to the average 1.5 kWh
per day necessary to heat a 10 m2 room in winter in a Minergie° R house.

Example of equipment use Heat generated in Equivalent

one day heated surface
TV on sleep mode (15 W) for 20 0.30 kWh 2 m2
TV on (75 W) for 4 hours 0.30 kWh 2 m2
20 minutes ironing 0.30 kWh 2 m2
30 minutes oven baking 1.5 kWh 10 m2
Fridge (compressor + heat release 3.0 kWh 20 m2
on condenser)
PC and cathode screen on for 24 6.0 kWh 40 m2
hours (ADSL use – 250 W)
PC and cathode screen on for 8 1.75 kWh 12 m2
hours (office use - 250 W)
PC and flat screen on for 8 hours 1.0 kWh 7 m2
(office use – 125 W)
Laptop on for 8 hours (office use – 0.24 kWh 2 m2
30 W)

Table 6: Examples of heat generation for typical home appliances - Source Fraı̂cheur sans
clim’- ed. Terre Vivante and AERE

With these values in mind, it is clear that these parasitic heat gains cannot be ignored
in the energy input, and should be incorporated when calculating the heat demand. In
office buildings, parasitic heat gains are large because of the heat generated by computers.
They may even need to be air-conditioned because of these heat gains. In the Minergie-P
labelling process, the choice of efficient electrical appliances (A, A+, or A++ categories)
is an inherent part of the low energy design process.

3.2 Cooling

The fact that low energy buildings are designed to let a lot of solar energy in, and not let
it out again, can cause overheating on sunny days. Therefore, the occupants’ behaviour
in the building during the summer needs to be carefully studied and cooling measures
taken as necessary.

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3.2.1 Passive Systems

General considerations The bioclimatic approach, which has already helped us a

great deal regarding the use of energy for heating, can also help us in keeping the building
cool with minimal energy expenditure. Again, this is a two-step process:
1. prevent the heat from coming in
2. let the heat trapped inside escape
In Europe, warmer periods usually correspond to times when the sun is high in the sky.
Therefore, the use of correctly dimensioned overhead protection on south facing windows
works very well in avoiding excessive heating.
It is also important to reduce the number or area of windows on west and east facing walls
(hence the limitation in the Minergie° R guidelines). Where windows remain exposed,

the use of external blinds, or strategically placed trees can offer effective shading in the
summer, while letting light in during wintertime

Thermal Inertia Inertia is a property that has already been mentioned regarding heat-
ing. However, it is also a very important property for summer comfort. In fact, this is
the primary factor that will determine how long a house will take to warm up. Sufficient
inertia is therefore a guarantee in maintaining a cool interior.
The first passive houses, while strongly focused on insulation, neglected the impact of
insulation materials on summer overheating. This design flaw has now generally been
corrected, but remains an important consideration. Below is a table of thicknesses nec-
essary to correctly insulate a house in winter (dependent on insulation) and summer
(dependent on inertia).

Material Conductivity Thermal Capacity Winter Summer

(W/m.K) (Wh/m3 . K) thickness (m) thickness (m)
Mineral wool 0.04 4 0.173 0.815
Polystyrene 0.04 8 0.173 0.593
High density cellulose 0.045 42 0.195 0.271
Sheep wool 0.04 10 0.173 0.535
Wood fibre panel 0.04 80 0.173 0.185

Table 7: Comparison of winter and summer thicknesses for various materials - Source:
Dr. Ing. Reinhard Geisler, Isolfloc (in La conception bioclimatique, ed. Terre Vivante)

The influence of the thermal capacity of materials (this can be generalized to every mate-
rial in the building) is clear. Materials such as mineral wool and wood fibre panels, which

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have the same effect in winter (insulation), have very different behaviour in summer (in-
ertia), with 4.4 times more mineral wool than wood fibre being necessary to create the
same thermal comfort in summer.
The use of night ventilation, already mentioned in the Behaviour Section, has a direct
consequence on the design of the house: it must be possible to open windows in every
room, to allow for sufficient cooling. This is another requirement in the Minergie° R

labelling process.

