Open this magazine wide. Now picture a hole in the side of your house that’s just a little larger than the pages in your hands. Imagine the wind blowing through that hole.
The hole is real. If you were to combine all the cracks and crannies in a typical Canadian home, they’d add up to almost 1,400 square centimetres, roughly the size of 2.5 magazine pages. Combine the openings in all of Canada’s 12.9 million homes, and you’re looking at a hole 20 times larger than Parliament Hill.
Plugging that hole is the simplest way for Canada to save energy. Plugging the hole also saves money, creates jobs, cuts greenhouse-gas emissions and makes our homes more comfortable.
We know how to find the hole. Canadians pioneered the use of a tool that can measure the airtightness of a building. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has used this “blower door” to test more than 800,000 Canadian homes.
We also know how to fix the hole. Way back in 1977, we built a house so airtight and so well insulated that a hair dryer could have kept it warm through the winter — in Saskatchewan.
Yet despite the fact that buildings account for roughly one-third of our national energy consumption and the fact that we’re world leaders in smallbuilding energy-conservation technology, Canadians still haven’t plugged the hole. Most of our existing homes remain quite drafty, and most of our new homes fail to meet decades-old efficiency standards.
This year, however, more than a dozen high-performance homes will be completed in cities and towns across the country. These include homes built to the fast-growing Passive House standard, as well as net-zero homes designed to produce as much energy as they consume. This story is about the idea at the foundations of these homes — an idea that roamed the world for three decades before coming home like the prodigal son.
Builders have long known that heat claims the lion’s share of the energy consumed in Canadian homes: 57 percent of the total, compared with 24 percent for hot water, 13 percent for appliances and 5 percent for lighting. They’ve also known that heat escapes wherever air escapes, mostly under doors or around windows. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that builders became aware of just how much heat leaks through these gaps.
“We knew how to calculate the heat loss through walls and ceilings,” explains Harold Orr. “But when it came to air leakage, you licked your finger and held it up, then pulled a number out of the air.”
Orr is the no-nonsense son of a carpenter. He grew up in Vancouver, where his family lived in a squatter’s shack during the Great Depression. By 1959, he was working toward a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. For his thesis project, he set out to develop an instrument to measure air leakage from buildings.
Orr’s first idea was to pump a house full of hydrogen and sample the escaping gas. This proved difficult — and potentially explosive. His next attempt, filling a house with sulphur hexafluoride, was time-consuming and expensive. A few years later, while working for the National Research Council, he joined efforts to compare indoor versus outdoor air pressure through the use of large fans and long ducts. Orr devised a simpler way to measure the airflow using a venturi nozzle and “a surplus fan from Princess Auto in Winnipeg” which was mounted in a piece of plywood that fit over a door.
The resulting blower door enabled Orr and his colleagues to quickly and cheaply measure air leakage. Similar instruments were being developed in Sweden and at Princeton University, in New Jersey. Within a few years, a standard measurement was agreed upon: the number of times per hour the blowerdoor fan would suck all the air out of a house at a prescribed pressure of 50 pascals (Pa). (Suck water about six millimetres up a soda straw, and you’re at 50 Pa.) The resulting metric was called “air changes per hour (ACH)” at 50 Pa. With gaps totalling 1,384 square centimetres, the average Canadian home leaks enough air to result in 6.85 air changes per hour at 50 Pa, or 6.85 [email protected]
In the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Saskatchewan Research Council invited Orr to help design an energy-efficient home appropriate for the Saskatchewan winter. The oil crisis prompted many similar projects, with most focusing on new ways to trap solar heat within a more or less standard building. Working in the dark northern winter, the Saskatchewan team — led by engineer Rob Dumont — elected, instead, to design a radically more efficient building envelope. The Saskatchewan Conservation House, completed in Regina in 1977, was likely one of the first buildings to combine three key elements: superinsulation, extreme airtightness and a heat-recovery ventilator.
