Issue 87Meet our Passivhaus experts

Low operational energy is vital for a net zero future. Our FCBStudios Passivhaus Designers give us their take on how Passivhaus principles are helping us achieve this.

Passivhaus provides a standard methodology for design and ambitious build quality, that will ensure the final product meets the low operational energy targets required by Net Zero.

“Understanding the whole life carbon impacts of our projects is a vital part of designing buildings for our net zero future. To do so, we need to consider both the embodied carbon of the materials we use, and the energy used in the operation of those buildings” says Dr Joe Jack Williams.

Andrew Abraham agrees – the best time to embed Passivhaus design is right at the start of a project: “If we are to meet the demands of the Paris Agreement, adopting Passivhaus and low energy design principles into projects beyond housing is imperative to the future of the industry. Applying this knowledge early on in the design process is crucial to achieving the best possible end product for clients and end users.

“As designers, it’s important to acknowledge that we’re not all individually equipped with the expertise required to deliver on the net zero targets we’re publicly backing. To achieve these targets in practice we need to need to play a more active role by upskilling, both as individuals and collectively as a profession.” says Katherine McMahon, one of three architects currently undertaking the Passivhaus training.  

“We know from performance gap research that it’s not enough to rely solely on the expertise of others to provide bolt-on solutions, or to assume that the basic principles of sustainable design we were taught at university will be enough to get us to net zero. The Passivhaus course appeals to me as a way of taking responsibility and making practical steps towards achieving more energy efficient design outputs. It’s a rigorous quality assured process with a consistent, tested output – this is important if we’re to address the performance gap in energy use."

Joe continues: ”The process and the focus that comes with trying to achieve Passivhaus means that it is an excellent tool for creating low energy buildings. The stringency of the airtightness requirements, the process of testing through the build and the open and blame free culture required are all positive additions to building design.”

Tom Fowlie was the first within the practice to become a Passivhaus Designer. “Studying on the course back in 2015 definitely felt like swimming upstream. Since then, the wider world has changed significantly and, especially after the Stirling Prize in 2019 [when the winner was Goldsmith Street, a Passivhaus residential scheme by Mikhail Riches with Cathy Hawley], Passivhaus is no longer a fringe ‘experiment’, but a recognised standard that clients are asking for as a matter of course.

I now find that I’m examining everything I do in my work through this lens and am eagerly anticipating a future where every project is a certified Passivhaus.”

Nick Hodges, project architect on the practice’s first Passivhaus project, Kellogg College Hub in Oxford, and has a technical cross practice role championing sustainable design. “Undertaking the Passivhaus Certified Designers course has given me a new perspective on all the projects I am currently supporting across the practice. Most importantly it has encouraged me to challenge our teams and seek to refine our approach in a harmonious and positive way, while focussing on improvements in energy use and user comfort.“

Andy Abraham and Chris Pittway completed the course earlier this year. Chris explains how it will tie in with his current projects: “The Passivhaus approach has enabled me to have a thorough understanding of the physics of designing energy-efficient buildings with low operational energy demands. Much of my current work is in the residential sector, where the Passivhaus principles are vital, especially for social housing where reducing fuel poverty is of critical importance.

Since becoming certified, optimisation of the form factor to reduce heat loss and simplifying the building envelope as much as possible to improve air tightness has taken on much more significance in the early design stages. Testing window sizes using the Passivhaus calculator to fine tune the balance between heat losses and solar gains has also proved a really useful exercise and I look forward to the later construction stages.

I am excited to see Passivhaus adopted more broadly, the role it can play in reducing operational energy use and the value it can deliver to people – keeping homes warm and well-ventilated.”

Andrew is more focussed on commercial projects: “Since completing the course, I have been able to apply the knowledge to my projects within the practice - notably Three Chamberlain Square, Birmingham a commercial project with a pioneering sustainability approach, targeting low operational and embodied carbon. Undertaking the course raised my awareness of building physics, materials and product specification, which in turn has enabled greater dialogue and facilitated decision making with the wider design team at all stages, specifically in relation to building performance and services. “

Nick concludes “We are already seeing successful outcomes from the training; developing new client partnerships and delivering projects to ambitious standards, and I’m looking forward to realising the next generation of Passivhaus projects with the practice.” 


About our Passivhaus Designers

Andrew Abraham is an architect based in Belfast. He has worked on a number of commercial schemes, using both new and existing buildings, and is a member of ACAN in Northern Ireland.

Tom Fowlie was the first of our architects to undergo the Passivhaus training course. He has since applied his learnings to his own self built house, and brought his understanding to a range of projects within the practice.

Nick Hodges is an Associate, Passivhaus Designer and FCBStudios Sustainability Champion. He was closely involved in FCBStudios' first completed Passivhaus project – Kellogg College Hub and is currently delivering Croft Gardens for King's College Cambridge, a Passivhaus project with a 100 year, net zero design life - due to complete in Spring 2022. Nick Hodges and Max Fordham’s Sophia Barker look further at the opportunities and challenges of Passivhaus in practice in 'Does Passivhaus kill creativity?' (The short answer is no - read on for why not!) 

Katherine McMahon is an architect in Manchester studying to become a Passivhaus Certified Designer. She is currently working on a residential scheme in the North West, providing around 100 new homes targeting Passivhaus Plus standards.

Chris Pittway is an architect, currently working on a 100% affordable housing scheme in London. He completed his Passivhaus training this year.

Dr Joe Jack Williams is an Associate and researcher at FCBStudios and, alongside Ian Taylor, leads the practice's environmental research, identifying, developing and enabling research across sectors and projects.


1. Kellogg College Hub, Oxford
2. Kellogg College Hub, Oxford
3. Croft Gardens, King's College Cambridge
4. Croft Gardens, King's College Cambridge
5. South Hill, Jersey
6. Three Chamberlain Square, Birmingham

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