The Norwich Fabric First Institute opens its doors....

Energy policy over the coming years will challenge the construction industry in delivering more energy efficient building stock. To do so with increased effectiveness is going to be key to business profitability, housing affordability and energy efficiency. Critical national and regional housing shortages and rising levels of fuel poverty mean it has never been more important to deliver high quality homes to our communities at a commercial scale.

With the planned investment of £300 million worth of ‘fabric first’ homes in Norwich – with the aim being that the majority will be to the Passivhaus standard – through Norwich City Council’s Fabric First Framework over the coming four years, there is a real and immediate need for multiple contractors to be upskilled to enable delivery of these homes.

Norfolk are not alone in embracing the benefits of the Passivhaus standard; Exeter City Council and several Dublin local authorities are also advocates.

Encouragingly, the numbers of qualified certified Passivhaus designers in the UK are growing (around 500) but these currently outnumber the qualified and certified trades by 5:1 – not a good enough ratio when considering the numbers of tradespeople that will touch those sites. While there are already a comparatively high number of certified passive house tradespeople in the Eastern region (25) this training can be expensive and can therefore exclude many would-be contractors from accessing the skills and knowledge.

In response to this, through a match-funded grant from the New Anglia Skills Deal Programme, provided by Norfolk County Council, Suffolk local authorities and the Skills Funding Agency, the planned £200k Fabric First Institute project has been developed. It aims to act as a catalyst for a step-change in construction practices both regionally and throughout the UK. Working collaboratively with regional partners from the construction, manufacturing and low energy sectors, educational establishments and local authorities, it aims to impact current construction practices to bring about change. It will up-skill both the workforce and students through development and delivery of a training programme and module, which will have a direct impact on the current building performance gap existing in the UK today.

What will the Fabric First Institute actually deliver?

This project has an innovative approach in that it is a direct attempt to tackle the ‘silo mentality’ – a recognised barrier to the energy performance gap – by training being delivered to multiple trades simultaneously. The aim of this is that the development of a shared sense of ownership, coupled with clear and consistent communication from concept design through delivery and into occupation will shake up current practices.

The Norwich City Council Fabric First Framework development plans mean that there is real opportunity for those trained to gain practical experience and thus embed and encourage learning and practices to wider teams and businesses.

Project partners have come together to enable the development of a life-sized and functioning ‘Fabric First’ demonstration model building, to be used by both those within workforces receiving training and college students and learners.

Over the summer, generous donations of materials made by suppliers including (but not limited to) Kingspan TEK and Wienerberger (wall solutions), Zehnder (MVHR), Veka and Roto (windows/doors/rooflights), together with labour gifted from contractors such as R G Carter and Smith of Honingham, will enable the delivery of a bespoke Fabric First ‘Demonstration Unit’. The plan is that this will be built under the canopy of the newly finished specialist Construction Centre at Easton Campus with architectural support by LSI Architects. The project is co-funded by Easton College, Norwich City Council and the Whole House Energy team.

The Demonstration Unit cleverly incorporates a number of construction fabric types and window manufacturers, the point of course being that the industry can and do build out of any material; it’s the energy standard that is being chased.

Based centrally within the county the Easton College Construction Centre will become a centre of excellence to facilitate the training of contractors. It will do this whilst simultaneously educating those joining the sector through development of a new fabric first construction ‘module’ for students of all construction trades at the college.

Through the year-long project the Whole House Energy trainers will develop and deliver:

· 8 hour (one-day) ‘training programme’: Focusing on core principles of fabric first/passive house building methods. This will be a grant-funded programme, providing heavily subsidised training.

· 30 hour ‘module’: Focusing on core principles of fabric first/passive house building methods for students.

Both will consist of a combination of classroom-based and practical learning experiences and together will also act as an informal ‘mentoring’ hub where students and contractors can share their new skills.

Doors are open for the delivery of twelve one-day training courses for up to 15 delegates each. Eight medium to large-scale contractors from inside and outside the region have pledged support and are already signed up. Importantly however, the course is open to all SME contractors and tradespeople in the region that would like to be upskilled.

The delivery of the module to Level 2/3 students at Easton College will precede the contractors training. The new fabric first ‘module', it is planned, will after a further period of development become accessible to other learning facilities in the UK after formal accreditation by City and Guilds.

What is unique about this endeavor is that it demonstrates cross-sector recognition and action to rectify a skills gap at the sharp end of low energy in the built environment. It demonstrates an unusual level of collaboration which is hoped will be catalytic.

Why is training needed?

It should be pointed out that none of the training is rocket science – simply best or rather good practice for delivery of quality, high comfort homes and buildings whether or not aiming to deliver to the passive house standard.

The wider context of why training is needed is of course that successful delivery of this particular region’s ambitious scale of development will, it is hoped, lead to successive developments such as this.

Using a more focused lens however, the training will be designed to tackle challenges faced by regional contractors both when on-site delivering to the passive house standard and when trying to win this type of business.