In an era when nearly all houses were constructed of four-inch-thick walls filled with R-8 insulation, the twostorey Saskatchewan house featured 12-inch-thick R-40 walls and R-60 roof insulation. (R values measure the insulation’s resistance to heat flow; the higher the R value, the more effective the insulation.) Likewise, single-paned windows were then the norm; this home had triple-glazed windows. The house also boasted extreme airtightness. Orr and his colleagues installed the vapour barrier themselves in an effort to slash air leakage. Most new houses at the time scored in the range of 9 [email protected]; the Saskatchewan Conservation House achieved 0.8 [email protected] “At the time,” recalls Orr, “I think it was likely the tightest house in the world.”
Thirdly, to provide fresh air to the airtight house, the Saskatchewan team built an air-to-air heat exchanger. This device pulled in fresh (but cold) outdoor air through a series of baffles. Stale (but warm) indoor air was pushed out through the other side of those same baffles, and heat was transferred from the exhaust air to the incoming fresh air.
The Saskatchewan Conservation House had no furnace. Instead, it relied on a system that collected solar heat during the day, stored it in a water tank, then released the heat at night. All told, the house required less than a quarter of the energy consumed by a standard home of the time. Some 30,000 people toured the house. Its success led to the construction of more demonstration homes in Saskatoon. An article in a 1981 issue of Popular Science was titled, “Super-insulation: Saskatchewan leads the parade.”
That same year, the “house as a system” approach pioneered in Saskatchewan formed the basis for a new national building standard that required R-20 insulation, blower-door test results of 1.5 [email protected] or better, the installation of a heat-recovery ventilator and the use of non-toxic materials. The new standard became a partnership between NRCan and the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. It was the toughest standard in the world at that time and presaged by decades the advent of green building initiatives such as BuiltGreen or LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The new standard was voluntary, but its authors intended for its gradual integration into the national building code. With their sights set on plugging the hole in Canadian homes by the turn of the century, they named the new standard “R-2000.”
Public interest in energy conservation waned as quickly as the sticker shock of $1-per-gallon gasoline wore off. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney slashed funding to Canada’s fledgling building science programs, and residential energy demands soon reversed a long decline. Between 1990 and 2007, per-household energy consumption increased by 13 percent.
The Saskatchewan Conservation House was sold, the solar thermal collectors were scrapped, and a garage was added. Saskatchewan’s landmark high-performance home appeared headed for that uniquely Canadian dustbin where such promising inventions as the Avro Arrow and the TurboTrain are sent to die. The house may have been forgotten forever were it not for the interest of a quirky German physicist.
Wolfgang Feist studied the Saskatchewan house along with other early superinsulated homes in Denmark, Sweden and the United States. Feist then wrote a mathematically precise and elegantly simple formula for designing high-performance buildings. His standard sets two hard limits: airtightness must meet or exceed 0.6 [email protected], and total energy use for heating and cooling must not exceed 15 kilowatt hours (kWh) per square metre of floor area.
Feist and colleague Bo Adamson dubbed their formula the “Passivhaus” standard because these buildings were too well insulated to require an “active” furnace or boiler. Compared with conventional construction, most Passivhaus buildings reduce energy consumption by 80 to 90 percent. (The German word has since been anglicized to the less precise Passive House.)
The first Passivhaus building, a row of four townhouses in Darmstadt, Germany, was erected in 1991. Feist’s formula quickly went viral. Today, there 900 buildings certified to the Passivhaus standard and roughly 32,000 Passivhaus-type buildings. The greatest numbers are in Germany and Austria, while the rate of growth is faster in Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Canada’s first Passive House arrived in 2009. It was prefabricated in Austria and assembled in Whistler, B.C., for use by the Austrian Olympic Committee and Austrian Public Broadcasting during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Afterward, the Austrians donated the 250-squaremetre building to the municipality of Whistler for use as a cross-country ski lodge. The Lost Lake PassivHaus (formerly the Austria House) uses about one-tenth the energy of a similarly sized conventional building. That worked out to a heating cost of about $280 last year.
