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October 4, 2013 ... Passive House North Conference 2013: Affordable Energy Efficiency for a Changing Climate

Last week, Vancouver had the privilege of hosting the ‘Passive House North’ conference, which was a truly international affair with over 250 guests from more than 10 countries, as well as an impressive roster of globally renowned speakers. Holding the conference in the heart of Vancouver responded to the growing interest in, and construction of, high-performance and comfortable homes in the Lower Mainland.  It also didn’t hurt that it was within walking distance from my condo, with a great tea stop on the way!

Dr. William Rees- discussing The World’s Most Pressing Issue(s)…climate change and human psyche

The conference was opened by Dr. William Rees, the creator of the ‘eco-footprint’ concept and local sustainability celebrity / UBC Professor.  As an architect, I spend a lot of time discussing why Passive House is the solution for our clients as far as comfort, energy performance, and healthy living is concerned, but sometimes we forget to take a step back and discuss the big ‘why?’ on a global scale.  Dr. Rees’ lecture on ‘The World’s Most Pressing Issue(s)’ masterfully walked us through the causes (human psyche) and impacts of climate change.  He described our current era as the ‘Age of Unreason’ where we are using ‘magical thinking’ to rationalize our trend for increasing carbon emissions.  There has been a 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 in the last century, as well as a constant increase in global ocean temperatures*. Ocean temperatures are more relevant gauges of climate change than atmospheric temperatures due to its high heat capacity.  Dr. Rees didn’t dwell on the catastrophic impacts that climate change will have on the economy and the human race , but instead focused on an uplifting solution. “Passive House can deliver the needed level of emissions reductions compared to much standard construction.”*

L-R: Dr. Wolfgang Feist, discussing Passive House in Cold Climates Today, Dr. Guido Wimmers, discussing Passive House in Canada Today

Dr. Wolfgang Feist, the physicist and co-creator of Passive House, discussed the term “performance gap”, the difference between green building claims and actual measured results.  Passive House is one of the few programs that eliminates the gap, as it is performance driven and then measured.* One of his better quotes was something along the lines of “with so many extreme climates (Frankfurt, Brussels, Austria, etc.) building to Passive House standards, it is offensive not to do it here in the Lower Mainland where it is so much easier and cheaper”. Point taken.

Dr. Guido Wimmers, the co-founder of CanPHI (Canadian Passive House Institute) and my instructor from the Passive House Training Course, spoke about the growing awareness about Passive House in Canada.  It really has been catching on, as homeowners are now seeking it out.  As with the entire conference, he focused on the strength of Passive House’s approach to affordability because “if it’s not affordable, it’s useless.”  In another lecture by Guido, he discussed the importance of investing in high quality windows.  Here’s why you want to do it:  windows are thermally the weakest point of your envelope (roofs, walls, floors, windows, doors, etc.) and therefore have the biggest energy loss factor, windows are the only components which can have a positive impact on your energy performance as they can serve as solar heat collectors, and possibly most importantly, they have the biggest influence on occupant comfort.

L-R Christopher Chan from Alpine Technical Workshops holding the newly certified Passive House window ‘Synergist’, the busy tradeshow floor, Agepan substrate

As the high-performance and green sector continues to gain popularity, there is a rapid evolution in available materials and building products. The conference provided a great opportunity to see these new products first hand, play around with them, and pepper their suppliers with questions. I won’t bore you with how much fun I had checking out the various windows, building tapes, fiber board substrates, HRVs, wall panels, insulation products, etc… Trust me, it was great.

L-R Optiwin Vision window, Zehnder ComfoAir 550 HRV, Kyle from BC Passive House with their insulated wall panel system

I attended a few different lectures on other green building systems, like LEED for Homes, Net Zero, Living Building Challenge, and others. Even though they were put on by experts in their respective programs, the messages were the same. Firstly, that each program has particular strengths and as a community we should continue to support all efforts to build more sustainably as neither program negates the applicability of the others. They all work really well together. Secondly, Passive House was a great place to start for each program.  LEED for Homes and Living Building Challenge cover a broader scope of sustainable principles, which I think are excellent and should also be included in the design of a green home.  Passive House well exceeds LEED and LBC’s energy performance measures, so by starting with Passive House you already have several LEED points / LBC criteria racked up.  Net Zero Energy homes are much more affordable when you start with a Passive House, as the super high-efficient design means that very little energy needs to be generated on-site.  You can build a low-performing home then completely cover it and the property with solar panels, or you can build a sensible Passive House, then use a small renewable source to provide the energy required.  It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

L-R: The Passive House ‘sweet spot’ at 15kWh/(m2a) – source: Eugene Pat Murphy, and evidence of copious note taking by yours truly

Malcolm Isaacs, co-founder of CanPHI held a widely attended lecture on Passive House economics, because isn’t that what everyone wants to know? The program makes so much sense for the health and comfort of the occupants, the longevity of the home, as well as the planet…but how much does it cost?  As you may know, Passive House was specifically designed with affordability in mind, and sets energy performance targets right at that sweet spot where the system requirements for heating (furnaces, ductwork, etc.) are greatly reduced, thus reducing the overall costs for the project.  Malcolm collected local and international data on Passive House construction and operating costs to be able to put together some hard numbers, but I was most interested in the Canadian data.  As expected, the numbers look great for the Canadian market.  Looking at four Canadian Passive House residences of small to medium size, the annual energy savings ranged between $1350 – $2700 CAD annually* over similar sized recently built homes.  The additional cost of a Passive House is an upfront cost, as it involves investing in better materials during construction, so how to account for the cost of the investment over time?  Typically people building new homes are borrowing money (ie. using a line of credit or mortgage), so monthly costs include mortgage payments as well as the cost of ownership (maintenance and bills).  Malcolm has found that the additional cost is approximately $34 – $95 a month* for the amazing comfort, quality, performance, and low-maintenance provided by a Passive House. Of course once you have paid off the mortgage, the Passive House is much more affordable and results in monthly savings of $80-$150*!  The one item that Malcolm did not include in his financial breakdown, and it might be the single best financial argument for Passive House, is the life cycle cost of the house.  Typically housing is built for a 25 year lifespan, whereas a Passive House is designed to last much longer than 50 years. With a house that lasts twice as long, or more, the replacement and maintenance costs are more than halved.  In conclusion, Passive House makes GREAT financial sense, but that’s not why people do it.  People are passionate about Passive House because of the way Passive Houses feel, the quality of air that they provide to the occupants, the improved health, energy and development of the residents, and the comfort of living in a home where you can sit against a window and enjoy the view in the winter without a chill.

Other highlights of the conference included Monte Paulsen’s hilarious presentation on air tightness, which is, by the way, the most energy-performance bang for your construction buck.* Tim McDonald from Onion Flats, who also spoke at the PHNW conference last Spring was a source of inspiration once again as he is a creative genius and innovator. His motto: “zero energy, zero premium, zero debate”* really gets to the bottom of it.  Some of his clients do not even know how green their homes are, but they didn’t pay anything extra for them, so why not?  Sadhu Johnson from the City of Vancouver discussed how the City intends to support Passive House as a way to meet their Greenest City 2020 targets.  In our city, 56% of green house gases come from buildings, with the other 34% coming from transportation (cars, buses) and 10% from our waste.* As such, going for the biggest impact, greening our buildings is the way to go.  Thank you to the Passive House North 2013 organizing committee and all of the volunteers who made the conference a huge success!!  You made Vancouver proud and provided us all with some great information. What I am taking from the conference is that Passive House is much more than insanely high energy performance, it is about occupant comfort and health.

*Facts from the lecturer’s presentation