Exeter's new Passivhaus Developments
City/Region : Exeter , United Kingdom

Exeter City Council’s vision is to promote and deliver exemplar public buildings. Given the links between poor housing and health, fuel poverty, and research carried out on design for future climate, the Council has been keen to build to a standard that would mitigate these issues.

As a result Exeter City Council’s pipeline of new build developments are designed to be low energy (passivhaus), healthy and climate resilient to at least 2018; an approach which addresses the council’s financial, environmental and social responsibilities and triple bottom line.

Agendas addressed
DecarbonisationBiodiversityGreenfield land and natural space
Water resources and air qualityClimate changePublic space
HousingSocial inclusion and integrationLocal economies and employment
Pathways followed
  • Ensure equal access to municipal services
  • Encourage local private and civic engagement
  • Capitalise on local economy and production
  • Create and close local value chains
  • Implement sustainable procurement principles
  • Pursue a shift towards a circular economy
  • Wisely select and apply smart technologies
  • Accelerate sustainability and innovation through public procurement
  • Prepare policies for socio-cultural changes due to innovation
New Extra Care Facility

With a population of 127,000, Exeter is one of three large urban centres within Devon. Though Exeter is a thriving city, it is challenged with social inequality, fuel uncertainty, a housing shortage, and climatic change.

It is estimated that 12% of all households in Exeter are fuel poor, which is higher than the average for the UK. Further, 73% of the households in fuel poverty live in homes with the lowest energy rating compared to 2% living in homes with the highest energy rating.

Current climate change projections show that UK temperatures are expected to rise by 4-6 C during the next 100 years, UV radiation will increase, air quality will change, and driving rain and wind patterns will become more severe with drier summers and wetter winters. The South West represents a region of the UK which is already at the higher end of weather severity.

In Action
Chester Long Court Before

Sustainable energy efficient development has been the trademark of Exeter City Council for the last 7 years as it has pioneered the development of new council housing to the certified Passivhaus standard including the successful delivery of the UK’s first multi-residential Passivhaus development. The City Council has plans to expand its sustainable aspirations and deliver a pipeline of up to £60 million of sustainable new build developments across the city encompassing both commercial and residential uses. New developments include a leisure centre, extra care homes and new Council housing stock.

Exeter seeks to address their triple bottom line responsibilities by ensuring that all their new building developments, commercial and residential, meet a trinity of environmental factors.  All new Council buildings are:

Low Energy: They adopt the German Passivhaus Standard and all new developments have to be delivered with certification. Research has shown that residents of passivhaus homes pay on average 10% of heating costs compared to an average home, a reduction in 90% of fuel bills.

Healthy: Designed, constructed and operated to the German Bau-Biologie Standard (Building Biology). This takes account of the indoor air quality, water quality, level of electro-magnetic radiation and level of off-gassing of finishes as well as many other health enhancing features.

Gale and Snowden architect and building biologist Tomas Gartner, who worked on all the Council’s completed passivhaus projects to date, describes the approach taken:  “we look at substances that are on the World Health Organisation’s list of carcinogenic substances and try to avoid these are and other substances which are potentially hazardous or may have a detrimental effect.

Climate Ready: Enabled by funding from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), Exeter City Council has been at the forefront to develop integrated design strategies that help to extend the useful life of a building. By using future probabilistic weather data, these building are designed to be future proofed against the effects from climate change. The buildings have also been designed to maintain a stable internal temperature for optimum comfort.

In order to aid in rolling out the pipeline of new developments, the Council launched the EXEseed Contractor’s Framework; a framework exclusively for energy efficient sustainable developments. The framework encourages a strong supply chain, which fosters genuine collaboration with local contractors and cuts procurement timelines and costs for both contracting parties.

St Sidwells Point  new Leisure Centre

In 2011 Exeter City Council built the first two affordable, multi-residential buildings in the UK to be certified passivhaus. The 18 flats at Knights Place and 3 flats at Rowan House were the start of an ongoing programme of development for the Council, the first of its kind in 25 years. In 2015, following the successful completion of these projects, the Council built 20 new houses across three sites, including three fully wheelchair accessible units.

The City Council is on-site with 26 new apartments which will provide quality housing for elderly residents and expect to start on site in September on a 53 unit Extra Care facility for residents over 60 with care needs. A further 650 family homes across the city are also planned. All of these projects will be delivered to passivhaus standards.

The energy savings for passivhaus residential homes are significant – 90% for residential buildings equating to a £50 per annum heating cost for a 3 bedroom home (compared against £500 as a typical home energy bill for a similar sized house built to current Building Regulation Standards).

The Council is also building a new swimming pool and leisure centre, as well as a new bus and coach station, to serve the city of Exeter.  The new leisure centre is being hailed as the most sustainable leisure centre in the UK and one of the healthiest buildings in the world. The application of passivhaus methodologies will result in a predicted savings of 70% on energy costs compared to a similarly sized leisure centre.


By incorporating healthy design principles in the design from the outset, the new buildings and landscapes across the five completed schemes have provided an uplifting and life enhancing environment for those who occupy them:

‘I love the fact that the flat is warm all the time and whenever I come in from outside it is always nice and warm unlike any other building I have been in.’

‘Not a day goes past where I don’t say I like living here.’

‘I have never felt uncomfortably hot or cold a single day since moving in.’

Of the schemes delivered to date, the following benefits for both the tenants and the Council have been observed:

  • Reduced maintenance costs due to higher quality specified materials and enhanced durability adopting a fabric-first approach
  • Reduced estate management costs due to improved tenant behaviour and far less anti-social incidences
  • Minimal voids
  • The local economy benefits – heating bills vary from tenant to tenant from £0 a week to £1.
  • Such low heating bills completely eradicates fuel poverty
  • Numerable health benefits due to the healthy space that has been created

The Council successfully received funding from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) for a 2 year study of 3 flats at Knights Place & 2 flats at Rowan House. The study monitored building performance over a 2 year period and demonstrated how our passivhaus homes have had a positive influence on our tenant’s behaviour and health. This monitoring project has shown that the Passivhaus design methodology has enabled the energy targets that were included in the design to be achieved when built, thus reducing and even eliminating the performance gap encountered with many UK buildings.

It is anticipated that Exeter City Council’s pipeline of new homes and buildings will continue to demonstrate similar benefits.

Challenges and lessons learned
Chester Long Court currently on site

We would recommend holding open days with the contractor community early in the process, focussing on demystifying Passivhaus, with presentations from designers, passivhaus clerk of works and clients.

It is important to educate the contractor community that the Passivhaus project is actually an opportunity and not a risk. If the contractor market is aware of the continued growth of Passivhaus they will see the project as an opportunity to secure future projects.

Changing the occupants’ behaviour will reduce any performance gap between predicted and actual energy consumption. This can be achieved by providing energy advice through guides and training videos.

Extra CareTSB Final


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