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Lessons from the New Passive House Regions


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While certain marked articles have been created with the support of the EU, they do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Union;
Neither the EACI nor the European Commission are responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Dr. Zdravko Genchev, architect and Dr. Dragomir Tzanev, PR expert EnEffect Group, Bulgaria

1 Introduction

This study represents a continuation of the paper “Passive House Regions: A Guide to Success” presented at the 17th International PH Conference in Frankfurt on 19-20 April 2013. It analyzes and compares the experiences gained in several European regions involved in the PassREg project , which, although at a different stage of development, all “aspire” to become leaders in PH concept implementation.

2 National, Regional and Local Policies

As the project moves on, it becomes clearer that the choice of regional focus is very successful. Although each of the participating countries shall endeavour to transpose the EPBD into national laws, it is unlikely that the “passive house” standard will be immediately adopted as the basis of national definitions of the nZEB standard in any of them. However, most countries declare their will to adhere to deadlines and targets set by the Directive (Italy, UK), but some still remain in captivity of common and desirable formulations with too much “will” and “if” (Bulgaria, Croatia and others).
The prevailing impression is that the “passive house” concept is insufficiently known at the national level, there are many misconceptions about its applicability in different climatic regions (France), and it is seen as expensive and difficult, particularly in times of economic crisis (UK). Surprisingly, although countries declare striving for nearly 0-energy buildings, none of national legislations connects this aspiration with the PH concept or promotes the introduction of the PH standard. Against this background of restrained conservative attitude of national policies towards the PH concept, regional authorities in the participating regions show a much greater willingness and ambition to adopt the concept and the standard.

2.1 Regional political consensus

The most successful regional and local energy efficiency policies are usually based on a sustainable political consensus, leading to a long succession of policies for energy efficiency. Thus, targeting passive house is a logical result of the penetration of these policies in most of the strategic documents for the full development of the communities (Gabrovo – since 1996, Zagreb – since 1998). In other regions, the desire to reduce energy costs and to tackle energy poverty, fuelled by the inspiration of the frontrunners, generates interest towards the passive house (Wales, Burgas, Vidzeme and Rezekne, etc). At the same time, achieving cost optimality remains an essential reference for all aspiring regions. An interesting approach is described in Antwerp, where cost effectiveness is planned to be secured by maximizing the energy efficiency of the buildings, thus decreasing the necessary investment in energy production by RES. The examples of buildings with minimal appreciation of the initial investment (Gabrovo - 7.2% in the pilot passive kindergarten) and even of buildings with lower cost than the average for this type of construction (90% in the frontrunner Brussels) are also very encouraging.
In contrast to the conservative national policies, some regions set very high goals, such as switching to “energy plus” building by 2020 (Aquitaine). Since 2013, nZEB standard becomes mandatory in Antwerp for all new public buildings and for those that will be subject to complete renovation. Interest in the PH concept penetrates into policies for sustainable urban development and aims to achieve CO2 neutral city by 2050 (Antwerp) or sustainable districts with low-energy buildings (Zagreb). Most of local authorities devote considerable attention to good examples and encourage their multiplication. Increasingly high interest receives the application of the PH concept in the renovation of existing buildings (Wales). Additional positive momentum is gained by the accession of some cities to the Covenant of Mayors and subsequently developed SEAPs (Antwerp, Zagreb, Cesena, Gabrovo, Burgas).

2.2 Market support policies

The condition of the existing building stock and the current national energy efficiency standards outline significant market potential for the introduction of the PH standard. In some regions, serious attention is paid to the development and promotion of a market for materials and components for passive houses, which in situation of deficits are relatively expensive. The understanding that the main obstacle to markets is insufficient knowledge of the nature and advantages of the PH concept is more or less anonymous. For example, it is proposed by the regional authorities of Wales that national government should pursue active policies on information and skills to build more confidence to PH.
Additionally, shortage of specialists, lack of knowledge of the effects of passive houses within the life cycle of buildings (especially by banks), scarce real examples of passive houses are identified as significant barriers to the development of the markets - and the aspiring regions offer various forms of impact.
In almost all aspiring regions involved in PassREg project, regional and local policies go ahead of national ones and become a precedent that is likely to affect national goals and policies. Some of these solutions are directly inspired by the example of front-runners, other inventively re-create them or launch entirely new ideas. With a great degree of confidence, it can be argued that the promotion of local and regional policies for the accelerated implementation of the PH concept (as the example of Brussels) is an efficient tool to positively influence national policies and standards.

