Radon gas: invisible and lethal. What is it and how to prevent it?

Radon gas is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can enter buildings. It is currently the second most predominant cause of lung cancer after tobacco.

Radon gas: invisible and lethal. What is it and how to prevent it?

Radon gas is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can enter buildings. It is currently the second most predominant cause of lung cancer after tobacco. It’s colorless, tasteless and has no smell, and is produced from the natural radioactive decay of uranium, present in many types of soils and rocks.

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Figure 1: Gas radon [Source Dreamstime]

How is radon gas measured in a building?

Becquerels (Bq) is the measurement of radioactivity. A becquerel corresponds to the transformation or decay of 1 atomic nucleus per second. In the air, radon concentration is measured by the number of transformations per second in one cubic meter of air (Bq/m3).

The national annual average reference level, set out by WHO in its “WHO Handbook on Indoor Radon: A Public Health Perspective”, is 100 Bq/m3. If this level cannot be reached due to country-specific conditions, the level should not exceed 300 Bq/m3.

Radon measuring devices are divided between passive and active detectors, with an uncertainty range of between 8% and 25%, depending on the type of device. The most common devices are usually passive, logically cheaper than active ones, and incorporate trace sensors for alpha particles, or ion electret chambers, to measure radon concentration.

As the concentration of the gas in indoor air can increase significantly in the short term (hours), is recommended to take long-term measurements (for example, 3 months). If the building has a ventilation or HVAC system, it is convenient to take measurements with the system on and off, in both cases for a long period time.

There are low-cost types of equipment such as the RadonEye RD200, or Airthings Wave, shown in Figure 2 and Figure 3.

Figure 2: RadonEye RD200, low-cost radon gas meter [Source: Radonova]
Figure 3: Airthings Wave, low-cost radon gas meter [Source: Airthings]

Radon gas and the Spanish building regulations

In 2019, and for the first time, Spanish building regulations established the scope and requirement of radon gas with a reference level for the average annual radon concentration inside habitable premises of 300 Bq/m3 (triple of what is recommended by the WHO).

Applicable to all new buildings, extensions, changes of use, or refurbishment of existing buildings, the regulations require the following measures, according to the risk area:

Level 1:

  • Radon barrier between living spaces and the ground
  • Ventilated air gap between the living spaces and the ground

Level 2:

  • Radon barrier between living spaces and the ground
  • Additional protection system:
    • Ventilated air gap between the living spaces and the ground
    • Ground depressurization system that allows the gas to dissipate from the ground.

The radon gas map of Spain according to the HS6 level 1 and 2 classification is shown in Figure 4.

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Figure 4: Map of radon gas in Spain [Source: Institute for Geoenvironmental Health]

How does radon gas enter a building and how to avoid it?

Radon enters a building through the fissures and openings in the envelope, especially in parts of the building in contact with the ground (slabs, basement walls, etc.), where the concentration of the gas is generally higher on the floors above (ground and first floor, etc). This is accentuated in the building during the heating period, where warm air rises, and the stack effect creates air infiltration of air on the lower floors (and exfiltration on the upper floors).

Radon gas entry is reduced and/or eliminated by a gas-resistant membranes, with a diffusion coefficient against radon less than 10-11 m2/s. An example is shown in Figure 5. The barrier must be continuous, taped and sealed at all joints and service penetrations. It is advisable to conduct a Blower Door test during the construction phase to detect leaks and repair them.

In Level 1 areas, as an alternative, it is possible to build a ventilated crawl space between the living areas and the ground, although it is a less safe solution than a radon barrier.

In Level 2 areas, the radon barrier is essential, along with a ventilated crawl space or a ground depressurization system.

The ground depressurization system consists of installing a network of perforated intake ducts, with mechanical extractors that conduct the air to the outside, above the building. This system has the same drawbacks as the ventilated crawl space and depends on a mechanical system.

