House Beautiful: Passive House a green dream come true

Aneesa Blake and Reed Cassidy’s newly built home has many wow factors, but the couple are most proud of one that’s a bit unusual.

The Fifth Street home was rated one of the top 15 in Canada for airtightness.

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That’s a big deal when your house is a certified Passive House, the leading standard in energy-efficient construction today.

Building a Passive House was a natural fit for the environmentally conscious couple.

“I grew up very much an environmentalist,” Blake said. “I’m passionate about being green and conserving resources. It’s who I am, so a Passive House just made sense.”

Cassidy’s curiosity about this type of house design and construction style was piqued during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler. Austria House was a certified Passive House that caught the building inspector’s eye. He remembered it well when it came time for the couple to build their own home.

“At that time, I thought it was a great concept, but I didn’t know how practical it would be to build here,” Cassidy said.

The Passive House concept originated in Europe in the late 1980s, when two professors with a deep interest in energy and the role it played in building design collaborated. They devised strict design and building principles to create dwellings that could be kept warm “passively,” using only internal heat sources, solar energy and the minimal heating of fresh air via a mechanical ventilation heat recovery.

Their goal was to create a house that provided comfort, affordability, excellent air quality and ventilation and reliable performance, without compromising on design.

Since, the style of building has become popular in Scandinavia, Germany and Austria, and is making inroads in North America

Locally, several Passive Houses have been constructed. Cassidy and Blake hired Cascadia Architects to do the design, knowing that architect Peter Johannknecht was building a Passive House for his own family.

They teamed up with Interactive Construction for the building after finding a sunny, 8,100-square-foot lot on Fifth Street that was duplex-zoned and walking distance to amenities. The condemned house on the lot had been used as a squat and was in terrible shape, so the couple had no qualms about tearing it down.

Building a Passive House requires commitment from the start, said Russ Barry, the owner of Interactive Construction.

“It starts from day one with the design stage,” said Barry, who worked closely with the couple throughout the build.

The duplex was sited on the lot to get the maximum sun, a valuable source of heat when finished.

The qualities that make a Passive House aren’t obvious to the eye, but require careful planning and construction throughout.

A primary goal of a Passive House building is a tightly sealed building envelope. This dramatically reduces the amount of warm air let out and cold air in.

This goes hand in hand with a high-efficiency heat recovery ventilation system that pulls the moist air out of the home, running it past the fresh air being brought in. The heat from the moist air is transferred to the fresh air. The result is fresh air without the heat loss that can happen in less airtight buildings.

Windows and doors are important — and often expensive — aspects of a Passive House. The Euroline windows are triple-paned with numerous latch points on the deep frame to increase their airtightness. While the windows were sourced in Delta, the thick metal clad wood door was ordered from Austria. As the popularity of Passive Houses grows, more local businesses are adapting their products to meet the strict Passive House criteria, Barry said.

Insulation is also important. A Passive House uses more and different types of insulation than a traditionally built home.

“The house is wrapped in a warm sweater,” said Blake.

The goal is to reduce ways that heat could transfer from inside to outside, so you won’t find exterior vents for the clothes dryer or a bathroom or kitchen fan in a Passive House.

Instead, the couple uses a condensing dryer. The heated air goes through a condenser, turning the moist air into water, which goes down the drain.

A small but growing number of builders and sub-trades are learning the specific criteria for a Passive House designation, Barry said.

“It’s vitally important that your sub-trades, especially electricians and plumbers, understand the Passive House concept,” he said.

Demand is growing for improved energy efficiencies in homes.

“At least half the people who we talk to about a project bring up energy efficiency and green building practices in the conversation,” Barry said.

Blake and Cassidy love the comfort that comes with this type of building.

“When you walk into a Passive House, the air is fresher, the surfaces are comfortable and you don’t have pockets of cold and warm air,” Cassidy said.

Surfaces, even a concrete floor in the winter, don’t go below 17 degrees Celsius.

And although the house is near busy Hillside Avenue, traffic noise isn’t a problem. The triple-paned windows and thick insulation make the 1,465-square-foot house cosy and quiet.

The long-term cost savings that come with a Passive House are also important to the young couple. Although it may cost between 10 to 20 per cent more to build, the cost of actually running the home after completion are minimal.

“I like the price of running our house. We have small hydro bills. All of our taps and fixtures are low flow, so our water bills are low. It makes me feel good to know we’re doing our part to reduce consumption,” Blake said.

When explaining what a Passive House is, Barry generally starts with the heat and hydro savings.

“I go to points I know will have the most relevance to people. The biggest draw is the greatly reduced heating cost, but there are many more benefits.”

Some Passive Houses pay only $100 a year for heating.

In order to be designated a Passive House, the building must meet specific standards which are rigorously tested.

It was an exciting challenge for Cassidy, a building inspector. He was very involved in doing the house modelling and documenting what was needed for Passive House certification.

“I loved it, and I thought people could learn from my experience.”

Cassidy has since started Adapt Energy Advising, an energy consulting business providing Passive House and other types of energy modeling services.

“Some people build a house just to live in. We built a house to live in that’s also taken us on a new life path.”

housebeautiful@timescolonist.com

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