3 Financial and Economic Incentives

At the beginning of the project, the interest towards the incentives in support of passive house design and construction accessible in the FRRs almost blocked discussions on other success stories and solutions. However, it was soon realized that financial support, although highly important, could not work without other measures complementing and, in fact, potentiating the application and the positive impact of the provided incentives. The early example of Hannover underlined the role of the political will and consensus, discussed above; later on, the intensive capacity building efforts targeted to both building professionals and administrative personnel took over their deserved place in the outlay of the study. Additionally, the topical discussion was enriched with many examples from ARs and even more suggestions for adaptation of solutions coming from frontrunners – and with some principle conclusions, which are to be substantiated in the following lines.
The intensive interchange of ideas and proposals, supported by the ongoing discussions at EU level related to the multiannual financial framework 2014-2020, lead to the differentiation of several distinctive dimensions related to the issue:

3.1 National, regional and local level of incentives

The different administrative structure and tradition throughout the EU unconditionally lead to different approach of the accessible financing schemes and incentives. As expected, the regional and local incentives designed in traditionally decentralized societies like Germany and Austria are not directly transferable to other, more centralized governing styles, for example in countries in Eastern Europe. However, steady interest is evidenced in solutions related to local and regional actions in the impact area of municipalities and regional administrations. In times of slow recovery from the financial crisis, direct subsidies or local financing were not to be widely expected, but support measures through urban planning favourable to passive houses (Cesena, Antwerp), demonstration public buildings (most ARs) and even whole districts (Nieuw Zuid, Antwerp) abound. Consequently, desired measures for influencing of national authorities for provision of government-level support are described in almost all regions (a great example of the interplay between national and regional level support is to be found in the SM of Wales). National financing funds and schemes are also brought out as best practice examples on many other occasions (Latvia, Bulgaria, etc.). In support of the EU debate on sustainable urban development, the Covenant of Mayors is recognized as major driving factor for provision of incentives at local level (Cesena, Burgas, Gabrovo, Zagreb). The rational investment of accessible EU funds and programmes in the less developed countries is also outlined as mandatory condition for accelerated introduction of passive houses.

3.2 New passive houses and PH renovations

Surprisingly or not, despite the recent adoption of EU directives on energy efficiency, RES and, most notably, energy performance of buildings, it seems that there is not a single region which could boast a thorough support scheme for NZEBs, encompassing both new constructions and deep energy renovations, of public and private buildings, for residential and non-residential use. And this is where the example of FRR comes in handy: integrated national and regional policies accompanied with relevant financing schemes prove to be a necessary prerequisite for introduction of passive houses as standard construction practice. Hand in hand with the current EU policies, a special attention has to be paid to building renovation to a high energy efficiency standard; a special point of interest here is the investment of resources coming from EU financing funds. On many occasions, lack of support to a specific sector of building activities (e.g. for new residential buildings, for administrative or commercial buildings, etc.) is perceived as barrier to the implementation of NZEB and PH concept at regional level (Zagreb, Gabrovo, Wales, etc.).

3.3 Subsidies, tax breaks, affordable crediting and innovative financing schemes

A situation of well-developed financial system in general but with limited experience in financing of energy efficiency projects brings out an intensive debate on the most appropriate form of financial incentives. Well, there is none: each country and region has its own specifics, traditions and approach in this area; the levels of economic development and political and financial stability also enter the equation. None of the various forms of financial support should be underestimated, as they all have their application in different contexts and situations; however, the existence and operation of national-level financing funds and new forms of financing as EPC, ESCO schemes and functional contracting, come to the fore in almost all regions. Sustainable change could be brought forward only by successful attraction of major private investments through public funds, and there could not be better evidence for this statement than the viability and the positive appreciation of these financial instruments, found in the SMs of Antwerp, Cesena, Wales, Vidzeme and Rezekne. However, high-level energy performance of the projects is a must (e.g. as projected in Arnhem-Nijmegen): no public money should be spent without contributing to overall EU policies and goals towards sustainable development and rational use of resources.

3.4 Support to whole building design vs attention to specific measures

A strong push towards whole building design through the EPBD means that a total redesign of support measures and incentives is needed in many EU countries. Especially important issue (but not the only one) is the right form of support of RES in buildings, which are quite often promoted by separate schemes and instruments, potentially impeding their integration into the building design. A lot has to be done in this area, but the evidence coming from the participating regions is unequivocally in support of the whole building design approach, as administrative barriers for coordination of specific support measures are described as a major stumbling block on more than a few occasions (e.g. Zagreb, Cesena).

3.5 Climate change and environmental protection measures vs economic feasibility

A very interesting and often underestimated issue, the reasoning behind the support schemes and incentives plays a very important role for the continuity of the support measures. It is not rare that in times of economic and financial crisis climate change issues step a bit behind, which is a factor that has to be acknowledged (e.g. in Wales). The role of the experience of FRRs here is essential, showing that sustainable development and especially energy efficiency in buildings do not contradict, but on the contrary, support economic growth. Here, introduction of life-cycle cost analysis in the design of the supporting schemes is crucial, which is proved by the contributions of many of the participating regions (Wales, Aquitaine, Arnhem-Nijmegen, etc.).

4 Professional and Administrative Capacity

We previously called this broad topical area “capacity for change”, and this estimation was strongly supported by the evidence gathered from the newly elaborated success models of the ARs. Most of the identified barriers for the implementation of the Passive House standard at regional level are focusing on issues along this topic, and it doesn’t come as a surprise that some of the most often mentioned solutions from FRRs are in the sphere of professional and administrative capacity building. Here, again, suggestions come in several distinctive dimensions, also corresponding to the nature of the involved stakeholders.

