What is an Active House and should you be building one?

Activhaus
(Image credit: Zooey Braun, Stuttgart)

If you haven't come across the term Active House yet then you are not alone — but this is definitely a concept worthwhile familiarising yourself with.

While homeowners are gradually getting to grips with how to build to Passivhaus standards, the Active House is a little different, prioritising building homes that are healthy and comfortable for their occupants without impacting on the environment. 

Fancy living in a house that actually contributes towards a sense of wellbeing and increases productivity as well as enjoying lower energy bills — all while doing your bit for the environment? If so, then an Active House could well be just the thing you have been looking for.

We explain what they are, the principles behind the idea and take a look at how you can go about creating one. 

What is an Active House?

According to The Active House Alliance, an Active house is a home that "integrates health and comfort with energy efficiency and environmental performance."

The Active House Alliance was founded in 2011 and is an not-for-profit organisation made up of a range of experts in sustainable buildings, including designers, planners, builders, developers, academic institutions and building industry companies, such as Velux and Knauf. 

Together, they are all working towards creating vision and a set of principles that guide people towards building homes with the Alliance's three guiding principles at their core — "comfort, energy and the environment." 

On their website, the Alliance gives further clarification of what an Active House is and how building one can really enhance the owner's lives. 

"Active House is a vision of buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without impacting negatively on the climate – moving us towards a cleaner, healthier and safer world."

activhaus in germany

Activhaus B10, in the German city of Stuttgart, is believed to be the first – and as yet the only - Activhaus in the world. The building goes beyond Passivhaus standards, using technology to regulate and minimise energy use, and generating more energy than the building actually needs. (Image credit: Zooey Braun, Stuttgart)

How do you build an Active House?

When designing an Active House, it is necessary to incorporate the three principles of comfort, energy and environment into the design. 

Each of the three Active House principles is made up of certain criteria — there are nine criteria in total.

1) Comfort is made up of four criteria: Daylight, Thermal Environment, Indoor Air Quality and Acoustic Quality.

2) Energy is made up of three: Energy Demand, Primary Energy Performance and Energy Supply.

3) Environment is made up of two criteria: Freshwater Consumption and Sustainable Construction. 

On the Active House Alliance's website, they state: "For a building to be considered as an Active House, the level of ambition can be quantified into four levels, where 1 is the highest level and 4 is the lowest passing level. The ambitious requirement for Active House includes all nine criteria and recommends the lowest level for each of them. As long as a criterion is better or equal to the lowest level of ambition, it is an Active House."

While this might all sound a little confusing, the principle is quite simple and there are lots of easy ways you can design your home to include many of these criteria, including:

  • Ensuring plenty of natural light enters your home by including large glazed areas and also aiming to bring in some light from above
  • Choosing paints and products, such as flooring, that are low in in VOCs 
  • Insulating to the highest possible levels
  • Considering fitting a biomass boiler
  • Including some forms of renewable energy into the design of your house, such as solar panels
  • Building using materials with low carbon footprints
  • Installing good ventilation systems
  • Fitting water collection butts

kitchen in Passivhaus

Tonnes of natural light, great insulation and ventilation and products low in VOCs are just some of the features of an Active House.  (Image credit: Brett Charles Photography)

Active House vs Passivhaus: What's the difference?

"An Active House is like Passivhaus, in that there is a focus on reducing energy consumption with prescribed construction, but it goes a step further, with technology which regulates and minimises energy usage by including energy generation to produce more energy than the house needs," explains expert in sustainable building methods and energy efficiency in residential homes Tim Pullen. "The technology controls heating and ventilation to those rooms that are actually being occupied, as well as controlling energy production, storage and distribution. 

"The standard also considers wider sustainability issues, in that the house can be dismantled and the components used in another house."

"If you want to create a home that is super energy efficient and as environmentally friendly as possible, look no further than the Passive House standard," say the experts at Roof Maker. "Active House is basically an evolution of Passive House that goes one step further than a zero carbon footprint, by encouraging homes to produce positive energy which can then be fed back to the grid, often via photovoltaic panels," they continue. "Active House also encourages comfort and more natural light and ventilation to enter the property. So whilst Passive House homes feature few windows and can be a bit gloomy as a result, Active House homes are quite the opposite.

"The obvious 'issue' with Active House is that all the extra windows and rooflights mean that solar gain (the thermal energy a home obtains from the sun) can be an issue during the summer. Furthermore, all those extra windows and rooflights are harder to insulate (and achieve the same result) as standard walls."

So, is one of these standards better than the other?

"It depends on what you want from a home," advise Roof Maker's experts. "For example, if you are simply looking to create a house with a zero-carbon footprint, Passive House is going to help you achieve that.

"If you want to take this to the next level by designing a home that produces its own energy and is comfortable to live in because of the amount of natural light and fresh air it benefits from, Active House is the standard you’ll want to meet."

"So far there has been only one known Active House built (by the standard’s developer) and at more than £7,000/m2 it could be said that it makes Passivhaus look cheap," says Tim Pullen.

timber clad self build exterior

Passivhaus standards are different to those set out by Active House. (Image credit: Quentin Lake)
Natasha Brinsmead

Natasha is Homebuilding & Renovating’s Associate Content Editor and has been a member of the team for over two decades. An experienced journalist and renovation expert, she has written for a number of homes titles. Over the years Natasha has renovated and carried out a side extension to a Victorian terrace. She is currently living in the rural Edwardian cottage she renovated and extended on a largely DIY basis, living on site for the duration of the project. She is now looking for her next project — something which is proving far harder than she thought it would be.