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Figure 5: Radon gas resistant membrane, Ampack Sisalex 871

Although few epidemiological studies have been conducted on the possible link between radon gas in drinking water and the incidence of stomach cancer, a study by Kyle P Messier and Marc L Serre of the University of North Carolina, USA indicates that increases the risk of stomach cancer. Therefore, water becomes a double entry route, by ingestion of contaminated water or by breathing radon gas evaporated from drinking water. Under normal circumstances, the amount of radon inhaled when breathing is greater than that ingested when drinking.

Radon in drinking water can be reduced and/or eliminated by employing granular activated carbon filters, but the filter itself can accumulate radioactivity and should be located outside the thermal envelope (in a garage, for example), taking care of its treatment as toxic waste at the end of its useful life.

Study of the incidence of radon gas in 122 homes in Ireland

Barry Mc Carron, Xianhai Meng, and Shane Colclough conducted a radon gas measurement study on 122 homes in Ireland, 97 Passivhaus-certified homes, and 25 conventional homes (reference). The results can be seen in Figure 6. The average level of radon gas inside the Passivhaus dwellings was below 40 Bq/m3, both on the ground and first floors. However, in conventional homes, the average level was 104 Bq/m3 on the lower floor, and 69 Bq/m3 on the first floor.

The differences clearly show the effectiveness of airtight construction to prevent the entry of radon gas: one of the requirements of the Passivhaus certification is to have a level of air infiltrations n50 ≤ 0.60, verified by an air-tightness test.

But not only this, Passivhaus homes have a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery, which constantly renews the air, eliminating stale and polluted air, and introducing fresh and filtered air. This can be seen in the graph in Figure 7, where Professor Walter Reinhold Uhlig of the HTW University of Dresden, measured radon gas in a Passivhaus dwelling with a mechanical ventilation system on and off. With the ventilation turned off, in certain rooms the radon level increased to 350 Bq/m3, having remained below 100 Bq/n3 with the ventilation working.

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Figure 6: Radon gas measurement results in 122 homes in Ireland [Source: McCarron et al 2020]
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Figure 7: Measurement of radon gas concentration in a Passivhaus dwelling, with and without controlled ventilation [Source: Prof. Walter Reinhold Uhlig]

Considering how lethal it is, radon gas has- surprisingly- gone unnoticed among many professionals in the sector, public administrations, and health professionals. Thanks to increased awareness and the update of the Spanish building regulations, it’s an issue we clearly can’t ignore: we need to prevent radon from entering our buildings, and ensure correct ventilation! The empirical results shown above indicate that an air or radon gas barrier, together with a mechanical ventilation system, is a highly effective combination to reduce the entry of radon gas into a building and thus protect the health of users.

Hormipresa Arctic Wall Passivhaus Component certification 

Description Passivhaus Component certification of the Hormipresa Arctic Wall construction system: a fully industrialized, high thermal inertia solution with an exterior white concrete finish. It has been certified as a Passivhaus component for the warm-temperate climate zone. To reach the Passivhaus Component certification Praxis undertook three-dimensional simulations of the wall to determine the thermal effect …

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Hormipresa Arctic Wall Passivhaus Component certification 

Description

Passivhaus Component certification of the Hormipresa Arctic Wall construction system: a fully industrialized, high thermal inertia solution with an exterior white concrete finish. It has been certified as a Passivhaus component for the warm-temperate climate zone.

To reach the Passivhaus Component certification Praxis undertook three-dimensional simulations of the wall to determine the thermal effect of the steel connections penetrating the insulation layer using Dartwim Mold Pro 3D and Flixo Pro finite element simulation packages.

We calculated and optimised 10 standardised construction details, as required by the certification, associated with wall, roof, and floor connection details, and window installations. Praxis managed the certification process with the Passivhaus Institut. 

The certification criteria for warm-temperate climate requires a Uwall ≤ 0.25 W/m2·K and all construction details must be thermal bridge free with Ψ ≤ 0.01 W/m·K.

