Passive Design, Active Results

We are slowly learning that we have the knowledge and technology to eliminate a lot of today’s conventional home energy use. The latest example is a passive solar home built in Innisfil. The outstanding feature is that it is built without the need for a conventional furnace. The south facing home is very highly insulated, sealed and uses passive solar gain. It’s no surprise that the builder and owner formerly worked with the Kortwright Centre for Conservation.

I first wrote about passive solar and net-zero energy construction a few years ago so it’s encouraging to know that the concept is finally attracting wider practical application and real world experience under our local conditions. Importantly, municipal authorities are learning to recognize this certification standard.

We’re able to learn about some of the technical details from a recent news article at Simcoe.com (Home builder lives without furnace in passive house, July 13, 2017). The home’s ‘raft’ foundation has a styrofoam base below concrete and the walls are “double stud” allowing for an R65 insulation factor. Notably, the owner says they have “come up with a wall [insulation] system just as efficient without adding significant cost.” Certainly the budgeted cost of ducting and furnace could be applied instead to this use.

An energy recovery ventilation (EVR) unit runs continuously to ensure a proper air circulation and stable temperature within the airtight building envelope. Surprisingly, energy-efficient windows came from Ireland. The article didn’t indicate what distinguished them from so many possible local window suppliers. Solar panels are being added to the home as well.

This type of approach continues to be a ‘pay now or pay later’ proposition. The builder suggests it could be offered as a “luxury option” in subdivisions with a pay-back over 20 years. Otherwise, potential home-buyers could just opt for conventional construction and take a chance with future energy prices or ‘move up’ later when energy efficient techniques become more widely adopted. Passive solar design and ‘net zero’ energy technology makes even more sense for multi-unit construction where the benefits are likely to be more easily achieved.

There is another option. Builders could consider a better trade-off between home size and efficiency. I walked through a builder’s ‘luxury’ model home recently out of curiosity. My wife remarked, “I could be happy with half of this house!” to which another couple immediately responded, “Great! I’ll buy the other half!” Maybe an enterprising builder can recognize an opportunity to make ‘less’ equal ‘more’.

Our Low Carbon Future

The announcement of Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan is something of a turning point for this province. The announcement was met with a mix of hopefulness and skepticism. So far it is not much more than words on paper but it indicates a real shift in public policy that may or may not be successful in effecting meaningful change.

Let’s keep in mind that no government can ‘solve’ the problem of climate change and there is no one magic cure. The solution lies in the changes each of us can make in our homes, jobs and businesses. Government policy only aims to encourage positive changes and discourage harmful choices, something that would be unnecessary if we were already collectively moving in that direction. Progress will only be measured by how many people take up the challenge.

It’s pretty obvious that the petroleum age is coming to an end, like the coal age before it. Fundamental changes are coming one way or another. It’s disappointing, then, to hear shrill and, frankly, ignorant comments coming from some Opposition members.

It’s been said that the devil is in the details but I’m impressed that a move is being made to mandate net zero home construction. I’ve been writing about innovative ‘passive’ and ‘net zero’ energy technologies since 2011, so I’m glad to see it has finally caught the attention of policy-makers. Some of the biggest obstacles are regulatory and building code specifications.

According to CMHC, “A net-zero energy (NZE) house is designed and built to reduce household energy needs to a minimum and includes on-site renewable energy systems, so that the house may produce as much energy as it consumes on a yearly basis.” A net zero house would have insulation levels of R60+ in the attic, R40+ in above-grade walls and R10+ in a basement slab to substantially reduce heating and cooling costs. After all, why would you want to use more energy than you absolutely have to, if you’re already vexed about the current cost of electricity and a carbon tax?

There’s no doubt that effective technologies exist. CMHC sponsored the development of net zero building plans and technologies in 12 demonstration projects across Canada starting in 2006. (Equilibrium Sustainable Housing) It’s not necessarily all high-tech. Some things like building orientation, maximum use of natural light, ventilation, and passive solar gain are just as important.

I already started the first step of cranking up insulation levels in my home a few years ago without government incentives. The pay-off was more comfort and lower utility bills. Now I’d like to see how much closer I can take this toward a ‘net zero’ energy status with the help of whatever incentives, and possibly new technologies, that will be made more readily available.

Building Capability for Building Passive Houses

A while back I wrote about the Passive House concept – housing design so efficient that a conventional furnace is not required. “It incorporates efficient building shape, solar exposure, super- insulation, advanced windows, leading-edge ventilation, and other technical features to create structures that use 80 to 90 per cent less energy than conventional new homes.” The idea continues to attract more attention among builders.

An article published in March, 2011 reported on a home in Ottawa that has been certified as the first Passive House in Canada. “Chris Stratka of Vert Design was intent on building a super-insulated home when he bought the property in the New Edinburgh neighbourhood of Ottawa… when he took the design to a Passive House consultant he was told it probably wouldn’t qualify because the building materials and systems available in Canada that he had specified were seen by the consultant as inferior to those available in Europe.”  (There are 25,000 Passive Houses in Europe.)

He decided to do the best he could. His strategy was to work with a modular home builder who would construct components using his insulation specifications. The basic structure was assembled on-site in three weeks with minimal disruption to the neighbourhood. Continue reading

Staying Warm Without Using Fossil Fuels

What if your family home could get through a Canadian winter with about 10% of the heating energy that’s required now?  What if you could build a comfortable house in our climate without a furnace? You’re probably shaking your head, “No way!”  Now what if I told you just such a solution is being offered by a Canadian organization, The Canadian Passive House Institute? (http://www.passivehouse.ca).

Continue reading