Facing up to the challenge at the AECB 2018 Convention

Audience engagement at #AECB2018
Audience engagement at #AECB2018

This year’s AECB convention took place in the beautiful surrounds of the Herefordshire countryside, with delegates from all over the country gathering at the UK’s first Passivhaus Village Hall. One delegate, Lois Hurst, sums it up well:

Although I’ve been a member for some 3 years, it was my first AECB event, and really enjoyable (and that’s without acknowledging the excellent food!) – quite different to some of the stuffier conferences I’ve attended in my earlier career. I met so many interesting, passionate and genuine people; I really sensed a different purpose amongst the AECB delegates to the highly commercially driven environment I’ve encountered at other events – there was a sense of working for the “greater good”, rather than just to get rich. I suppose this is a reflection of the members at the AECB, rather than just the conference, but it gives me great confidence that the AECB and the connections I make through it will be a key part in my career over the coming years.

  • Lois Hurst MRes, BSc, MIEnvSc (Retrofit Self-Builder and PhD Student in Energy Demand in Retrofit)

In the first of two keynote talks, the big picture came courtesy of journalist, academic and author Nafeez Ahmed who described the size and complex nature of the challenge we face globally, demonstrating how crises as ostensibly diverse as climate breakdown and warfare and violence are closely interlocked, feeding into and reinforcing one other. Optimism in the face of such huge challenges can only result from action, and as Nafeez put it, those working in sustainable building – the AECB network – are among “the pioneers on the frontline”, working to reduce our carbon emissions by pragmatic action on the ground. And to support that action, energy efficiency expert Dr Steve Fawkes introduced new ways to encourage funding in energy-efficiency from an investor’s point of view. You can read the full text of his presentation on his blog, or listen to both keynote talks below.

Both client and designers' perspectives on the Passivhaus Garway Village Hall - clockwise from top left: Malcolm Howard, Adele Mills, Andy Simmonds
Both client and designers’ perspectives on the Passivhaus Garway Village Hall – clockwise from top left: Malcolm Howard, Adele Mills, Andy Simmonds

‘Village Hall’ is a bit of a misnomer for this multifunctional building, serving not only as a meeting space, but also as a health outreach centre, post office, social services and entertainment venue – supplying this remote community with essential functions otherwise hard to access. In the afternoon we learned in fascinating detail about the building and its development from Malcolm Howard, representing the client Garway Village Hall Committee, Adele Mills and Andy Simmonds of the architects Simmonds.Mills, and Alan Clarke, energy consultant and building services engineer. We heard about “the lovely vigour of Passivhaus debate that gives us edges to push against” on the building physics front, and in the context of use and function, about how this is not only a building to fit the community, but one which will grow the community in the future and impel them to grow.  Adele and Andy talked us through construction details, and Alan Clarke explained the strategy for ventilation – not an easy challenge in this multi-use building. A single unit manages both a constant air supply to the single use rooms (toilets, post office and so on) as well as a modulated air flow to the main hall, guided by CO2 and temerature monitors, which enables it to cope with everything from a Saturday night gig to a tai chi class to a meeting of the local heritage group.

Saturday morning saw a focus on retrofit, with Peter Rickaby filling us in on how the new PAS2035 standard for retrofitting dwellings for improved energy efficiency, currently in development, is set to restore confidence in the retrofit industry – so long as it retains its strength in the face of a certain amount of push back from the industry. Thanks to all who responded with encouragement to the recent consultation on the proposals. The new standard is due to be published in February, and enforced later in 2019.

Two encouraging examples of successful retrofit initiatives in action followed, first with Peter Rickaby going on to tell us about the ambitious project to bring comfort, warmth and a healthy living environment to the huge Thamesmead estate in South London. His first visit to the estate had left him ashamed at the state of the homes suffering from the worst black mould, cold and condensation he’d seen in his career. Beginning with an individual risk assessment of every home, this rescue project tailored a package of solutions to each, from detailed advice for all to demand controlled continuous MEV for the worst affected. One of the most important lessons learned was the value of engaging residents in the process from the start, throughout, and on an ongoing basis. Residents all understand the measures taken and as a result feel in control of their homes’ warmth and comfort – nobody’s turned the ventilation off (a minor triumph!) Smart thermostats help with this, as well as sending monitoring data back to a central dashboard via the mobile phone network.

Time to soak in the view and chat with other delegates over a delicious lunch
Time to soak in the view and chat with other delegates over a delicious lunch

A presentation from Marianne Heaslip and Jonathan Atkinson followed, reporting on the success of a community-based approach to whole house retrofit from Greater Manchester where Carbon Coop is helping residents make radical reductions in household carbon emissions and energy bills. Their training programmes, from a Beginner’s Guide to Retrofit to more in-depth sessions on ventilation, heating and practical hands-on DIY workshops, demystify the options a householder may face when setting out to make their home more energy efficient and comfortable. Coop members are finding the resources on offer incredibly useful, especially when impartial and straightforward advice for those with little to no prior knowledge of the issues can be so hard to come by.

Elsewhere in the venue over the two days of the gathering, there were opportunities to learn from Dr Stacey Waring about the problems with breathable membranes when there are bats about – vital information that anyone who designs, specifies or constructs roofs can’t remain ignorant of – what straw-bale building is all about with Barbara Jones  of Straw Works (fresh from her appearance on BBC’s Dragon’s Den), and a wide range of Passivhaus and low energy projects across the county of Herefordshire designed by Architype, from a director of the practice Mark Barry. In a hugely useful session for PHPP aficionados, Tim Martel demonstrated the latest iteration of his cutting-edge PHPP plugin, PHRibbon (incorporating REALCosting). Learn more by joining his forthcoming webinar, part of the CLR Retrofit programme.

A packed room for Alan Clarke and Nick Grant
A packed room for Alan Clarke and Nick Grant

In a packed session, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke cast an eye back over 25 years of low energy building experience. The talk ranged from their earliest ventures into sustainable building, incorporating several principles of Passivhaus even before the Standard had reached the UK, to more current analyses of the impact of different fuel choices, and a quick look at new questions on their horizon, including the Building Biology standard – can it help make healthier buildings?

Construction choices can have life-and-death consequences, as has become terrifyingly clear in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Professor Anna Stec of the University of Central Lancashire and journalist Kate de Selincourt explored its ramifications, looking at the current inquiry, the Hackitt report and the prospect of regulatory change, and Anna’s groundbreaking research into the impact of fire smoke on health and the environment. This research has recently reached the national news, as her initial findings examining environmental toxicity in the wake of the fire have revealed huge concentrations of potential carcinogens in the soil around the site. We must hope that Public Health England take action on these findings sooner rather than later. As Kate de Selincourt reminded us, mistakes can’t always be put right.


AECB members can explore the weekend’s presentations here, and look out for news of next year’s conference, bigger and better than ever, in the AECB’s 30th anniversary year.