“Passive House is the most economical way to build today if the operational costs over many years are taken into the equation,” says Guido Wimmers, a director of the non-profit Canadian Passive House Institute, which trains architects and builders. Canada’s second certified Passive House, a three-storey duplex overlooking the Rideau River in Ottawa, was finished in 2010, and Wimmers counts 40 more Canadian projects now under way. “Passive House is easy to understand,” he says. “And once understood, it becomes a no-brainer. People don’t want to build anything else.”
Across the valley from Whistler’s Lost Lake, Matheo Durfeld stands on the balcony of the community’s second Passive House, a townhouse-style duplex that may be Canada’s most affordable high-performance home.
Durfeld is a “wood guy.” He started out building log homes, then moved on to the lucrative business of crafting custom homes for Whistler’s tony ski set. A soft-spoken Canadian of Austrian descent, he’s given to self-deprecating humour. When asked why the Austrians hired him to help assemble their Olympic project, he quips, “Maybe it was only because we speak German.”
Whatever the reason, that gig transformed Durfeld and his tight-knit crew. He formed a company called BC Passive House, bought a lot in a subdivision called Rainbow and hired Vancouver designer Alex Maurer to prepare plans. Durfeld even traded his giant pickup truck — the time-honoured totem of the custom-home builder — for a tiny red Fiat.
“We’ve been in the custom-home business for years and know that we can build really nice houses if people have lots of money,” says Durfeld. “What we wanted to show here was that you can build a really efficient house without being a multi-millionaire.”
Durfeld’s duplex is an international mash-up — a West Coast wood guy’s reinvention of an Austrian interpretation of a German formula based on the original Saskatchewan house. The prefabricated wall panels are made entirely of Canadian wood products: two-by-ten frames are covered with oriented strand board (OSB) on the interior and a more breathable type of particleboard on the exterior side. The panels are packed with cellulose fibre insulation, then sealed tight at Durfeld’s shop in Williams Lake, B.C.
These outer walls were trucked to the site, hoisted into position and joined within a couple of days last fall. Once assembled, every seam and screw hole was carefully taped. This taped OSB forms the vapour barrier, a critical component of the “house as a system” approach. But while most Canadian homes are lined with a flimsy polyethylene vapour barrier that’s been punctured by thousands of staples and screws, as well as dozens of plumbing and electrical penetrations, the BC Passive House vapour barrier remains intact. A two-by-four service wall is site-built inside the superinsulated structural panel, and all wiring and plumbing lines are routed through this inner wall.
“You can’t make the inside tight enough,” says Durfeld. Indeed, the Rainbow Passive House duplex scored 0.4 [email protected] on a preliminary blower-door test that I performed while the house was being finished in February. All its cracks add up to about 47 square centimetres — a hole the size of a business card.
The remaining components follow the Passive House model: triple-glazed windows; doors that latch snug against airtight seals; a 95 percent efficient heat-recovery ventilator that provides a complete air change every 90 minutes; and a ductless air-source heat pump to warm the house at nearly three times the efficiency of conventional electric baseboard heaters.
Durfeld says this duplex cost him about 15 percent more to build than a conventional house of similar size. In pricey Whistler, that will add about $40,000 to the construction cost of each 140-square-metre home. To help offset the cost, Durfeld installed simple bamboo floors and old-school Formica countertops. “You can always change the flooring or the countertops — you can upgrade those things later,” he says. “But you can’t easily change your windows. You can’t change your insulation.”
Ponder this: if a 15 percent bump in construction cost can lead to a 90 percent drop in home heating cost, what would it take to eliminate 100 percent of home energy consumption?
That’s the question Harmony House aims to answer. Harmony House is a net-zero home, meaning it’s designed to produce as much energy over the course of a year as it uses. The home in Burnaby, B.C., is one of 13 net-zero houses being built nationwide as part of the EQuilibrium Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative, sponsored by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Harmony House was designed by Chris Mattock, who has been creating high-performance houses since 1972. As he walks me through the light-filled home’s high-ceilinged living room, he makes it clear that the scientific foundation on which this home was built never left Canada. “Often, we look to Europe, but we actually did a lot of this stuff before they did,” says Mattock, who refers to the Passive House standard as “Canadian technologies that the Germans have repackaged and are now selling back to us.”
