Building of the week: St Sidwell’s Point

Exeter City Council have high standards for their buildings. In 2011 they built their first PassivHaus, learned all they could, and formally adopted the idea. All new council buildings now need to meet PassivHaus standards.

If you’re not familiar with PassivHaus, it’s a design framework for low energy buildings. One of the main principles is to create buildings that are airtight. Coupled with good insulation, that keeps heat inside the building. Ventilation is then provided through a heat recovery system, so that incoming cold air is warmed by the outgoing air. Buildings that meet this standard don’t usually need traditional heating systems. The cooking, electronics, and body heat of their occupants provide all the necessary warmth.

Exeter Council have now built houses and flats, terraced council homes, and an old people’s home to these design guidelines. Their most ambitious project is currently underway, a leisure centre called St Sidwell’s Point. It will include a gym, three pools, studios and spa, a cafe and soft play, and it will be Britain’s first PassivHaus leisure centre. The building is expected to use 70% less energy and 50% less water than a normal development of its kind.


There are two other pioneering elements. One is that it has been designed with future climate change in mind, and engineered to handle the expected temperature differences and more extreme weather of coming decades. And secondly, it includes elements of biophilic design (or Building Biology, as they call it) in its layout, use of natural light, and in its high tech pool. In a UK first, the pool will use ultra-filtration techniques that maintain water quality without chemicals. No chlorine here. As far as swimmers are concerned it will feel like fresh water.

With several years of experience now, Exeter has built up a knowledge base in the council and raised skills in the local building trade. Building low energy homes is easier and cheaper. Certain council staff members have even become global authorities on PassivHaus procurement, and now advise other councils and city authorities.

This is something other councils can learn from. Building that first PassivHaus may be difficult, as it will need specialists and could cost more. But it opens the door to the next project, and the one after. The extra investment will pay for itself many times over with better buildings that are cheaper to run.


  1. seems all the builders are using old tech to construct the houses. toxic materials too. the waste is criminal unless you insist a large percentage of humans should always be poor.

    1. You’re hard to please! I would love to hear how you can do better than passivhaus standard on a building like this one, and what ‘new’ tech you think they should be using. If you can give me examples, I’ll run them in future ‘building of the week’ posts.

      1. it costs a fortune to build a house to last a few decades as opposed to centuries or millennia. vacuum panels mass produced to reduce costs to below that of alternative products, need be only 1 inch thick or less, reducing the material and labor required to build a wall dramatically. building parts to be assembled onsite further reduces waste and cost.

        40 years ago i worked with a builder whose techniques are still far more advanced than that practiced today. was an eye opener. he’s probably turning in his grave at the moment.

        1. That’s the same example you gave last time, but you can’t build a whole house out of vacuum insulation panels, let alone a leisure centre.

          Can you point me to any projects that your builder friend constructed?

  2. I know it’s insulation only, which is why I’m puzzled that it’s your only suggestion. One might well use vacuum panels to build a passivhaus. And I’m pretty sure VIPs were invented in the 70s, so is that old or new tech?

    That video shows a fast build, but is it an example of a building that will last centuries or millennia? With no toxic materials? And is it low energy?

    I agree that the housing industry moves painfully slowly, but all the more reason to champion great projects like St Sidwell’s point.

  3. vacuum panels are 50 years old yet they are rarely put to use. if you read up on the Chinese build it explains how much resources were saved in its construction. still it could have been improved dramatically. the problem is the people who are leading us think inside a very small box. we don’t have time to think like that anymore. sorry i don’t have more time, i’m finally seeing the end of my project.

    i enjoy your blog very much. when my projects finished i’ll put some information together for you. thanks.

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