Year: 2022

Location: Barcelona

Services: Passivhaus component certification  

Passive House B in Gijón 

Descripción Certificación PHI Baja Demanda Energética para una vivienda unifamiliar aislada en Gijón, Asturias, diseñada por el arquitecto Juan Ignacio Corominas. La vivienda consta de 184 m2 distribuidos en una planta baja y una planta semisótano. La construcción es mixta, combinando muros de termo arcilla rectificada con aislamiento SATE y cubierta de estructura de madera …

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Passivhaus

Casa Pasiva B en Gijón 

Descripción

Certificación PHI Baja Demanda Energética para una vivienda unifamiliar aislada en Gijón, Asturias, diseñada por el arquitecto Juan Ignacio Corominas.

La vivienda consta de 184 m2 distribuidos en una planta baja y una planta semisótano. La construcción es mixta, combinando muros de termo arcilla rectificada con aislamiento SATE y cubierta de estructura de madera con 28cm de aislamiento térmico. Las carpinterías son Cortizo COR 80 de aluminio con certificación de componente Passivhaus.

En la auditoría, Praxis verifica todos los documentos de cálculo y diseño presentados por la Consultora Passivhaus, que incluyen planos y memorias de arquitectura e instalaciones, cálculo PHPP, informe del test Blower Door, puesta en marcha de ventilación, seguimiento de la obra y fotografías.

Año: 2021

Lugar: Gijón, Asturias 

Servicios: Certificación Passivhaus 

Passive House in Gijón 

Description PHI Low Energy Building certification for a single-family detached home in Gijón, Asturias, designed by architect Juan Ignacio Corominas.  The house has a treated floor area of 285 m2 distributed over a ground floor and a semi-basement. The construction system is mixed, combining honeycomb brick walls with external insulation, and a timber roof structure …

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Passivhaus

Passive House in Gijón 

Description

PHI Low Energy Building certification for a single-family detached home in Gijón, Asturias, designed by architect Juan Ignacio Corominas. 

The house has a treated floor area of 285 m2 distributed over a ground floor and a semi-basement. The construction system is mixed, combining honeycomb brick walls with external insulation, and a timber roof structure with 28cm of thermal insulation.

Window frames are aluminum, Passivhaus certified, Cortizo COR 80. 

As part of the audit, Praxis audited the calculations and design documentation presented by the Passivhaus Consultant, which include architectural and M&E drawings and reports, the PHPP calculation, the Blower Door test report, ventilation commissioning documentation and photographs of the construction process and completed building.

 

Year: 2021

Location: Gijón, Asturias 

Services: Passivhaus certification 

3 single-family Passive Houses in Ibiza 

Description Passivhaus design and consultancy for 3 detached single-family certified Passive Houses in San Josep de Sa Talaia, Ibiza, designed by Mixis Arquitectos and executed by Avante. Project Management and construction management was undertaken by Martínez-Gil. Each home has a treated floor area of 270 m2, over 2 floors with a heated basement, achieving Passivhaus …

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Passivhaus

3 single-family Passive Houses in Ibiza 

Description

Passivhaus design and consultancy for 3 detached single-family certified Passive Houses in San Josep de Sa Talaia, Ibiza, designed by Mixis Arquitectos and executed by Avante. Project Management and construction management was undertaken by Martínez-Gil. Each home has a treated floor area of 270 m2, over 2 floors with a heated basement, achieving Passivhaus Classic certification

Praxis did the Passivhaus design and energy modelling with PHPP, design of the thermal and airtight envelope, advice on low environmental impact materials, optimization of construction details and calculation of thermal bridges. 

Our work focused on implementing passive design strategies to reduce summer overheating.