Surrounding environment The area surrounding a structure has an influence in two

significant aspects:
1. Albedo, which is the ability of a surface to reflect more or less energy from the sun
2. Temperature evolution, related to the presence of grass or plants, which retain or
release water and water vapour
Since the surfaces surrounding a structure interacts with the building and influences the
energy input, it should be carefully designed with respect to orientation and building
design to help regulate the energy input.

Ground quality Surface temperature in summertime Albedo (reflection)

Asphalt 35˚C 7%
White asphalt 25˚C 90%
Bare ground 25˚C -
Mowed grass 23˚C 20%
Uncut grass 21˚C -

Table 8: Examples of ground surface properties - Source Fraı̂cheur sans clim’ , ed. Terre

3.2.2 Active Systems

The first and simplest cooling system is the Earth-Air Heat Exchanger (’Canadian well’).
By letting the air travel under the ground before coming into the house, its temperature
will drop several degrees, refreshing the inner atmosphere. Typical temperature drops of
3 to 5˚C have been measured.
A variant of this system has been in use for centuries in North Africa and the Middle East
(the Iranian badgir are an example), where filled amphora are suspended in the air flow
and evaporation creates an additional cooling effect. The use of evaporation - in home
fountains, for example - can still be a modern and efficient cooling solution.

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A more classical, but also more energy consuming, cooling solution is the air-air heat
pump. This device uses electricity to circulate a heat transportation fluid and transport
heat from the interior to the exterior. It should be noted that such a device should not
be considered as a heating system, because of very poor energy efficiency, particularly at
air temperatures below 7˚C (Source: Etude chauffage électrique et pompe chaleur en
France - Greenpeace France).
In spite of a currently reported performance coefficient of approximately 2, we must
remember that A/C appliances work with electricity. To make an accurate comparison
of the total energy efficiency of such systems, it requires us to backtrack to the primary
energy source.

Origin of electricity Combined Gas-fired or Nuclear Renewable

cycle gas- coal-fired electricity electricity
fired power power
Ratio of heating/cooling 1.20 0.60 – 0.80 0.72 2.00
energy to primary energy
for low energy houses

Table 9: Ratio of heating/cooling energy to primary energy of an air/air cooling system,

depending on electricity production source and applied to low energy houses

Another aspect to be studied, since Europe is committed to the Kyoto Protocol, is the
amount of CO2 emitted by the energy source.

Coal Fuel Combined cycle gas Cogeneration Nuclear, hydro, wind power
915 676 404 230-380 0

Table 10: CO2 emissions for electricity production, in g CO2 /kW h - Source: Eléments de
calcul des émissions de gaz a effet de serre dans les installations énergétiques, J.P. Tabet,
C.Cros, 2000

Finally, a significant portion of the electricity generated in some countries is produced by

nuclear reactors. This leads to a production of nuclear waste of 8.64 mg/kWh (radioactive
waste with a short half-life) and 0.85 mg/kWh (radioactive waste with a long half-life)
(source: EDF).

3.2.3 Behaviour

The same considerations cited regarding comfort and heating can also be applied to
cooling. For example, reducing the temperature from 27˚C to 25˚C using an A/C

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system leads to an energy consumption increase of 10 to 20%, whereas the same result in
terms of physiological comfort is achievable by reducing clothing (no cost) or increasing
air velocity (inexpensive fan using significantly less energy).
In Japan, the CoolBiZ campaign in summer 2005 proposed setting A/C at or above 28˚C
(instead of the usual 22˚C) and invited people to work without a jacket and tie. The
results for 2005 led to a modest economy of 70 GWh, in a society with a high cultural
reluctance to changing clothing habits. The campaign has been relaunched in 2006,
together with a WarmBiz campaign in winter, setting the heating limit at 20˚C.
It is also important, in the case of a warm summer period, that the occupant of the house
be able to cool the building during a cooler period (at night, for example) by opening doors
and windows, and to protect the building from excessive overheating by using shades and
blinds. Here again, we see the direct link between behaviour and energy use.

3.3 Electrical Appliances

3.3.1 Technologies

Most labels insist on the initial choice of class A (or A+ or A++) equipment, in reference
to the European energy labelling for refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, dishwash-
ers, driers, ovens, and hot water heaters.
With the average European price for electricity around 0.10 e/kWh, a freezer will cost
about 65 e/year, although models costing around 200 e are not an exception. The
importance of good quality and high efficiency clearly lead to potential economies of
up to 40% and more. The same type of calculation can be made for every electrical
appliance, and should take into account the fact that many appliances consume energy
when on standby mode. Values around 10 W are current for TV systems; since there is
currently no regulation for sleep consumption levels, the initial choice is all-important.

