Review 2018 Higher Level Paper

What a pleasant surprise! Opening the paper to find the question images in full colour. It seems like something that shouldn't be notable in 2018 but when you've been looking at black and white images (or no images at all) since the early 1980's, colour images make a real impact.

While the inclusion of question images has no doubt been a positive development, this change provides an opportunity for us to take a closer look at this innovation.

These images first appeared on the higher level paper in 2003 when their primary purpose was to provide visual interest.


It isn't until Q.10 2005 that it would be fair to say that the question couldn't have been answered without reference to the image. From this point on, most of the images fall into either of these two categories; visual interest or core part of the question.

In the 2010 paper the images were a core part of the question in 5 of the 11 questions on the paper. Looking through the papers, this is about typical: four of the questions on this year's paper were based on an image.

There are several positive points worth noting in relation to these images:

  1. they make the paper more visually interesting,
  2. they provide a useful stimulus/ support for the candidates,
  3. they help the candidates save time when selecting which questions to answer,
  4. they provide a guide for the type of sketch that is required to answer the question,
  5. they allow the examiner to specify the parameters of a question quite clearly (e.g. providing the dimensions of a room),
  6. they give the examiner an opportunity to 'set the agenda' (e.g. 2009 Q3 showing window frames should be insulated).

There are a few downsides though:

  1. they can be too leading (e.g. 2012 Q4 where the image is the solution),
  2. they can be too prescriptive (e.g. 2017 Q2 where the solution is already decided),
  3. the use of colour has to be carefully judged; the colouring should follow best practice and not be a distraction. For example, in questions (2018) 3, 6 & 10 the use of blue and pink in the floor plans is not helpful (especially when these colours are usually used to show supply and extract zones in ventilation drawings).

Clearly, the positives outweigh the negatives but there is a balance to be struck and careful consideration needs to be given to the function and effect of every image included.

Overall, this year's paper was very much in line with previous years. The examiner continued to emphasise sustainable low-energy design. It is great to see the continued emphasis on passive design and the use of sustainable materials. There was a good balance between architectural design questions and architectural detailing questions. Question 4 on rural design was a clever iteration of last year's question.

As teachers of Construction Studies, we have much to be thankful for; the examiner has over the last 15 years used the exam paper to guide teachers toward topics that are at the cutting edge of the industry while also keeping a firm eye on the core values of the subject (respect for the planet, respect for natural resources, respect for our rural and built heritage). The primacy of design in Construction Studies has been made evident in every paper. 

More than anything, the examiner has always provided a fair test that has allowed our students to show what they have learned.

Those of us who have soldiered in the trenches of the marking for many a summer will know that there is a 'changing of guard' afoot. It truly is the end of an era; I learned so much from Sean and I want thank him for his outstanding leadership and service. Bon voyage!

I expect it won't be long until we see the process to revise the now very old Construction Studies syllabus commence. Let's hope those involved won't lose sight of what we already have and that the future version of this subject retains the values and qualities we perhaps take somewhat for granted at present.


Review: 2017 higher level Construction Studies paper

Well, I got that wrong.

I had told my own class that the old/new floor junction could come up but I had pretty much ruled it out as 'old hat' and unlikely to come up anymore because it is such an out of date detail. There is absolutely no way, in the real world, that an old cold air leaky floor like that would be left in place... it's a preposterous suggestion and an unfair detail to examine in a compulsory question. That said, I think most students will be okay provided they drew the wall and the modern floor details - most of the marks should be available in these two elements. 

Apart from that, I thought the paper was pretty much in line with previous years/ expectations. It really is a silly game we play... where a 'good' paper is a paper that meets expectations (i.e. is fairly predictable).

My only other negative criticisms are, question eight, part b and question nine. The light calculation used by the examiner continues to confound me; when I was writing my latest book I spent days looking through the literature for an example of this calculation and could not find a single one anywhere. As far as I could tell, there was no reference to it in any of the numerous textbooks and academic papers I checked. There is a calculation that can be used to work this type of question out (it's in my book (and numerous others)) - it's a pity that students are still being encouraged to learn/ use this other method. 

Question nine, on foundations & concrete, belongs on the ordinary level paper. Not much more to be said about that. 

Aside from these two negatives, I think the paper was in line with previous years and, as such, was fair to the students. There continues to be a strong emphasis on sustainable housing design and on low-energy housing standards. It is great to see the examiner continue to emphasise the Passive House standard as the only scientifically rigorous standard out there.


A recent update to the Passivhaus standard saw the introduction of Passive House Classes. These classes represent three new levels of Passivhaus: Classic, Plus & Premium. As you might expect they reflect three levels of energy performance. Classic is essentially the original standard. Plus and Premium are awarded when the building has an even lower energy demand and generates more energy than it consumes!

