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The 'fabric first' approach does exactly as it suggests: concentrates on getting a building's fabric right, first and foremost. It means achieving well-built, thermally efficient, air tight building elements, all of which give their designed level of performance for the life of the building (and therefore makes it the ideal starting point to address the Performance Gap).
The knock-on benefit is to remove the need for complicated renewable technology (or ‘eco bling’!) that can be expensive, difficult to operate and maintain, not as efficient as claimed, or have a service life that is shorter than the building's lifespan. Keeping things simple is inherent to the 'fit and forget' philosophy of good building fabric: once it has been built, there is no need to worry about it.
A proven fabric first approach can, on its own, reduce energy consumption (and therefore bills!) in any building type. Case studies exist of houses with an annual heating bill of £50, or a school that saved the equivalent of a headteacher's salary from its energy costs.
Fabric first shares a lot in common with the Passivhaus energy performance standard. The five key principles of Passivhaus are: insulation, airtightness, no thermal bridging, fenestration (doors and windows), and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR). These key areas can be used as inspiration for a fabric first approach, whilst maintaining an element of design flexibility.
In other words, fabric first does not mean having to seek Passivhaus certification, though a compelling argument could be made that the universal adoption of Passivhaus could have a dramatic and enduring positive impact on the UK's building stock.
In addition to helping safeguard the Earth's future, fabric first does not have to metaphorically cost the Earth either. A scheme for housing in Hereford, where every dwelling achieved the Passivhaus standard, was shown to cost no more than if it had been built to a 'typical' standard. Some aspects cost more, some cost less. Balance is key, and by focussing on the budget that is available the required standard can be met.
A policy of fabric first can therefore be employed on a project of any size, from the largest public building to the smallest domestic extension. Communication is vital - whether educating building users in the benefits of such a policy or ensuring that contractors understand what standard of work is expected. Some consumers are becoming wiser and asking for more efficient buildings, but some want to continue living how they want, when they want. The latter scenario means it is important to have an understanding of occupant behaviour.
At Recticel Insulation, we advocate the fabric first approach. We don't want to sell you more insulation for the sake of it. We believe in selling you the right thickness of insulation to meet your requirements in the most efficient manner possible. The founder of Passivhaus - a physicist who had no background in the construction industry - took an interest in buildings because he couldn't understand how energy efficiency was failing to improve despite the addition of extra insulation.
We are doing our bit by trying to improve education in the construction industry. Our website's 'Tech Centre' is populated with summary articles about current topics that our customers encounter every day. We have RIBA-accredited CPD presentations offering a 'back to basics' view on insulation and condensation risk, and an overview of the Performance Gap with advice on fabric first and meeting the 2013 Building Regulation thermal bridging targets. And if all that isn't enough, our technical services helpdesk is on hand to offer pragmatic advice.