3.3.2 Behaviour

Whereas choices in the power supply can automatically reduce the energy consumption
of appliances when turned on, behaviour remains a very important parameter. There are
still many appliances on the market that use more energy in standby mode than in use,
simply because the user leaves the appliances in sleep mode 24/7.

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Category Miscellaneous % of total con-

Standby Power sumption
Cooling Appliances 12 5
Cooking 34 13
Audio, Video, Communication 108 42
Lighting 57 22

Table 11: Examples of standby power consumption - Source: Miscellaneous Standby

Power Consumption of household appliances, EU-DG XVII Brussels, Belgium

The total energy expense in Europe for standby equipment has been estimated at 53
TWh/y. This is the production of eight large power stations. Simply unplugging or
turning off the appliances (which can be facilitated by an adapted design) could save a
large portion of this energy.
Among all specific electric uses, cooling appliances (fridge, cooler, etc.) are an important
focus, since they represent 30 to 40% of the total electric use. Placing them in a cool
room can provide significant savings.
Washing and drying machines represent more than 20% of all home energy use. They
consume large amounts of energy, around 1,000 kWh. This amount might never be
amortized when the appliance is used only two or three times a week; hence the value in
sharing this kind of appliance in collective dwellings. This is a very common practice in
countries such as the USA and Switzerland.

3.4 Hot Water

3.4.1 Technologies

General considerations The three labelling processes that we studied in the first
section of this paper have a different approach regarding water heating systems. While
PassivHaus only puts a limitation on the total amount of primary energy used in the
building (max. 120 kW h/m2 .y), the Minergie° R solutions require the technical system

to be selected from the following list: heat pump, wood boiler, or solar powered systems
along with waste heat from the industry.
LEED does not impose any mandatory measures, but proposes variable bonuses for ef-
ficient distribution (loop sizes, insulation, etc.) and production (solar, gas or electric)

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A standard low energy water heating solution is the solar water heater, because it uses a
cost-free energy, and can supply up to 70% of the requirement.
Despite its very low consumption, it remains important to design and integrate the system
carefully (the circulation pumps, in particular) in order to reduce total energy consump-
tion to a minimum.
Solar heating systems always need a complementary energy source to ensure that the
service is maintained on cloudy days.
• Electricity
• Fuel/Gas burner
• Wood can be a good solution, but low power (12 to 15 kW) wood systems that
would be adapted to low energy individual housings are rare. However they are
very well adapted to collective dwellings.

Alternative solutions A new approach to water heating systems has been proposed
and applied in recent years. The system, called warm water, is based on very small
electrical water heaters integrated very close to the usage point rather than a single large
source. There are multiple benefits to such a solution:
• Immediate response, leading to hot water consumption reduced from 10 to 40
• Greatly reduced thermal loss in distribution system, leading to a 10% reduction in
energy use
• Smaller, more insulated, and more efficient water heater (power from 3 to 20 W),
leading to 10 to 20% economy compared to traditional electric boilers.
Since these advantages are cumulative, a possible 50% economy on energy and water is
claimed. The distributor states that the savings on water and energy is so significant that
it makes installing a solar heater unnecessary. The entire energy for hot water can be
produced by a small area (from 2 to 5 m2 ) of photovoltaic panels instead.
Another solution that has been used in collective dwellings and the food industry is the
reuse of drain heat. One of the distributors claims an economy of 34% on the energy bill,
and return on investment within 2 to 4 years.