Year: 2021

Location: Sant Josep de Sa Talaia, Balearic Islands

Services: Passivhaus consultancy  

Casas al gusto, Passivhaus prototypes 

Description Passivhaus design and consultancy and M & E engineering for two Passivhaus prototypes of Casas al Gusto, by Growing Buildings  These two types of detached single-family homes are designed by the architect Iván Perez, from Territori 24. The homes, with treated floor areas of 125 and 225 m2, have 1 and 2 floors and …

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Passivhaus, M & E engineering

Casas al gusto, Passivhaus prototypes 

Description

Passivhaus design and consultancy and M & E engineering for two Passivhaus prototypes of Casas al Gusto, by Growing Buildings 

These two types of detached single-family homes are designed by the architect Iván Perez, from Territori 24. The homes, with treated floor areas of 125 and 225 m2, have 1 and 2 floors and are designed to meet the Passivhaus Classic standard. 

Praxis has undertaken the energy simulation with PHPP, the design of the thermal and airtight envelope, advice on low environmental impact materials, optimization of construction details and calculation of thermal bridges. 

We have also designed the M & E systems: mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, space heating and cooling, hot water production, plumbing, wastewater & drainage, electrical services, telecommunications, control and solar PV energy production. 

Year: 2021

Location: Bages, Barcelona

Services: Passivhaus consultancy, M & E design  

Multi-family building in El Carmel 

Description Energy consultancy for a multi-family building in El Carmel, a neighbourhood in the north of Barcelona, designed by Vora Arquitectura studio. This 544 m2 building, has a ground floor and 6 upper floors, on a sloped site in Mount Carmel. Each floor has one or two apartments, with a total of 7 units.  Praxis …

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Energy consultancy

Multi-family building in El Carmel 

Description

Energy consultancy for a multi-family building in El Carmel, a neighbourhood in the north of Barcelona, designed by Vora Arquitectura studio.

This 544 m2 building, has a ground floor and 6 upper floors, on a sloped site in Mount Carmel. Each floor has one or two apartments, with a total of 7 units. 

Praxis has delivered the thermodynamic simulation in Design Builder (EnergyPlus), focusing on the analysis and optimization of passive systems: analysis of solar gains, optimization of thermal insulation and bioclimatic buffer zone balcony spaces. The modelling helped us deliver the thermal and airtight envelope specification, window and shading systems specification, including a study of the impact of heat recovery in the ventilation system on energy demands.

Praxis also undertook an embodied energy study, comparing the carbon footprint and costs of different construction assemblies for external walls, with the aim of choosing an economically viable, energy efficient and sustainable solution. 

Year: 2021

Location: Barcelona

Services: Thermodynamic simulation   

Freshen up: active cooling with radiant ceilings in a Passivhaus retrofit 

The article presents an active cooling system using the supply air of the ventilation system with radiant ceiling panels, installed in a multi-residential building in the historic center of Girona, certified Passivhaus EnerPHit – Demand method.

Freshen up: active cooling with radiant ceilings in a Passivhaus retrofit

The article presents an active cooling system using the supply air of the ventilation system with radiant ceiling panels, installed in a multi-residential building in the historic center of Girona, certified Passivhaus EnerPHit – Demand method. For each apartment, the system consists of an air-source heat pump, a mechanical ventilation unit with heat and moisture recovery (MVHR), a coiling coil on the supply air stream, and radiant ceiling panels. Control is carried out with a home automation system, with temperature and humidity sensors in each room. The solution offers both heating and cooling, working quietly and at low temperature, providing high thermal comfort and efficient performance when used with a heat pump. Reliable performance depends on correct system sizing, proper commissioning of the control system and of ventilation flow rates, and user maintenance and replacement of filters in the MVHR units. Systems such as this are not a good solution in homes where windows are open a lot on the summer and are better suited to warm and dry climates with lower levels of humidity. 

The building is a multi-residential 6-storey building in the historic center of Girona, certified by Passivhaus EnerPHit – Demand method [Figure 1].  This private initiative – which was the first of its kind in Catalonia – put 4 new apartments of 129 m2 and a duplex of 162 m2 on the market.  