The pricing game

With the above in mind from the very outset, a little like embarking on an obstacle course, contractors all leave the start line all together; the first hurdle they face being pricing. Finding subcontractors to price fairly (or at all) for passive house developments of all sizes can be tricky. Bad experiences, word of mouth horror stories and lack of understanding often lead to skewed pricing through assumed increased time for the job. Whilst this is not an unreasonable assumption, this can be largely countered through accurately planning sequencing in, rather than leaving contingency time for trouble-shooting and schedule over-runs.

“For contractors there are growing business opportunities within the passive house market. In order to capitalise on these opportunities contractors and their sub-contractor supply chain need to be suitably equipped and informed on what a passive house project entails. Whilst there is a growing knowledge and learning within the consultancy sector, the challenge is now to transfer that knowledge, experience and learning to the supply chain. For contractors to secure the ‘leading edge’ understanding a fabric-first approach to construction is critical. Understanding the risks, the sequencing and the level of site supervision need not result in excessive tender costs and passive house projects when de-mystified can be successfully delivered on site. Indeed, in Exeter we now experience contractors eager to work on more passive house projects, as they come to appreciate the simplicity and high level of outcomes the projects deliver. Being able to deliver to exacting standards with exemplar energy efficient results gives contractors a commercial advantage whether they are working on passive house or other low-energy building standards.”

Emma Osmundsen, housing development manager & client lead (Build), Exeter City Council

Quality Street

Once the contractors have won the work, the next challenge will be monitoring quality of workmanship on site. This can be particularly difficult on larger schemes but a great deal of risk can be eliminated with a well-informed (trained) workforce. The individuals become ‘mini’ inspectors and help identify problems before they are replicated, thus minimising disruption to works and any associated costs of remediation. Much time (cost) is lost by contractors and subcontractors through rectifying faults and poor performance as a result of not doing things right the first time.

The airtightness challenge

An ongoing challenge and by far most daunting obstacle for all involved in passive house is the airtightness challenge. This can be a real stress for the contractor particularly if there is a financial penalty written into the contract; a penalty clause that can go down the subcontractor chain. It creates an atmosphere of finger pointing and a blame culture on site. Airtightness needs to be collectively and collaboratively approached, a proper challenge for the ‘silo-mentality’ construction industry.

On this subject there is a considerable amount of learning or ‘unlearning’ of bad practices to be done. Currently, on a standard build, taping just doesn’t happen, yet all buildings should be constructed to a pre-determined airtightness value. In reality much is left to chance, many tubes of mastic and the luck of the draw on the day of the air test.

The training will help eradicate or minimise the challenges or issues with airtight taping by raising awareness not only of best practice but providing suggestions of common sense approaches.

As we have seen in our certified passive house tradespersons training, technique is everything and can not only significantly reduce the time it takes but also the amount of materials used. It must also be clear which products should be used where and not which product is closest to hand. Materials are expensive and should be treated with care and not left do be damaged on site. All this leads to the existence of newly created airtightness champions who are essential but further must have authority to question materials/workmanship on site.

Take a breather

Once good practice in terms of fabric is covered the course will tackle the main ventilation issues that MVHR installation brings (design, installation, commissioning).

Currently there is a gap with most manufacturers between the design and installation on site. More often than not, no physical on-site assessment is made by the MVHR designers prior to formal sign-off of design and procurement of the materials and as such it is often only during installation that problems are identified. This can be problematic for site-workers delivering on time with a constrained design. Together with what denotes best practice, understanding what can and cannot be done in the aforementioned instance will be key.

Tangible benefits of knowledge

There will be multiple benefits of taking the training but the most significant and impactful for contractors or subcontractors will be through knowledge gained and myths busted; winning more business and delivering this more profitably.

“Training key members of staff to passive house tradesperson certification was an important part of our strategy for reducing the passive house ‘skills gap’ and achieving membership of Norwich City Council’s prestigious Fabric First Framework.

We quickly recognised that it was important to train everyone – designers, management, estimators, surveyors, site managers, trades and our supply chain.

We believe the Fabric First Institute can provide a practical entry-level course that is well-suited to the needs of our staff and supply-chain partners alike. In our experience this investment in training has helped to greatly bring down the cost of delivery. The knowledge and skills gained have helped our supply chain understand the risks and the opportunities associated with passive house construction resulting in tangible benefits and reduced costs for all parties.”

Paul Hamilton, senior project manager, R G Carter Limited

If the contractors and subcontractors are better informed, they are able to make commercial decisions with much more validation. The knowledge will lead to improved likelihood of winning business, through demonstrating that they have made a commitment to embrace change, recognise the shortfalls of what we do today and are prepared to work collaboratively. This could in turn also attract a better quality client, one who is concerned about quality and doing a good job.

Ultimately however, what everyone seeks is increased margin and reduced remedial work costs. A trained workforce will achieve this through delivery of a better product first time.


For more details of the courses, availability and booking – and to see a full list of suppliers and project partners – see the page on Fabric First Institute on the Whole House Energy website at or call Jackie on 01603 672 800.

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