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Figure 12: Principle of the warm water system - (Source: ets-concept.monsite.wanadoo.fr)

and principle of the GFXstar drain heat reuse system - (Source: www.gfxstar.com)

3.4.2 Behaviour

Two parameters define the amount of energy that is used in heating water:
• The temperature to which the water is heated: the heat capacity of water is 4.18
kJ/kg.K therefore heating 1 litre of water 1 C higher requires 1.16 Wh
• The amount of water that is heated
The first parameter is easy to modify by correctly setting the temperature of the wa-
ter heating system. It is still very common to find hot water systems that are set to
80˚C, a level that results in useless energy expenditure. This also accelerates calcifica-
tion, leading to additional energy losses, and additional maintenance costs for de-scaling.
However, a temperature below 55˚C increases the risk of legionella. Setting the system
at approximately 60˚C is an optimal choice for residential systems.
The second parameter is also directly linked to behaviour, the question always being:
’How much water do I need for a given service?’ (and equally important: ’How much of
this service will I consume?’). A typical example is comparing taking a shower (20 to 60
litres of water in inefficient situations) instead of having a bath (min. 100 litres). Bathing
represents 39% of our consumption, and washing activities more than 25%.
It should be noted that Europeans consume eight times more water than their grandpar-
ents did only 50 years ago and that several countries in Europe have insufficient availability

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of fresh water, as shown on the map below.

Figure 13: Availability of freshwater in 2000. Source: World Resource Institute

3.5 Cooking

Cooking is an activity that uses energy in the form of heat. Although some attempts
are being made in Europe, the path to an energy-efficient cooking system is still long.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that, in the entire ’food activity’ cycle, the majority
of the energy is consumed in fridges and freezers, again making the choice of A, A+, or
A++ appliances particularly important.

3.5.1 Improved traditional cooking equipment

The traditional method of cooking, with a pot placed over a heat source (flame or electric),
and no surfaces of the pot being insulated, is very inefficient (maximum efficiency of 35%)
and leads to significant heat loss.
One interesting attempt to improve this is the so-called Norwegian pot. This device is
nothing more than an insulated box, in which one places the hot pot before the end of
the normal cooking time. Then, the heat being conserved, cooking continues without any
further energy input, leading to an economy of 20 to 50%.
Is it possible to generalize this principle to all cooking activities? This remains an open
question today, since there is no mass production of such appliances.

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3.5.2 Alternative energy cooking

While the cooking process itself has seen little progress, some interesting attempts have
appeared recently concerning the energy source. Solar cooking is being developed in
southern countries (Africa, South America), with a great deal of success, especially for
long cooking processes (steaming, stewing, etc.). Its use in northern countries is still
sporadic, although about 1,000 solar cookers are currently operating in Switzerland.
In Africa and Asia, biogas production from human and animal manure is quite common,
and the gas (methane) is then used for cooking. Such a process has been installed ex-
perimentally in Freiburg, Germany for research purposes and it is noted in the document
Leben und arbeiten that ’Our research installation is too expensive to be reproducible in
another situation.’ On the other hand, the Kigali Institute for Science, Technology, and
Management has equipped six prisons of 5,000 persons each with methane production
from human excrement. The gas is then used in the prison’s kitchen, leading to a 50%
reduction of fuel consumption.

Figure 14: Biogas production plant under construction in Kigali, Rwanda - detailed in-
formation on www.ashdenawards.org/winners/kist05

3.5.3 Behaviour

As with interior heating and cooling, cooking is an activity where inhabitants significantly
interact with the house. Without even discussing equipment and technologies, the method
of cooking itself has the greatest influence on energy demand. Behaviour is, in fact, the
most important single factor regarding energy demand for cooking.
For example, the use of a cover when cooking divides by a factor of 3.8 the energy demand
to maintain boiling water (calculation for 1.5 litres, 190 W instead of 720 W - Source:

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INFEL, ENERCO (Alain Gaumann))! Turning off the power at some point before the
end of the cooking process can save substantial amounts of energy. Cooking or baking
several dishes while the equipment is still hot also saves energy. Steam cooking is a very
efficient method. Some oven producers are now offering steam ovens. And, of course, raw
food does not require cooking energy and maintains the full nutritional value of the food.

4 Benefits of Low Energy Construction

4.1 Financial

It is often remarked that the construction of low energy dwellings costs more that tra-
ditional construction techniques, and might therefore not be financially advantageous.
However the way construction projects are executed varies significantly, especially in the
amount of DIY work. We note that the Scandinavian Homes company2 offers a standard-
ized passive house. The first house built in Ireland between March 9th and March 17th
has a surface of 230 m2 for a price of 1 130 e/m2.
We should also note that a label like Minergie°
R strictly limits the surplus costs (10% for

Minergie°R S, 15% for Minergie P) due to the special construction techniques employed.