Due to local heritage building regulations, insulation had to be installed inside, with some loss of thermal inertia. Active cooling using a cooling coil on the the ventilation supply air is a relatively simple concept which can be cost effective to install. However, thermal power can be limited when temperatures peak. The system presented here combines supply air cooling with radiant ceiling panels, to provide sufficient power to cover peak cooling loads.  

Figure 1: completed building

The project data and team are shown below: 

  • Certification class: Passivhaus-EnerPHit – Demand Method 
  • Useful / gross floor area: 678 m2 / 1.038 m2 
  • Developer: MBD Real Estate Group  
  • Builder: Busquets Sitja  
  • Architects: López-Pedrero-Roda Architects  
  • M & E Engineering: PGI Engineering 
  • Control/home automation: Progetic 
  • PHPP, Passivhaus design: Oliver Style, Bega Clavero 
  • Passivhaus Certification: Energiehaus Arquitectos  

Description and operation of the system 

Given space and floor-to-ceiling height limitations, 2 cooling systems were initially considered: 

  1. Ventilation supply air cooling only 
  1. Ventilation supply air cooling + radiant ceiling panels 

The second option was chosen, given that operative temperatures in the summer could not be maintained at ≤ 25ºC using ventilation supply air cooling only. With 19 m2 of radiant ceiling panels (covering around 15% of the ceiling surface area), peak cooling loads could be met, calculated for an outdoor air temperature of 34.1 ºC, with an absolute humidity = 10,5 g/kg [1].  

For each apartment, the system included the following equipment: 

  • Heat pump: Daikin EWYQ005ADVP air-water monobloc heat pump (5.20 kW cooling / 5.65 kW heating) [Figure 2] 
  • Heat & moisture recovery ventilation unit: Zehnder ComfoAir550 enthalpic [Figure 3] 
  • Cooling coil: Zehnder ComfoPost CW10 [Figure 4] 
  • Radiant ceiling panels: Zehnder NIC 150 & NIC 300 [Figure 5] 
  • Control system: 
  • 1 temperature & humidity sensor per room 
  • 1 Loxone mini server [Figure 7] 
  • Various elements providing on/off control of the heat pump, 3-stepped control of the ventilation flow rate, and on/off control of each radiant ceiling circuit and control of water supply temperature to the radiant ceiling panels with a 3-way valve
Figure 2: Monobloc air-to-water heat pump
Figure 3: Energy recovery unit
Figure 4: Coiling coil, silencer, and supply air ducts (prior to insulation of ducts)
Figure 5: Radiant ceiling panels, prior to fixing on non-radiant panels 
Figure 6: Infrared image of radiant ceiling panels 
Figure 7: Control system switchboard 

In heating mode, the heat pump generates hot water, circulating it through the radiant ceiling panels at a supply/return temperature of 45 ºC / 40 ºC. At the same time, the coil on the ventilation supply air stream heats the air to around 40ºC. The fan speed is controlled to avoid excessively high flow rates, and which can lead to low relative humidity of indoor air. 

In cooling mode, the heat pump generates cold water, circulating it through the radiant ceiling panels at a supply/return temperature of 7 ºC / 12 ºC. At the same time, the coil on the ventilation supply air stream cools air to around 15 ºC. The coil also provides some dehumidification of the supply air, lowering the ambient indoor air dew point temperature and preventing condensation on the ceiling panels. In cooling mode, controlling the temperature of rooms individually is not possible given that the cooling coil only works for the entire apartment. 

The heat and moisture recovery ventilation unit also helps to increase the relative humidity of the indoor air in winter and decrease it in summer, improving thermal comfort and reducing the dehumidification load that the cooling coil needs to overcome. 

With the ventilation flow rate of 0.4 ach (135 m3/h), radiant ceiling panels typically cover – for both heating and cooling – approximately 65% of thermal loads. The ventilation system with the heating/cooling coil covers the remaining 35%. 

Radiant cooling systems must have a robust control system, to avoid problems of surface condensation. Temperature and humidity sensors were therefore installed in each of the 5 rooms where the radiant panels were located (dining room, kitchen and 3 bedrooms). The water temperature of the panels is adjusted with a 3-way mixing valve, based on the temperature and humidity data from the sensors in each room, ensuring the panel surface temperature remains above the dewpoint, avoiding condensation.  