This is Mattock’s fifth net-zero project. It features R-40 walls, less than 1 [email protected], triple-glazed windows, a heat-recovery ventilator, a solar water heater and an efficient heat pump. There are also daylight sensors that turn lights off as the sun rises, a “green switch” that can power down all non-essential systems from a single control, a cooling tower to help moderate summer heat gain and 111 square metres of photovoltaic solar panels on the south face of the roof. During daylight hours, the photovoltaic panels generate more electricity than the house requires. The provincial power company functions like a battery: it buys excess power during the day and sells it back to the house overnight. If the system performs as expected, the house will generate enough additional electricity to provide owners Les and Linda Moncrieff with 5,000 kilometres a year worth of free driving in their small electric car.
The Moncrieffs, who moved in earlier this year, are now living as close to a zero-carbon lifestyle as possible in a Canadian city. And that’s the appeal of the fast-growing net-zero movement, which is projected to become a $1.3 trillion a year global market by 2035. Canada is already home to more than a dozen net-zero houses, including what may be the world’s first net-zero laneway home in nearby Vancouver. One step up from net zero is the Living Building Challenge, which certifies buildings that are not only net-zero energy but also netzero water and completely free of toxic materials. One of the first Living Buildings is an innovative child-care centre at Simon Fraser University, just across town from Harmony House.
Mattock tabulates the cost of net zero in two stages. First, he adds the cost of what he calls “net-zero ready,” which means everything but the photovoltaic system. The net-zero ready list bears a striking resemblance to Passive House practice: superinsulation, an airtight building envelope, triple-glazed windows, heat-recovery ventilation and a highefficiency heat pump. Mattock estimates that the net-zero ready list adds an 8 to 9 percent premium above standard construction cost, with the photovoltaic system adding another 10 percent.
“Energy efficiency is definitely where you start,” he says. “You’ve got to get the energy consumption down as much as possible before you start considering adding photovoltaic cells and stuff like that.”
Mattock, who co-authored manuals for the R-2000 standard, has witnessed first-hand Canada’s on-again, offagain interest in high-performance homes. “We are kind of making progress,” he says. “It’s maybe two steps forward, one step backward.” Oil prices drove public interest in the 1970s, but “now we’ve got another big driver: climate change. If we don’t deal with climate change, this could be the end of our species.”
All of which brings us back to the curious conundrum of Canadian home building: we invented high-performance homes, so why don’t we build them?
Home builders tend to blame home buyers (and their real estate brokers). Almost any builder can regale you with some tale of a customer who insisted on a $20,000 granite countertop, then balked at spending $2,000 for a more efficient furnace. At the same time, buyers blame builders for not putting more high-performance homes on the market. Buyers repeatedly tell pollsters they want green homes. Half of the 1,545 respondents to a survey conducted last year on behalf of Yahoo! Real Estate ranked energy efficiency ahead of perennial favourites such as “water views” and “mountain views” when describing their desired homes. Energy efficiency, as one developer is quoted saying on The Atlantic Cities website, has become “the new granite countertop.”
“People want a comfortable, healthy home that uses a minimum of energy,” affirms American green-building consultant and author Jerry Yudelson, who has been dubbed the “Godfather of Green” by Wired magazine. Put another way: people want homes without holes.
Yudelson says both builders and buyers would benefit from energy-efficiency labels on houses, building codes that require energy efficiency and a consistent federal government commitment to energy-efficiency programs (see sidebar). “We know how to do this,” says Yudelson. “We know how to do it cost-effectively. And we know that the public wants it.
“Somebody has to take a leadership role to sort this out,” continues Yudelson, who suggests that provincial governments are in the best position to do so. “I think it’s time for tough love. It’s time to take off the gloves and say, ‘You cannot build unless you meet these standards.’”