Houses need to be more than just beautiful

Christina Krimbacher wrote her diploma thesis on Passive Houses back when this construction approach was often the subject of ridicule. The architect and planner on her firm belief in sustainability and the threat posed by low-quality new buildings.

Ms Krimbacher, you began your career at Energie Tirol, an independent advice centre for energy issues in the Austrian state of Tirol. As a trained architect, what was your role there? 
I was responsible for looking after the energy consultants; there was a network of 30 consultants. But my main interest was Passive Houses and ecology. 

How did you become involved in sustainable construction? 
During my studies. It must be said that there was nothing in my field of study in this area. When I submitted my diploma thesis on the subject of the Passive House in Innsbruck in 2001, my work was the first of its kind at the institute for wood construction (Holzbauinstitut). At that time, it was still somewhat uncool, even rather abnormal, and not nearly as chic as it is today to be concerned with such buildings (laughs). As part of my diploma thesis, I established my first contacts at wood construction companies. 

What was your motivation? 
It’s an issue that’s close to my heart. Environmental and climate protection as well as health are very important topics that are very closely linked to building construction. Houses need to be more than just beautiful. It’s important to me to build houses that actually work. That may sound banal, but it really isn’t. 

So you were actually the pioneer of a movement? 
Yes, if you want to see it that way, you could say that. However, some former colleagues of mine who are now retired had already built Passive Houses. Back when I was at Energie Tirol I had a lot to do with them and I learned a lot from them. 

You became self-employed in 2006, won prizes and your projects have been certified under the Austrian government’s “klima:aktiv” environmental initiative. You are now operating in —as you rightly put it—a very chic field within the construction industry. But is it merely trendy, or something more? 
When I think back to my early days, there is no question that a lot has happened since then. I also believe that Passive Houses will eventually become the standard, however there is still a long way to go. There are two strong tendencies here. Some builders opt for the cheapest possible designs with poor insulation and don’t think about airtightness. At the same time, there are also builders who consider an ecological, passive design to be very important. This not only applies to single-family homes, but also to hotel construction, supermarkets and other buildings. Actually, the OIB guidelines and funding are already moving in the right direction, albeit very slowly. 

For the private home builder, does it still come down to price at the end of the day? 
I think you have to see it differently. A huge percentage of single-family home builders operate with a budget that is far too small, so quality simply falls by the wayside. In particular, this is a problem for us in western Austria, because the land prices alone are very high. It would often be better to take a communal approach. 

A major project in which you are involved and is causing a stir is the Bildungshaus St. Michael education centre in Tirol, for which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Innsbruck has deliberately opted for sustainable construction. Even with all the hype around sustainable construction, such decisions are still rare for large public buildings. Why did the Diocese choose this approach? 

You can read the whole interview in THE ISOCELLER 04