Award-winning North Park 6-plex Passive House, Victoria, BC

What’s a Passive House?

A colleague asked me what a Passive House was one day. He thought it had something to do with the personality of a house. You know–a kind of layed-back chill space to live in.

Ya–no. “Passive” refers to basic elements of building design and construction, such as insulation that retains heat when you need it (and blocks it when you don’t). “House” comes from the German word for “haus” which can denote all types of buildings—not just houses.

An eco-design trend that started in Europe

Passive House (or PassiveHaus) is a green building design standard that results in heating and cooling savings of up to 90% compared to conventional Canadian construction. Denmark and Germany are leading PassivHaus development with thousands of houses and apartment buildings, as well as schools, commercial buildings, a supermarket and a hospital that is under construction in Frankfurt.

Passive House is also an internationally recognized construction standard that is performance-based. What I mean is these ultra low-energy buildings don’t have to look like a yurt or a hobbit’s house. Their designs vary; it’s the outcome that matters, and that’s achieved by design and construction considerations such as orienting windows to the sun to capture its heat, adding shade (trees, awning, etc.), and good insulation and weatherization. Efficient ventilation such as Heat recovery ventilation systems (HRVs) and high-performance windows are our over-achievers, supporting both energy-savings and thermal comfort.

BC developers and builders are now jumping on this eco-design trend. The location, design and building types vary from pre-fab housing for Coastal Health workers in Bella Bella, to a 90-unit apartment building designed by local architects in Burnaby. There are also plans for a Passive House fire hall in the works for east Vancouver. In all, hundreds of units are under construction around the province.

Buildings account for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in Metro Van

Since buildings account for a large portion of our greenhouse gas emissions in Metro Vancouver (BC’s most populated region), local governments, such as the City of Vancouver, are keen on the Passive House standard as a way to help us shrink our carbon footprint. The BC Building Act has a committee that’s developed recommendations for stretch codes for ultra low energy building including Passive House. Stretch codes guide local governments to go beyond the BC Building Code. In this case they are to push for higher energy performance. In their new Climate Leadership Plan, released August 2016, the BC government cites Passive House and stretch codes as a means to greenhouse gas reductions in our built environment.

But some builders and developers aren’t waiting for government and Building Code to catch up. Residents of the North Park Passive House 6-plex in Victoria,  a project financed by Vancity, spend about $160 on their energy bills for the entire year.

Energy savings and comfort, too

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Yeah the energy savings are impressive, and these condos were designed and built at a competitive market price. Ask Mark Bernhardt of Bernhardt Contracting about their Passive House developments and he’ll tell you: saving on utility bills is great, but people love these homes because the Passive House design results in really comfortable residences without the drafts or overheating problems of many standard homes. Others seem to agree; Bernhardt won Best Townhouse Development and Best Environmental Initiative for North Park at the 2016 Vancouver Island Building Excellence awards.

High comfort, low utility bills and the market seems to love them. So why isn’t everyone building to Passive House standards?

Passive House Canada has trained more than 500 building professionals and BCIT now includes Passive House in their trades curriculum. There’s a buzz about Passive House in BC’s building community, but if we want to achieve deep cuts in energy consumption and carbon emissions we need consumers demanding it and more architects, builders and developers leading the way (in a passive kinda way).

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