As people worldwide become more concerned about their impact on the environment, it’s only natural to consider whether our lifestyles add to the pollution that is changing our planet. It’s a concern that occupies people in many professions, including architects and builders: the people who create the environments in which we spend our time.
The net zero house is one model that is gaining popularity, because it is energy neutral; it produces as much energy as it uses. Another model that is being discussed is the active house, a concept that originated in Europe.
The Active House Alliance, based in Brussels, describes an active house as “a vision of buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without negative impact on the climate – moving us towards a cleaner, healthier and safer world.” A home that receives an Active House designation must meet the basic demands for three key factors: energy efficiency, environment and indoor comfort.
The alliance goes on to explain each of these factors in more detail. Energy efficiency means that “all energy needed is supplied by renewable energy sources integrated into the building or from the nearby collective energy system and electricity grid.” The active house must have a positive impact on the environment “through an optimized relationship with the local context, focused use of resources, and its overall environmental impact throughout its lifecycle.”
Comfort translates to the creation of a healthier, more comfortable life by providing “healthier and more comfortable indoor conditions for the occupants, ensuring a generous supply of daylight and fresh air. Materials used have a neutral impact on comfort and indoor climate.”
The Active House concept is a model that helps homeowners reduce their carbon footprint while challenging architects and builders to create and implement innovative designs. In assessing an Active House, the alliance looks at how well each of the aforementioned three factors has been integrated.
An Active House provides an excellent environment for its inhabitants through the intelligent use of light and heat. It is designed to offer abundant daylight and fresh air and an appropriate thermal environment.
Daylight is known to improve mood and well-being, so it’s important to provide lots of light and pleasant views from the windows, which also enhance mood. The thermal climate also has an impact on mood and well-being, so the indoor temperature should be kept at a comfortable level without – not too hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter. The climate goals must be achieved without using unnecessary energy.
In addition, the air quality inside the home must be good, but it’s important not to rely on excessive energy use to ensure it. A combination of natural ventilation and mechanical means can be used to meet the air quality standards. The system chosen must also provide appropriate ventilation for exhaust in rooms that can be high in humidity, such as bathrooms where showers are taken.
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The design of an Active House must build ways to minimize heat loss and the use of energy into its design in order ensure the home has minimal energy demands. Looking at buildings worldwide, it is estimated that heating, cooling, and electricity are responsible for 40 percent of all energy consumption, so architects designing Active Houses must consider energy supply and performance throughout the lifecycle of the building.
Luckily, it is becoming less expensive than ever to install photovoltaic solar panels and the systems, themselves, are becoming more and more efficient and there are ever more efficient insulation products available. There are also biomass furnaces on the market that use sustainable materials, such as wood pellets, to produce the energy that provides homes with heat and light, while biomass boilers can provide hot water. The goal for an Active House is to use renewable and carbon-dioxide neutral energy sources.
Two major concerns in the creation of an Active House are its impact on the environment during construction and its use of environmentally appropriate building materials. It is important to take into account the emissions to air, water and soil, such as ozone depletion, that will occur during construction. In addition, the Active House Alliance guidelines suggest that the recycled content of all building materials is taken into account and that all building materials endure for a minimum of 50 years.
Active Houses also minimize the use of fresh water, taking advantage of low-flow showerheads and toilets and other water-saving innovations.
Does it sound daunting? It needn’t be. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to build a home from scratch according to Active House principles, you can learn lessons from the guidelines and make adjustments to your own home. For new builds, you can work with an architect who is familiar with Active House principles to achieve the best possible result for both your family and the environment.
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