The control system also modulates the ventilation unit’s fan power, lowering or raising the flow rate depending on the temperature setpoint and dehumidification needs. A schedule prevents the fan from operating as full flow at night, to avoid noise problems. If maximum power is required at night this can be a problem. The control allows you to set different setpoint temperatures according to specific schedules or occupancy rates, for each day of the week. 

In its default setting, the ventilation system works automatically with pre-established schedules (with the possibility of manual adjustment by occupants). Figure 8 summarizes its operation: 

Figure 8: Ventilation speeds and schedules  

Conclusions 

Cooling with radiant ceilings can offer an efficient solution that adds power to ventilation supply air cooling systems in Passive Houses in the summer. As the system is predominantly radiant and running at low temperature, it provides good comfort and can be more efficient than convective systems. Ceiling panels can be sized to meet heating and cooling loads, which in residential buildings retrofitted to Passivhaus standard means a coverage of between 15% to 30% of the ceiling surface area. This replaces ducted fan-coil or split systems, which take up more space in suspended ceilings, often a limitation in retrofit.  

The control system presented here offers a flexible solution at a reasonable cost, with a relatively user-friendly interface. The possibility of visualizing and monitoring data remotely and in real time, facilitates the optimization of the system and helps in terms of preventive maintenance. 

Systems such as this are not a good solution in homes where windows are open a lot on the summer and are more suitable for use in hot dry areas, since, in areas of high humidity, the power of the system will be limited depending on the humidity level of the indoor air and the proximity to the dew point. Robust operation depends correct system sizing, proper commissioning of the control system and of ventilation flow rates, and user maintenance and replacement of filters in the MVHR units. 

LILU´s House: bio-based Passivhaus

Passivhaus design and consultancy, for this single-family house in Abrera, Barcelona, designed by architecture firm OMB Arquitectura and built by House Habitat.

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Passivehaus, Blower Door

LILU´s house: bio-based Passivhaus

Description

Passivhaus design and consultancy, for this single-family house in Abrera, Barcelona, designed by architecture firm OMB Arquitectura and built by House Habitat.

The home has 143 m2 distributed over 2 floors, it will be the headquarters of the company House Habitat and a research unit for companies and universities. It is in the process of Passivhaus Plus certification.

Praxis has delivered the PHPP modelling, design of the thermal envelope and airtight layer, advice on low-impact materials, analysis and optimization of thermal bridges and construction details, and dynamic hygrothermal analysis of risk from moisture damage with the WUFI tool.

Praxis has also undertaken the Blower Door testing and on-site Passivhaus supervision and quality control.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJ3Fx_TfkE0

https://passivehouse-database.org/index.php#d_7032

https://www.plataforma-pep.org/ejemplos-ph/lilus-house/

Year: 2022

Location: Abrera, Barcelona

Services:
Blower Door, Passivhaus

Passivhaus in the Mediterranean? Strategies for keeping cool in a Passivhaus on the beach 

A significant rise in temperatures is expected in the Mediterranean area in the coming years. Therefore, identifying and implementing effective strategies to reduce indoor temperatures in buildings and reduce the need for air conditioning is increasingly important.

Passivhaus in the Mediterranean? Strategies for keeping cool in a Passivhaus on the beach

According to the climate modelling presented in the study “Study on Climate Change and Energy in the Mediterranean” carried out by the European Investment Bank, countries in the Mediterranean basin will experience an increase of between 3ºC – 6ºC in average temperatures between the period 2070-2099, based on the 1961-1990 period.