Passivhaus Classes – read the image left to right... a Plus certified building must generate more than 60 kWh/m2a of energy while consuming less than 45 kWh/m2a; a net surplus of 15 kWh/m2a.

The criteria for the space heating demand and airtightness remain unchanged; the primary energy demand has been replaced by the renewable primary energy demand (PER demand) which assumes fossil fuel energy sources are no longer used.

Depending on the level sought (Classic, Plus or Premium), to achieve Passivhaus standard, a building must meet the following energy performance criteria:

  • renewable primary energy demand is the total energy (from renewables sources) consumed for all requirements (i.e. space heating, water heating, ventilation and all electricity use):
    • Classic     ≤ 60kWh/m2a
    • Plus         ≤ 45kWh/m2a
    • Premium     ≤ 30kWh/m2a 
  • renewable energy generation (with reference to ground area):
    • Premium     ≥ 120kWh/m2a
    • Plus         ≥ 60kWh/m2a
    • Classic     none

When compared to the NZEB goal of 'nearly zero energy buildings' the idea that Passivhaus aims to brings into being buildings that are net producers of energy demonstrates just how far ahead the Passivhaus standard is of the European standard and practice.


Evolving construction standards

The minimum standards that every building must meet are set out in the building regulations and explained in the Technical Guidance Documents. Of course, anyone who is building their own home will aim for a higher standard; indeed, many people in Ireland are adopting the Passive House standard.

While the building regulations represent the minimum standard and Passive House the 'gold' standard some people working in the construction industry use a middle standard. This middle standard is not defined anywhere but site practice shows us it is somewhere close to but not quite Passive House standard. This is interesting for us because the Chief Examiner for Construction Studies appears to have come to the same conclusion.

It is in the compulsory architectural drawing question (Q.1.) that the examiner specifies the details that he wishes the students to draw and recent questions have described external wall build-ups that contain 200mm of insulation. In both masonry and timber frame systems the detailing described contains 200mm of insulation. This places the details above the building regulations requirement (which is comfortably met using 150mm of a standard insulant) and below the Passive House standard which would typically require 300mm of a similar insulant.

I think the message in the exam questions is that designers/ builders should be aiming to do better than the minimum standards set out in the building regulations (but, perhaps, that specifying Passive House standard is a bridge too far).

This has created a bit of a challenge for Construction Studies teachers. There aren't any drawing details readily available that show 200mm of insulation. I know my textbook has 6 sets of details; two sets that meet building reg's and four that meet Passive House standard. The building reg's details show 150mm of insulation and the Passive House details show 300mm.

Not to worry...

This will be moot in a few years, when NZEB kicks in for dwellings the thermal transmittance values (U-values) for the building reg's will almost match Passive House and we'll be back to single level of insulation in details. I'm basing this assumption on the interim spec's for non-dwellings that was recently published. It shows Passive standard U-values (0.15W/m2a) for roofs and floors.

This will not only be helpful for us teachers; it will greatly improve the energy performance of the building stock and provide a better standard of thermal comfort in the home. 

Review: 2016 higher level construction studies paper

It's great to see the return of the 'flat' roof in the compulsory drawing question this year. So called flat roofs have become very popular in recent years - most modern extensions feature them - so it's good to see this detail included in the paper. Having said that it will have surprised the students because, if memory serves,  it hasn't appeared as question one in the past ten years. Cooler heads will have realised that they have more than enough details in the window and the wall elements to score highly.

Question 2 on safety will prove popular as always but the phrasing of part (b) will no doubt have caused confusion. It was a significant departure from the usual format and having read it three times I still wasn't clear on what exactly was being asked. 

Students will have been very happy to tackle question three with it's familiar theme and format. Question four was a new type of question. It gave the braver student an opportunity to debate the thorny issue of one-off houses in the countryside.

Question 5, 'the U-values question' raised the bar this year. Part (b) was the oft asked cost calculation; (I was expecting the alternative, thickness of insulation, calculation to be asked) but instead this was asked as part (c) - this is the first time ever that both calculations have been asked in the same question - so, lots of calculations required. This will have tested the stronger students well.

A lovely 'butterfly roofed' house featured in a straightforward question 6 that continued the sustainable design theme that has become the norm in this exam now. Having said that, the second drawing question (Q.7.) reverted to old fossil fuel energy with a focus on the chimney. Pity. So much more relevant material that could be examined.

I was also disappointed with Q.8. It reads like a mishmash of themes from questions past. The idea of retaining the original character of a garden shed; as though it were an important part of the architectural heritage is a bridge too far for me. Also the term "eco-refurbishment" reads like green wash to me. It's not a recognised technical term and has no place on the exam paper.

