Things you need to know about passive building design

Things you need to know about passive building design

Tips and Advice, Lifestyle

Passive building designA couple of years ago I wrote an article about Passive Solar – how to heat or cool your home naturally using a combination of building design and technologies.

A lot has been written about ‘Passive Building Design’ since then as more and more builders and architects in Brisbane have started to realise the benefits that passive buildings offer, particularly in terms of lower power consumption.

But there is still a lack of understanding around the subject and in particular, the differences between passive building design and more traditional designs. So as a sustainable architect I thought I would take this opportunity to explain some of the things that you should be aware of.

Firstly, the term ‘passive’ building design is a bit misleading

Passive buildings actually require a more hands-on approach than a building that relies on artificial heating or cooling. You see homes designed and built a decade or two ago relied heavily on air-conditioners and/or heaters to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. And of course with air-conditioning, you can simply press a button and a few moments later cold air starts coming out. It could hardly be described as being overly active.

However passive buildings rely on natural air-flow and controlling the amount of external light that is entering the home. Often this is done using shutters, louvres or blinds which means you need to walk around and open or close windows or shutters to control the amount of air or light entering your home.

Of course, it is possible to automate passive features however this can be restrictively expensive and is often outside the budget of most homeowners.

You should also keep in mind that passive isn’t as precise as climate controlled air-conditioning. If you are using external air-flow to control the temperature inside your home then it’s unreasonable to expect that the temperature will be exactly 22 degrees all day, every day.

Your home will most likely be slightly warmer on hot days and slightly cooler on cold days than it would if you used heaters or air-conditioners to control the temperature. However, the comfort levels in a passive home can actually be higher; a room that is kept at 22 degrees or lower is often uncomfortably cold for occupants that are partaking in passive activities such as watching a movie or reading a book. Equally a room that is artificially heated in winter can begin to feel stuffy and results in a shock to the system when you leave that room, particularly when you walk outside.

Passive climate control is often more comfortable as it reduces or increases internal temperatures to a comfortable level that is somewhat closer to that of the temperate outside. This difference also offers health benefits in many cases.

But keeping these points in mind it raises the question –

Will passive design suit your lifestyle?

And the answer is ‘Yes it will’ but only if your lifestyle is considered in the design itself.

Let me explain what I mean.

When I am consulting with my clients I spend a lot of time finding out about their lifestyle.

As part of this, I consider and explore the impact that passive design elements might have on my client’s lifestyle and their enjoyment of their new home or renovation. Based on those considerations I then make recommendations in relation to passive design features. These recommendations also take into consideration their home and/or block and the prevailing climatic conditions associated with that as well as any possible automation.

You see, if my clients like to kick back and relax and are not overly active people, then design features that require them to be constantly getting up and down to open or close things would hardly be suitable. My design would, therefore, limit their required involvement as much as possible.

However, if my clients are very active and passionate about things like reducing their carbon footprint and keeping their energy consumption down my designs will reflect this difference by opening up potentially greater passive opportunities.

Once again it is a matter of truly understanding my client’s needs and creating designs that are best for them.

In reality, my designs have always had a high degree of passive elements. But these are backed up by things like air-conditioning and heating for those days when passive simply isn’t enough, or for those clients who do not want to be as actively involved. Of course, the advantage my clients have is that they can always limit their own power consumption and reduce their power bills any time they choose without it adversely affecting their comfort levels.

Dion Seminara Architect


Hi, I am Dion Seminara, practicing architect and licensed general builder for 20 years as well as an environmental sustainable design (ESD) expert. I graduated from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) with honours, QLD in 1989. Registered as an architect in 1991 and registered as a builder in 1992, I am also a fellow member of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA). Having received 12 ArCHdes Residential Architecture Awards, LJ Hooker Flood Free Home Design Award and the 2016 AIA Regional Commendation for Public Architecture, my expertise with both residential renovation (to all types of houses, especially Queenslanders, 50s/60s/80s), new contemporary homes and luxury residences has earned me a reputation as one of Brisbane's architectural specialists in lifestyle design architecture, interior design and landscape design.