Figure 1: Climate modelling of the Mediterranean basin; average annual variation of air temperatures in summer (°C), 2070-2099 vs 1961-1990

The need to tackle overheating is addressed directly in the European Directive 2010/31/EU for nearly zero energy buildings (nZEB), which states the following: “Priority should be given to strategies that improve the thermal performance of buildings in the summer. To this end, measures should be promoted to prevent overheating, such as shading and sufficient thermal inertia in the construction of buildings, as well as to improve and apply passive cooling techniques (…)” [2]. This article presents the strategies used to improve the thermal performance in summer of a passive house in a Mediterranean climate. 

Caste study: “Esencia Mediterránea”…passive house on the beach 

The home, “Esencia Mediterránea,” has a useful area of 173m2, over two floors, located about 50 meters from the beach, 3 m above sea level (Figure 2, Figure 3, Figure 4) It has an architectural design very much in line with the Mediterranean vernacular tradition, was designed by Guillermo and Iciar Sen, built by House Habitat, and is Passivhaus certified. 

Figure 2: Satellite image, province Barcelona
Figure 3: Satellite image, Castelldefels 
Figure 4: Ground floor 
Figure 5: First floor
Figure 6: Photo of the home [Source: House Habitat] 

The project team:  

  • Architects: Guillermo Sen, Iciar Sen 
  • Technical Architect: Javier García Garrido – Garcia & Sala Arquitectes  
  • Builder: Pere Linares – House Habitat  
  • PHPP & building physics: Oliver Style, Bega Clavero  
  • HVAC design: Vicenç Fulcarà – Progetic 
  • Passivhaus and Blower Door Certification: Micheel Wassouf, Martín Amado – Energiehaus 

Passive cooling strategies 

Many of the strategies used to improve the summer performance of the home are rooted in traditional Mediterranean vernacular architecture and combined with modern solutions. For the thermal analysis presented here, a PHPP model of the house was prepared to meet the minimum requirements of the Spanish Building Code (CTE). Subsequently, the impact of each strategy on cooling demand is presented, until the limiting cooling demand value required by the Passivhaus standard is achieved. 

Shading analysis 

In order to be able to more accurately check the impact of design strategies for the summer, a shadow study was carried out with the DesignBuilder – EnergyPlus thermo-dynamic tool(Figure 7, Figure 8, Figure 9). The results were used to calculated shading reduction factors for each window, that were later introduced in the PHPP shading tab. 

Figure 7: Tree canopy
Figure 8: Dynamic model for shading analysis 
Figure 9: Dynamic model for shading analysis 

Thermal inertia and natural night ventilation 

Combining thermal mass with natural cross ventilation is a key Mediterranean passive cooling strategy. Cooling power is logically limited when minimum night-time temperatures are not sufficiently low (< 18 ºC), so the strategy tends to work best in climates that are inland and at a higher altitude than coastal areas. While lightweight Passive Houses in warm climates have shown good summer performance [3, 4], some thermal inertia, in combination with night ventilation, clearly helps to modulate indoor temperatures and dissipate heat, improving comfort conditions and reducing cooling energy consumption. The house in question was built with a lightweight timber system – inherently low inertia. To incorporate some mass and enhance the effect of natural night ventilation, a 5 cm of mortar layer with ceramic floor tiles were installed on the floors of both floors, providing a specific capacity of 85 Wh/K·m2 inertia (compared to a very light building of 60 Wh/K·m2). With tilt-and-turn windows partially opened at night, a minimum night ventilation air change rate of 0,8/h was calculated with the PHPP tool, provided by simple, cross and stack effect ventilation. 

Reflective surfaces: walls and roofs 

White painted walls and roofs are another feature of traditional Mediterranean architecture. The house has a white silicate mortar render, with a white roof, both with a solar absorption factor of α = 40 % (black α = 95 %). This helps to reflect more solar radiation and reduces transmission heat gains to the interior of the house. 

Shading devices and solar control 

Solar gains are reduced with balconies set back from the façade, exterior shading devices, and solar control glazing with a solar factor of 36%.

