The Sharpest Tool in the Shed: Tradies Taking the Lead

In the conversation around the quality of Australian buildings, the workmanship delivered by tradies often comes under fire. But even when homes meet the requirements of the building code, study after study shows Australian homes are still often too cold in winter, too hot in summer, draughty, leaky, and prone to mould issues.

As the saying goes, the code only delivers the worst house you can legally build. For tradies and builders wanting to demonstrate they both play by the rules and deliver workmanship that lifts the game, the challenge is how to prove their expertise to consumers who have lost faith in the industry. This is where some tradies are discovering Passivhaus offers them ways to kick multiple goals – demonstrable quality of workmanship and finish and homes that feel better, cost less to live in, and are healthier for occupants.

Opening up the Passivhaus Toolkit

From the outside, many people still look at Passivhaus and assume designing and delivering a building that meets the standard will be a highly complex and expensive proposition. But as Passivhaus consultants and trainers Madonna and Scott Stewart from LAB Design explain, there is a logic, science and practicality of the approach that really resonates for tradies. A recent PH trades course the Stewarts delivered attracted both builders and tradespeople. Madonna says around 60 to 70 percent of the participating builders are running their own companies and had been approached by a customer wanting a Passivhaus. Others had already built one or two PH projects and now wanted to gain the formal qualification. “You can see the cogs turning [during the course]. It is not a just a tick the box course, everyone participating is learning something new.”

David O’Hare, owner of Pique Construction in Sydney, recently undertook the Passivhaus tradesperson course, and is building his own off-grid home on a rural property near Stroud. O’Hare has been a qualified builder and qualified carpenter for over 20 years and has had Pique Construction up and running for a decade. “I had been interested in Passivhaus for a while,” he says. “I know it is better to build as energy-efficient a home as you can.” He says the benefits of the Passivhaus approach including improved insulation and reduced heating and cooling costs are “definitely where we should be heading as a building industry”. The course ran for 10 weeks and involved a Thursday evening on-line workshop and a written book of coursework, as well as a final written assessment. He said he found the information both useful and fascinating, and enjoyed the learning process. Some of the aspects of the training he found most useful included material around weatherproofing, weather-tightness and insulation. The training delves into how insulation works, and what the factors are that contribute to the formation of condensation and mould. O’Hare said it was new to him to learn about how water and air moves through a wall, how heat is transferred and what thermal bridges are and how can they affect home performance. “It’s not just a matter of packing insulation in a wall,” O’Hare says. He says the course also highlighted for him some of the weaknesses in the building code, such as it being standard practice to leave 10mm gaps around door jambs. In applying the Passivhaus principles, he says a builder or trade needs to go “all in”. Having the extra knowledge can also help empower trades and builders to raise issues at the design stage. “Generally, we get the architect’s plans and we don’t get much chance to talk about the design,” he says. Clients also may not ask about Passivhaus, as they rely on their architect to steer that conversation. But given the benefits, O’Hare believes many home buyers would be interested. “For example, having a constant supply of filtered fresh air is a better standard of living,” he says. “And needing less heating and cooling, means lower energy bills.” While there can be a perception a Passivhaus home may cost more to build, O’Hare maintains that it does not have to be the case. “And the more people come into the market delivering Passivhaus, efficiencies of scale will make it even more affordable.” Going on the tools sets a solid career path.

Beth Mercieca, Blue Eco Homes

For young carpenter, Beth Mercieca, the PH approach adds an additional satisfaction to the job. Beth was studying makeup artistry at TAFE and helping out on building sites for her parent’s company Blue Eco Homes, when she realised construction was her calling. Now a second-year apprentice carpenter with the company, she has her sights set on qualifying as Tradie and perhaps eventually adding designing and drafting homes to her future career path. There’s every reason to be confident a trade apprenticeship can lead to a diverse and solid career.

The CEO of the Australian Passive House Association, Paul Wall, started his working life as an apprentice carpenter before moving into project management, property consulting and now leading the charge towards shifting the residential property sector towards high-performance homes. "A big upside of choosing a trade over university is also starting a working life with an income, not growing a HECS debt," Paul says. "Getting a chance to learn building science and adapt these practices into an already impressive skillset puts tradies in the drivers seat with a heightened level of influence on the finished product."

Beth says attending a PH seminar gave her a “really interesting insight” into what other builders and trades are doing. Environmental sustainability, passive solar and passive house are a large part of what Blue Eco already undertakes, she says. It is a major identifier for the company in the competitive residential construction market. Beth says that the attraction of the PH standard is it makes for a “more comfortable client.” It also puts power in the hands of tradies like herself to put the effort into finer details of a build and achieve exponentially better results in terms of performance. “A higher standard begins with quality workmanship,”” she says. “I love the direction around quality that we are working towards in the building industry. It makes you feel better about turning over a house.” Beth says knowing the fundamentals of PH from the start as a tradesperson is something she really appreciates. For more established tradies, the hardest part would be “changing your normal.” “With Passivhaus you have got to think ahead and adopt new habits. There are also a couple of new features and bits and pieces added to the build, so a tradesperson or builder has to want to make the change.”

Quality Workmanship 101

Scott says one of the additional benefits of the course is it gives builders and trades the knowledge they need to effectively convince customers of the benefits. There is a unit on the economics of Passivhaus, including both the financial benefit of energy savings and the hip-pocket benefits of a healthier home. The Passive House approach also gives tradies who have always taken pride in delivering a high level of finish tools and techniques for being able to demonstrate this excellence to customers. PH includes test methods such as thermographic imaging, additional penetration sealing checks and blower door testing that are tried and tested quality control verification methods. They allow consumers to “see what has been done behind the plasterboard” – something many buyers are now very keen to know. “For builders that have that attention to detail, they are not needing to add much to the project for it to work,” Scott says.

Getting it Right Onsite

The training gives Tradies the background science that enables them to make informed decisions. It also highlights the importance of a cultural shift around taking responsibility. If a Tradie creates a penetration, or accidentally punches a hole in something, informing the project manager or builder straight away is the way to go. Otherwise, the issue will be found when the final blower door test is carried out – and that means a call back to remedy defective work, rather than a quick and effective fix at the time the incident occurred. The Passive House body of knowledge also includes how to sequence works so that rough-ins and penetrations are completed without compromising the sealing of the building envelope. “It’s a team effort,” Scott says. Madonna says that there are many younger builders and tradies heading in the Passive House direction because they are looking for a point of difference in the market and a way of demonstrating the quality of their workmanship. They are using Instagram to show their workmanship with joint tapering, wrapping, insulation and glazing – and their peers are taking notice. “This is the ultimate point of differentiation and armed with more information and techniques, Tradies are meeting the growing demand from consumers who want better quality, resilience, and health in their buildings.”


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