Detailing a Passivhaus

Ever wonder why there is such a gap between getting your planning permission and the job starting on site? I though you might benefit from seeing how I am spending my time these days. We have gotten permission to build Irelands first PassivHaus Pharmacy building in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. I have spent the last few months submitting the Fire Certificate Application and Disability Certificate Applications, which demonstrate to the Building Control Authority how we will comply with the Building Regulations in relation to fire safety and accessibility for less abled people. That done, I am now preparing the tender documentation. This will comprise of a structural design by the structural engineer, a bill of quantities by the quantity surveyor, and mechanical and electrical package by the M&E engineer and then the architect’s drawings and specifications.

In order for me to complete those parts, I need to detail EVERY part of the building.

And I mean EVERY part.

But not just that. Because I am designing what will be a certified PassivHaus building, I have to take each detail, and perform an additional set of calculations, which looks for heat loss through the junctions, called thermal bridges.

Then this information is manipulated to generate a heat loss figure or psi-value for the junction. All this information from the other details and a lot more is assemble in the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) software to give a total energy balance for the building. It is by this means that we can know that we have correctly optimised the design of the building to meet the fantastic PassivHaus standard.

So if you ever wonder why architects are so expensive, it is because we do a lot of work. Some of that work is tedious, but without it, you would not be able to build a building that is cheap to heat and comfortable all year round.

By producing the detailed specification drawings, the quantity surveyor can measure everything and ensure that when a builder signs a contract based on that information, that everything is accounted for, and that variations on site can be minimised to necessary changes only. Perhaps around 1 or 2% of the project sum on a good day.

By drawing every detail, we can foresee where complications may arise before they happen, so that delays are minimised.

Low fee competition

Which brings me to another point in my rant. Please forgive me. But when I am quoting clients for work, I am pricing on the basis of doing similar depth of work as shown above. I recently quoted for an extension/refurbishment job and came in the highest, which I would expect to as I am trying to find clients who want quality services and adequate time spent on a project and appreciate the building will be better/cheaper in the long run as a result of investment in my services.

This recent client is good enough to share the quotes (without names) with me. The result is that they are  comparing my fee with the lowest, which was less than 1/3 of mine. I did a quick calculation on the hours that would be necessary to do the job effectively, and that architect would have to be on a pre-tax salary of €16,000 per annum to work for that fee. So either there are people out there working for less than the minimum wage, or architects are so pressurised to compete financially, that they are forced by clients to take on jobs at a loss, and then do as little work on them as possible and hope things don’t go wrong.

In fact, a public sector client advised me recently that this is in fact the only way to get on the public sector list of architects. Take the first job at a loss. (i.e. the private individual has to pay the state a fee to be allowed to work for them). Then once you have proved yourself, you might be given more work where you can over inflate your fee to make up for the loss…

So if you are thinking of hiring an architect and they seem genuine about how they do their business, and they clearly explain the amount of time they will put into your project and what a reasonable fee is subject to negotiation, be aware that if you see fees 1/2 or 1/3 less than they are offering, something is probably wrong with the very low fee offer.

Let me know what you think, I would be grateful if you would share your experience with me, especially (without using names please) if you had difficulties as a result of going with a designer or contractor that was substantially lower than others.

p.s. also I have put this out there on Twitter, you can follow it on @paulmknally