4.1 Administrative capacity

As clearly stated in the success model of Cesena, it is the goal (and mission) of the municipal administration to create a network of professionals able to support all stakeholders on themes like energy savings in buildings and NZEB. As evidenced by FRRs, the renowned professionals with experience and established expertise in the area of energy efficiency are usually keen to offer impartial, independent consulting services on energy consumption management, rational use of energy and promotion of RES. However, such practices should be motivated, supported and coordinated by local or regional authorities in AR (Cesena, Arnhem-Nijmegen). Additionally, it is widely confirmed that cases of training of administrative experts in sustainable building issues are exceptions, and further capacity building initiatives are provisioned for in all success models. Here, the strategic energy and urban planning activities play an important role, further supported by political initiatives like the Covenant of Mayors (Cesena, Burgas, Gabrovo, Zagreb, cities in Latvia).

4.2 Planning and design capacity

Unlike the situation in FRRs, in many ARs the general professional capacity of architects and designers for implementation of passive house projects is put under a question. At some points, it is specifically described as a weak point (Zagreb, Burgas, Gabrovo) and further efforts are being planned through nearly all success models (e.g. Arnhem-Nijmegen, Cesena, etc.). Stable integrated design patterns are scarce and this is another area in need of further interventions, both in terms of legal substantiation and increased capacity. Cooperation with other players as higher education establishments is important (Wales), but there are also other solutions coming from the participating regions. Many training courses are provided by facilities certified by PHI; PH interest groups and dedicated NGOs are also providing information support and consultations alongside dedicated training courses (Antwerp, Arnhem-Nijmegen, Wales, Gabrovo, etc.). It is a firm conviction that such efforts should by supported by the local authorities on all cases but especially at beacons, which must be executed in a way eliminating any bias against passive house principles.

4.3 The role of the construction sector

The above argument for the required perfection of the pilot passive buildings comes even stronger when it comes to the quality of the construction works. Even the best passive house design would be compromised by inadequate construction works, so the continuing training of the working force is crucial for the implementation of high-quality building projects. Two major solutions are clearly outlined, and namely the cooperation with the BUILD UP Skills initiative (Latvia, Bulgaria) and the support for the Certified Passive House Tradesmen courses provided by PHI-licensed institutions (e.g. Cesena). Here, the train-the-trainer courses lead by PHI specialists in the framework of the PassREg project turned out to be very special events for the involved regions. Another major issue clearly described in the models is the increasing need for strict quality control at building sites, which is a solution often residing in the impact area of the local and regional authorities.

5 The Lessons Learnt

For all experts involved in PassREg, it is already clear that empowerment of local and regional authorities and active involvement of local policy makers is crucial for the actual introduction of the PH concept and standard in the construction practices. The involvement of decision makers at the highest political level at all possible occasions should be specifically targeted, as existing political will continue to be a leading factor in sustainable energy development, whether at regional/municipal level or on a larger scale. On the other hand, the availability of financial incentives to build to PH standard is a guarantee for the increasing number of excellent building projects throughout Europe, providing first-hand experience for the viability of the concept, in terms of both high living comfort and cost-optimality. Depending on the region, financial incentives exercise major impact on the building market without necessarily being very high; it is however a common understanding that the amount of subsidies should be relative to the achieved energy targets - without of course compromising the architectural value and economic performance of the projects. And, as clearly demonstrated by PassREg’s Success Guide1), collection of beacon projects and Set of Solutions , such examples abound. They also allow for intensive capacity building efforts for all stakeholders’ groups in the participating regions, without which the sustainable introduction of the PH concept would be highly uncertain. There are, of course, quite a few pieces of the puzzle still missing (especially in terms of end-users awareness raising), but there are already clear signs of steady PH market development as a result of the described actions. The way forward is now clear – the new passive house regions are ready to stir up Europe in search of a more sustainable, efficient and proactive societies.


Genchev, Zdravko; Tzanev, Dragomir: Passive House Regions: A Guide to Success. Conference proceedings. 17th International Passive House Conference, Frankfurt 2013, pp. 261-266.

The research work is undertaken in the framework of the “Passive House Regions with Renewable Energies” (PassREg) project financed by EU IEE programme under the coordination of PHI. The “aspiring regions” (AR) are Antwerp (Belgium), Arnhem-Nijmegen (Netherlands), Aquitaine (France), Burgas (Bulgaria), Cesena (Italy), Vidzeme and Rezekne (Latvia), Wales (UK) and Zagreb (Croatia). Associated regions are Gabrovo (Bulgaria) and the regions Sicily and Lombardia and districts Catania, Foggia, Pesaro and Urbino and Adientu(Italy).They all strive to follow the example of PassREg’s frontrunners (FRR): Hannover (Germany), Brussels (Belgium) and Tyrol (Austria).

All information materials developed by the PassREg project are available at
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