Cutting Asthma with Passive House buildings

Australia has some of the highest rates of respiratory illness in the world. AMP Capital’s Chris Nunn thinks the ultra-low energy Passive House standard could help us clear the air.

Developed in Germany in the early 1990s, the Passive House standard is based on a “fabric-first” approach to energy efficiency and comfort. This means the building fabric does the heavy lifting through insulation, air-tightness and passive design. As a result, Passive House buildings maintain a comfortable ambient temperature of around 20 to 25 degrees with virtually no heating or cooling.


“We think of Passive House buildings as super-low energy – which they are. But the other aspect that is less considered is the comfort factor,” AMP Capital’s real estate head of sustainability says.

“Because they are double or even triple glazed, well-sealed and insulated, with excellent ventilation and indoor environment quality, there is no condensation or mould growth.

“The constant fresh air rate, using mechanical ventilation with heat recovery and filtration, removes pollen and particulates, addressing respiratory health and limiting exposure to airborne asthma triggers,” he adds.

More than 80,000 houses, schools, offices and other buildings have been built to the Passive House standard, with nearly 10,000 buildings officially certified.

Nunn, who is a voluntary member of the Australian Passive House Association board, says this “fabric-first approach” to building is “not ingrained in the Australian market because we are blessed with relatively mild climates”.

“But more people die from the cold in Australia than in Sweden. This says a lot. We are not providing buildings that protect our people and provide the very minimum levels of comfort so that they don’t die from exposure to cold temperatures.”

A 2015 study, published in The Lancet, found that cold temperatures were responsible for 6.5 per cent of deaths in Australia and 3.7 per cent of deaths in Sweden.

Nunn says while the majority of Passive House buildings are in cold climates of Europe and North America, there are also many examples in warm climates including Spain, Greece, Turkey, Chile and New Zealand.

One in six Europeans live in unhealthy buildings, according to the 2017 Healthy Homes Barometer. This report, endorsed by the European Commission, found respiratory disease costs European nations an estimated $123 billion a year in lost productivity and direct health costs.

In New Zealand, where thousands of mould-riddled “leaky buildings” have proved an intractable problem, billions have been spent on replacement and repair. Just last week, the Building Research Association of New Zealand released its latest survey, revealing that 49 per cent of homes were damp and mouldy.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says respiratory conditions are the sixth-leading contributor to the nation’s total burden of disease. Asthma rates in particular, are among the highest in the world.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics have found the risk of “active asthma” increases by 26 in people with visible mould in their homes.

While there are several treatments for mould, Passive House addresses the cause by eliminating dampness and improving ventilation.

While the bulk of Passive House buildings are residential, a growing number of commercial buildings are achieving certification.

Nunn points to the RHW.2 building in Vienna, a 21-storey 27,000 sqm office which was the first commercial tower to be certified. Other projects include a 12,000-person master-planned community in Heidelberg, a 118-unit aged care facility in Innsbruck and a 26-storey, 350 room residential building for 530 students studying at Cornell University in New York.

“Leading organisations, from corporations to universities, are latching on to Passive House, and they are doing so at scale,” he says.

In May, the Green Building Council of Australia and the Australian Passive House Association agreed to work together to align rating tools and promote ultra-low energy buildings.

According to Nunn, Passive House is a “stepping stone to zero carbon buildings” but it’s “not just an answer to the climate crisis in buildings”.

“Passive House can also help us raise voluntary standards, shift the dial on quality and comfort, and ultimately deliver healthier buildings.”

Chris Nunn will be sharing his take on Passive House buildings in the ‘Shake it up’ session at The Property Congress. Tickets are still available but selling fast