Hola lovely people!
Welcome to another blog post installation on my website www.KatiainToronto.com! Today we have another Special Guest Feature but this time we have not one but TWO guests. Alex Nowakowski of Tacoma Engineers and Ben Lowry who owns his own building company (Lowry Building Company). In this Blog post I will be speaking to both of them about Passive House Design. Alex is part of the engineering firm that will be working on one of the homes I am currently building up north in the town of Penetanguishene. Today we are discussing the topic of Passive House Design. Alex and Ben are both proponents of Passive House. I first heard about this building and design practice through one of my meetings with Alex regarding the two developments that we are currently building with my company KMD Group. A little bit about KMD group is that we are a boutique development company based out of Toronto (See our website here: www.kmdgroup.ca) and we are currently working on our marquee projects located in Penetanguishene and in Midland, Ontario. These projects are named North Pearl and Aberdeen (respectively). Our sister company, Costa Rican Architecture firm KMA Design Group is providing the conceptual designs for these two projects and of course we are working with qualified Canadian professionals to carry out the necessary work to bring the projects to life.
After hearing about Passive House I decided that I would like to learn a bit more about it so I invited both Alex and Ben to discuss this growing field over lunch at Ciboulette et Cie (my favourite restaurant in Midland (really can not pay a visit to the town without visiting this lovely restaurant) . Karimah (our photographer and landscape designer) also joined us in the discussions and took the photos for the blog post). We started off our discussions at the restaurant where I ordered my fav kale salad.
Katia: What is Passive House Design?
Alex: Passive House is an International Standard and design methodology for buildings that are Energy Efficient. The main design principles are based on airtight and super insulated building envelope, which includes high performance windows/glazing. The aim of the standard is to create an energy efficient building with high levels of occupant comfort economically.
Katia: How did you both meet and what is your story with Passive House?
Alex: I met Ben on a construction project. Ben was working for a company called Monteith at the time and the company had a good philosophy and so did Ben. Our mindset jived together. When Ben went out on his own, we still continued to keep in touch. We met for a coffee in Orillia one day, and found out that we were both doing a Passive House Course at the same exact time. Ben doing a construction course and myself doing a designer course.
Ben: Yeah It was weird that we were both taking the courses on the same day. I was like hey Ben where are you? We were in different buildings though. Same course, same time but in two different locations. So yeah I remember at coffee we were discussing Passive House and that I was so committed to doing these courses and I said to Alex, Do you think am crazy? Alex was in favour of committing to the Passive House principle.
Alex: Yeah so I was taking a course from the Canadian Passive House Institute, and upon completion of the test am now a Certified Passive House Designer. Ben has gone on to use Passive House building techniques in two homes that he has been working on Including his own!
Ben: Yes I believed it in so much am building my own home that way. We are building a home in Niagara as well.
Alex: Very cool projects! Ben has helped us with a few of our clients at Tacoma who were interested in the Passive House Concept. He gave suggestions on material choices constructability, durability, etc. The Passive house community is an interesting one in Canada. There seems to be a great degree of collaboration.
Question: What drew you towards Passive House:
Ben: Personally, I had been following passive house for at least 10 years. I was always drawn to the philosophy which is Invest in the envelope, the windows, the walls. If you put your money there you are going to get your best returns with that. So you know it was in Darmstadt where they questioned, Can we make a building that is so well insulated that we get rid of any heating or cooling system entirely? and they figured out that they could. The metrics are so tight so that you are able to hit a 0.6 air change per hour at 50 Kilo pascals. If you can hit that then you have certain levels of insulation and so you save so much on mechanical. In a poorly insulated building, when you stand next to the walls or windows you can either feel the heat in the summer or the cold in the winter. In passive house you could be standing next to a wall or a window or in the middle of a room, or on the basement or second floor and there is no stratification, it always feels the same.
Alex: So for me I was big on sustainability even when I was fresh out of college. I am a LEED Green Associate but came across the work of Wolfgang Feist (the founder of Passive House) who started this whole movement in the early 90s and I was blown away by the simplicity of the concept and the real world performance
Ben: Incidentally he was inspired by some guys in Saskatchewan who were the first ones to try it. It was not called passive house at the time but the idea was can we super insulate so that we don’t need heating or cooling. So Wolfgang took that idea and ran with it. So it does have Canadian roots.
Question: That sounds all good but I am very curious what happens if you like to have windows in your home and you like to open your windows?
Ben: Well in the summer time you can still do that for sure. You just turn the Fresh air off and open the windows. But if it’s really hot and you need cool. You might not want to open up your windows during the winter though. I mean not a lot of people do.