The French study ’Construction durable’ (available on www.constructiondurable.com)

has also demonstrated that the earlier the energy parameter is included in the project,
the smaller this cost will be. The HQE association in France, reports an additional cost
of only 5% if the ’High Environmental Quality’ parameters are taken into account early
It is worthwhile to again mentioned that, as explained in the ’The costs and benefits of
green buildings - a report to California’s sustainable building task force’, the payback
on initial investment is relatively rapid. The savings on the total annual charges usually
reaches 3 e/m2 /year, with an increase in the value of the building at around 8 e/m2 . The
principal problem remains that the investor is often not the same person or organization
as the user.

4.2 Social

The same ’Costs and benefits of green buildings’ study discusses the financial benefits
of green constructions over their lifetime. These benefits break down as follows: 11%
consists of energy savings, 16% consists of reductions in charges, and 70% are savings on
productivity increase and reductions in health costs.

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While this clearly shows the importance of energy savings, with total economies going up
to 70%, there are also important side benefits. In fact, low energy buildings are usually
designed with a full quality procedure in mind, so that the benefits from energy savings
pull a lot of other benefits along with them. It is also important to note that, in the case
of collective dwellings, the reduction in charges varies from 1.6 to 3.4 e/m2 /year. This
is a very important point for the low income population, who benefit from good quality
housing at lower costs with reduced charges on energy usages.

4.3 Political

Some cities and regions, such as Freiburg-im-Breisgau in Germany, have implemented a

full environmental approach, low energy construction being one element of the puzzle,
along with the elements of urban organization, transportation, waste management, etc.
The idea behind this approach is that dwellings are only one part of a global energy
system that entails massive waste.
The fact that political institutions have taken on the responsibility to lead such low
energy programs has limited the drawbacks of uncertainty and poor financial efficiency
on the initial experiments. The success of these programs, which are now performing well
financially, has greatly improved the image of these cities and countries, while at the same
time helping innovative local companies (like the now widely recognized Solar Fabrik in
Freiburg) develop.

5 Conclusion

Since the Rio Conference in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocols in 1995, many have become
aware of the problem of global warming. Energy is the cause of 85% of all greenhouse
effect gas emissions. Efforts have been made, but two emission categories keep increasing:
transportation and buildings. The current energy situation (between 2000 and 2006, the
price of oil doubled, the price of natural gas for individuals increased by 34%) further
strengthens the case for low energy construction.
We have also seen that, although technologies and design play an important role, indi-
vidual behaviour also has a great impact on two levels. The first is on the selection of
technologies, which is always the result of a human choice. The second is on the manner
in which the technologies are used day-to-day, in real life. It is therefore extremely im-
portant, as mentioned in the LEED procedure, to focus on the training of inhabitants in
low energy houses. A low energy dwelling with well-informed inhabitants can radically
cut its energy expenditure, a typical example being a 7 to 14% reduction on the heating
consumption for a 1˚C decrease on the settings.

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Retrofit remains a critical point, since Europe has a very large number of older dwellings,
which are not at all energy efficient. NegaWatt mentions that, for France only, reduc-
ing energy consumption in every pre-1975 building (there are 17 million of them) to 50
kW h/m2 .y would require the retrofitting of 450 000 buildings (which is the number of
buildings put on sale annually) per year for 45 years.
One point remains unclear: the local capacity to build such low energy dwellings, as well as
the cultural acceptance by the building industry. As we have seen, construction materials
and processes need massive improvement. How ready are construction companies to
accept these changes in their work today? How can local regulations be adapted to
encourage the best practices regarding energy, as has been done with electrical devices in
the past?


[1] Fanger (1970, Thermal comfort, Copenhagen)

[2] Salomon - Aubert (Fracheur sans clim’- ed. Terre Vivante)
[3] Miscellaneous Standby Power Consumption of household appliances, EU-DG XVII
Brussels, Belgium
[4] www.constructiondurable.com
[5] PassivHaus: www.passiv.de
[6] Minergie: www.minergie.ch
[7] LEED: www.usgbc.org/leed

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