Alex Honey – Sustainable Residential Solutions Q&A

Good buildings don’t have to cost the Earth
Alex Honey  

Alex Honey is an associate of Enhabit who, in conjunction with Green Building Store, promote environmentally conscious building design to transform buildings and deliver warm, comfortable homes that use a fraction of the energy of a typical house.

At Malone Architecture we have enjoyed working alongside Enhabit because of their passion for doing the right thing. Alex Honey and Keith Malone, our lead architect, have worked on various new-build one-off projects together, off-and-on, for the last decade.

Those houses were each built as Code 4 Sustainable Homes featuring enhanced robust details from the Energy Saving Trust which Alex advised us upon in great detail. His in-depth knowledge of everything construction provides us with the comfort that our clients are receiving the best guidance available to ensure their project will be as sustainable as possible.

In an ideal world we very much hope to collaborate on a Passivhaus project or two together in the near future, and the chance to develop our working relationship further.

We caught up with Alex to find out more about low energy homes.

1. What is your background?

I have a degree in civil engineering degree and am also a Certified Passivhaus designer and ATTMA air tester. My ten years working in the concrete and cement industry were formative as I worked as part of a team to increase the amount of recycled materials used in concrete.

2. Tell us a little bit about Enhabit and your role there

I am the Director of a division of the Company which specialises in detailed modelling of low energy buildings, mainly using Passivhaus software as a design tool. We also advise on how to achieve a “Fabric First” low energy building.

3. Why do you do what you do?

I want “at least I tried” to be my epitaph!

What is your purpose?

To demonstrate that good buildings don’t have to cost the Earth.

And why the passion?

To rail against vested interests who think that buildings are purely for profit and that the occupants are immaterial.

What has inspired you?

The desire to drag the building industry into the 21stCentury. Still work in progress!

4. How does Enhabit add value to a residential project?  Do you know if the value of the house increases with the inclusion of sustainable features?

We can highlight the weaknesses of the design before it is finalised, giving the opportunity to tweak, amend and improve, making it more comfortable to live in and more buildable. The value of a house increases around 5% when sustainable features are incorporated.

5. Why should we build sustainable houses? What are the most tangible benefits?

In the not-too-distant future, there will be insufficient energy during peak winter heating periods to keep all our homes warm and the infrastructure improvements may cost more than simply reducing the energy demand. Additionally, if buildings are energy efficient, it bakes in 60-100yrs of energy savings, whereas most renewable technologies only last 10-20 years.  The main benefit of a sustainable home is that it provides a warm comfortable building that people like being in, all year round, with very low heating/ cooling energy demands.


6. Do you have any quick wins for homeowners that gives immediate impact?

Boiler controls, lots of loft insulation and draught exclusion (but consider indoor air quality). However, this is not really what we are about; we look at deep retrofit and new build to maximise the benefits of low energy buildings looking at a holistic approach.

7. Do you have any quick wins for homeowners looking for energy saving options?

Switch off appliances and install low energy lighting.

8. When it comes to sustainability, what should be the main focus for Malone Architecture’s clients who are looking to renovate their homes or want to build a new home?

Minimise heat loss and overheating by concentrating on getting the fabric of the building right. The critical planning phase is at the beginning (RIBA Stage 0). The wrong building shape/form bakes in inefficiency, so it is important to look at the form factor as the design develops. I would also recommend that your clients don’t get over excited by an excessive use of glass – which is going to be cold in winter and hot in summer. Who wants to live in a greenhouse?! A key question to ask is does that stunning home in the brochure actually work thermally? Is it comfortable?

9. What should they be aware of when it comes to utilising sustainable materials? Are there any pitfalls?

Low carbon materials are notoriously difficult to measure accurately and it is still very much a work in progress. In our experience you should not necessarily believe what you are being told. Is a Siberian birch dragged halfway around the world really “carbon negative”? A better alternative might be to reuse materials, recycle materials, and source materials locally.

10. What is the main reason people don’t opt for sustainable and energy saving options?

It is perceived as being difficult and that the savings are not worth the capital expense. Poor communication of the benefits can also be a barrier.

11. Where do you see the industry going in relation to the climate emergency – Architects Declare etc.

The journey to building better, more energy efficient, safer buildings is a very slow one. The current cladding scandal illustrates the scale of the problems within the industry currently. It needs to be all about quality. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” on the idea of what is quality.

12. How do you think the construction industry will change in the next 5-10 years in terms of sustainability? What will be the drivers of change?

Productivity has to improve as we have an aging working population in construction. We need more modular construction. These drivers will hopefully force improvements in the quality of the product which, by default, will improve building performance. Legislation unfortunately is the main driver for our industry. Enlightened clients also play an important role.

13. What do you think the impact of government funded grants and schemes such as the recently scrapped Green Homes Grant or the Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme have been/will be?

The fear is that government thinks that we can burn hydrogen to get out of our current problems by heating inefficient homes using natural gas boilers. This will prove to be a mistake too late, leading to a bigger problem to deal with in the 2030s. The PAS2035 retrofit standard is a good step in the right direction and grants may make a comeback for the private sector. Or the government may simply make it illegal to sell a very leaky home.

14. In this video you have laid out the regulations that will be in place by 2050. In your view, what role will architects play in helping homeowners prepare for the changes:

 

There was no real mention of fabric efficiency in this video and was purely aimed at meeting future legislation. Rather like saying “The Fiat Punto meets the regulations” whilst knowing that actually it has a very low ENCAP safety rating and not informing your audience that, actually, the Tesla Model 3 also meets future regulations and is actually technically a superior vehicle, but it will cost you more up front.

Overheating in a warming world (especially London) is going to become more of a concern in the future meaning architects need to design homes from scratch that consider their environment (shading from nearby buildings, solar orientation etc).

Passivhaus consists of 5 key pillars:
1) Lots of insulation
2) No thermal bridges – the fiddly junctions of building elements often lose lots of heat in a low energy efficient building
3) Very airtight ie no draughts which means Passivhaus buildings are very energy efficient
4) Triple glazing – keeps heat in, increases comfort
5) MVHR, ie a formal ventilation system that provides the right amount of fresh air irrespective of the weather outside.

Passivhaus refers to buildings created to rigorous energy efficient design standards so that they maintain an almost constant temperature. Passivhaus buildings are so well constructed, insulated and ventilated that they retain heat from the sun and the activities of their occupants, requiring very little additional heating or cooling.

15. What do you enjoy about working with Malone Architecture?

Keith and his colleagues at Malone Architecture are always receptive to what we have to say with regards to low energy building design.

16. What do you see as the role of the architect in terms of promoting low energy building design?

Educating their clients on the necessity of low energy buildings. That starts by architects as a cohort understanding what that means for building design.

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