Question nine saw the appearance of electricity. This will be the least attempted question on the paper. Based on my annual straw poll of approximately 70 students who recently did the subject, I don't know a teacher in the country who teaches this topic (so rarely is it examined). The question itself was very straightforward.

The Passivhaus question (Q.10) was straight down the middle - it will be a very popular question and will be well answered. In the context of the recent decision of Dún Laoighaire Rathdown County Council, part (c) is both timely and topical:

"Discuss two advantages and two disadvantages of making the Passive House standard a planning requirement for all new housing in Ireland"

Talk about dropping a bombshell and walking away!




Review: 2015 higher level Construction Studies exam paper.

Having spoken to my students afterward and read the paper closely, I think the examiner struck a good balance between being fair to the students and ensuring that there was enough of a challenge in the paper to stretch the more able students.

At first glance many of the questions seem fairly familiar but a close read quickly makes clear that there are some really interesting ideas being raised.

For example, the perennial plumbing question came up again this year but this time part c) asked the students to justify the location of two key components of the system (the heat source and the storage cylinder) this tested the students ability to think on their feet and convey their understanding of the principles of the system's design. Those who had just rote learned the system layout would have struggled to answer part c) and would, consequently, be excluded from the higher grades. 

It is also great to see so many of the essential principles of sustainable building design being examined; the importance of Near Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB), indoor air quality and thermal bridge free structures were all included.

There was also a clear move away from the minimum requirements of the building regulations toward best practice details throughout the paper. The examiner is clearly saying that students should be learning sustainable construction details that will reduce the energy consumption and carbon emissions of our homes. For example, question 9 describes a house with a wall that has two and half times more insulation than the current building regulations requirement.

Reflecting the interest that the general public shares in this subject, a quote from Dermot Bannon's new book (Love Your Home) was included in question 10 (the 'essay' question). This was a significant departure from the macro issues of urban design that have been examined in detail in recent years. The quote chosen was very accessible and will have allowed the students to draw on their knowledge of Passive House design. Given the link between the quote chosen and the work seen on the popular t.v. show each week, I think this will prove to be a popular question.

Overall, I think most students will be happy with this year's paper and feel the exam was tough but fair.

a new approach to the teaching of Construction Studies.

In 1860, Henry David Thoreau asked the question, “What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?” His question was prescient then, it is fundamental now. 


The latest data from the International Energy Agency tells us that 80% of the world’s primary energy comes from coal, oil and gas.  It is estimated that half of global energy resources are used in buildings.


Data  from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland tells us that 94% of our energy is generated by burning fossil fuels and that housing is responsible for 30% of Ireland’s energy consumption and carbon emissions.


The problem is clear; building homes that require lots of energy to maintain a comfortable indoor environment is not sustainable. Why? Because these energy hungry homes are responsible for the carbon emissions that are causing climate change and global warming.


As teachers of Construction Studies we have both a unique opportunity and a profound responsibility to ensure that the next generation does not make the same mistakes as previous generations. No subject in the Leaving Certificate curriculum is as well placed as our’s to make a difference in the lives of our students. 


The change occurring in the Irish education system is clear to see; change in school patronage, change in the Junior Cycle, change in how technology is used in the classroom; change in the very nature of what it means to be employed as a teacher. There can be no doubt that there is going to be change in the Leaving Certificate curriculum. It is hard to see how a small country can continue to offer over thirty Leaving Certificate subjects. I expect rationalisation; I expect the question is going to be asked: what does this subject contribute to the curriculum?


It is my opinion that the typical civil servant/ policy maker probably hasn’t studied Construction Studies - he/she probably chose the more traditional subjects (e.g. Geography/ History). I also think that Construction Studies isn’t very well understood outside of the group of teachers who teach it. I would guess that many people have a very limited idea of what the subject might be about. My fear is that they think it’s a primarily ‘hands-on’ subject where students learn about the trades (e.g. block-laying, plumbing). 


My concern is that a future review of the Leaving Certificate might conclude that the subject no longer merits a place in the curriculum as a discreet subject; at best it might be amalgamated with another subject (e.g. graphics, home economics), at worst abolished. After all, it is hard to argue against the point that trades are best learned at the post leaving certificate stage.


Thus, it is clear to me that there are two compelling reasons why the subject content and philosophy of Construction Studies must continue to change; the homes we build today and in the future must be sustainable (low energy, low emissions) and the subject must make an invaluable contribution to the education of our pupils.

If we continue to teach the ‘old stuff’ the subject is on the way out. If however, we continue along the path that has been shown to us through the introduction of new topics (e.g. sustainable urban design, passive house design) in the Leaving Certificate exam we will have a subject that will bear scrutiny and of which we can be proud.