Thermal insulation 

Thermal insulation reduces transmission heat gains, especially through roofs. It is important to find a balance between the insulation thicknesses needed for winter and summer, since an excessive thickness of insulation can in some cases prevent heat dissipation at night in the summer. On the ground floor, 15 cm of wood fibre insulation was used, U = 0.264 W/m2·K. On external walls, 20 cm of wood fibre insulation was installed between the timber structure with 6 cm of external high-density wood fibre insulation, U = 0,158 W/m2·K. The roof has 26 cm of wood fibre insulation, for a U = 0,152 W/m2·K 

Air infiltration 

Reducing air ex/infiltration is a strategy that comes from cold and temperate climates, where the priority is to reduce winter heat losses, when there can often be an indoor-outdoor ΔT of 30 ºC. Outdoor air temperatures would have to be 55 ºC to have the same ΔT in summer. However, reducing air infiltrations in coastal Mediterranean climates with high humidity can help reduce latent cooling loads when active cooling is on and windows are shut. In the case study home presented here, reducing air infiltration from n50 = 5 ach (a typical value for newly built homes) to n50 = 0.4 ach, the latent cooling load is reduced by 39% and the latent cooling demand by 7%. 

Mechanical ventilation with heat and moisture recovery (enthalpy) + automatic bypass in summer 

Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) is another solution that originated in central and northern Europe. Does it work in a Mediterranean summer? When outdoor temperatures rise above the indoor comfort temperature (> 25 ºC), users in air-conditioned Mediterranean homes typically close windows and turn on the cooling system, with negative consequences for indoor air quality. A mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery and automatic summer bypass, ensures constant air change and high air quality. When Tout > Tint the heat recovery unit reduces the temperature of the inlet air, shown in Figure 10, where heat recovery reduces the temperature of incoming air from 35.5 ºC to 29.5 ºC:

Figure 10: Mechanical ventilation with heat recovery in the summer  

When Tout < Tint the automatic bypass opens, providing free cooling and bypassing heat recovery. Additionally, an enthalpy unit reduces the amount of water vapor that enters the house in summer when the absolute humidity of the outdoor air is greater than the extract air (which is often the case in warm humid climates in homes with air conditioning / dehumidification). When the air conditioning is off, users can of course open windows at any point.  

Discussion and conclusions 

Figure 11 shows the PHPP simulation results for each of the strategies described above. The reduction in cooling demands from insulation on the roof is less than on the walls – a result that seems surprising. This is due to shading from the tree canopy, which means the reduction is less than in the walls. The results show that the combination of all strategies is greater than the sum of individual strategies. Cooling demand is reduced from 33 kWh/m2·a with the CTE code-compliant building, to 18 kWh/m2·a, meeting the requirements for the Passivhaus certification in a Barcelona climate.  

Figure 11: PHPP simulation results, cooling demands 
 

Combining traditional Mediterranean passive cooling strategies with solutions included in the Passivhaus standard, the summer performance of buildings can be improved with a reduced need for air conditioning.  “Stress testing” your design with a tool such as PHPP in the early stages of the project is essential, and post-construction monitoring and evaluation is highly recommended to learn from mistakes and improve.

References 

[1] Somot, S. (2005), “Modélisation climatique du bassin Méditerranéen: Variabilité et scénarios de changement climatique.” Thése de Doctorat, Université Toulouse III-Paul Sabatier. UFR Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre. pp 347. Toulouse, Francia, 2005. 

[2] Parlamento Europeo (2010), “Directiva 2010/31/UE del Parlamento Europeo y del Consejo, de 19 de mayo de 2010, relativa a la eficiencia energética de los edificios (refundición)”. Parlamento y Consejo Europeo, Bruselas, 2010. 

[3] Wassouf, M. (2015), “Comfort and Passive House in the Mediterranean summer – monitorization of 2 detached homes in Spain Barcelona”, 19th IPHC, Leipizig, Alemania.  

[4] Oliver Style (2016), “Measured performance of a lightweight straw bale passive house in a Mediterranean heat wave”. 20th International Passivhaus Conference, Darmstadt, Alemania.