Alex: Or you open them up for 10 minutes to get some fresh air. I mean I do that in my house now, especially on the weekends. But with the HRVs you get Fresh Air constantly circulating in and so the need will be less to open your windows.
Question: How much air is recycled from the Inside and how much air is recycled from the outside. Is there a different percentage from what they usually use in other systems?
Ben: So the Fresh air system is sized to the interior volume of the occupancy but in terms of the energy efficiency you are exhausting a lot of stale air but there are heat exchangers in the system that basically work like, well there are a few different ways. The one that I am using has a dual core system where the stale air passes through a membrane and the fresh air has to go past it as well and that membrane absorbs all the heat and transfers it to the incoming air. The system I am using is like ninety-two percent efficient but they make ones in Europe that are like ninety-seven percent efficient and you lose almost no energy. The technology has been around for a while but it’s just gotten that much bigger.
Alex: So it is always Fresh air, Fresh air in and stale air out. They are not recycling any of the interior air.
Ben: They say that that level of oxygen actually leads to people being more alert. They have done studies that say people don’t fall asleep, they learn better, these empirical studies have shown that. I mean I used to fall asleep in the auditorium all the time, because it was dark and the air was stale. I mean it did not matter how much sleep I got. I still felt tired.
Alex: I think it is Austria where all their public buildings and schools are required to meet the Passive House Standard. I mean Europe is so far ahead with energy efficiency and government involvement. We are just playing catchup in Canada. Though we have people on the front lines here who are innovators (early adopters) and are pushing for these systems and more people are building with regard for passive house design standards.
Question: How much more expensive is Passive House?
Ben: I would roughly estimate about 15% to 20% more. Maybe a bit less but we will see at the end of the day. I do think the devil is in the details. I mean passive house does try to preach that you simplify your building form because ultimately a building with less corners and simpler rooflines is going to have less opportunity for thermal bridging and it will be easier to air seal. Say if you have a metal frame you don’t want that going from the inside to the outside because it is a really good conductor of energy and you are gonna have all kinds of heat loss.
Question: So How do you manage with the windows?
Ben: The most energy efficient windows are those windows with wood frame, and with aluminum cladding on the exterior and they make really good fibreglass windows as well and if you want to go for really value focused windows they do make decent vinyl triple glazed windows. At my own house that I am building, I have to really watch my dollars so I have put in high quality, vinyl triple glazed windows. The doors are wood frame aluminum clad from Europe.
Question: How will you be building the work that KMD is developing?
Alex: As with previous projects, we are going to aim for Passive House targets, but also keeping in mind what makes sense for the project and budget. If we don't meet the most stringent of requirements, but we are still 65% more efficient than the building code, it's a wind for the environment and a win for the project. In Darmstadt Dr. Wolfgang Feist has a graph which shows energy efficiency and economics. We want to have our project in a spot where both objectives are met reasonably. We do not want to sacrifice the environment for the economics, but we don't want to have an unreasonable budget that makes the project unachievable. At the end of the day, it is an energy balance, so we will balance all the important factors to ensure success for the project.
What is the difference between LEED and Passive House?
Alex: LEED is a system that is based on points for various aspects of a project. If the project loses points in one area, say energy efficiency, it is then possible to regain the points in the other areas, say access to public transport. This is a good system and paved the way to make building efficiency main stream and helped move the conversation forward. Passive House on the other hand, is based on energy balance. Energy Efficiency is addressed separately from other social or environmental concerns. Not that those other items are not important, but in my opinion they are separate and should not be a reason to discount or ignore the other. The Passive House standard, when followed and implemented correctly, result in buildings that perform as expected, with the energy savings as predicted. Buildings account for a large amount of energy was and greenhouse gas emissions, so the energy efficiency of buildings is paramount.
Where do you see the future of this going in North America?
Ben: At the City of Vancouver they have already written this into their building code. I mean it is not mandatory i don’t think so they would be the ones leading this in Canada at the moment and hopefully the rest of the country will follow suit.
Alex: I believe Seattle is also mandating that you get blower door tests (used to measure the airtightness of buildings) done. I think City of Toronto has their own by law that is mandating low energy and i am not sure if it is pretty close to passive house or if passive house would be a good way to achieve what they are asking for.
Ben: Toronto has three tiers of green standard. Green standard 1 you have to hit . regardless. Standard 2 there is some incentives and standard 3 is basically passive house performance and the incentives are much greater. So there is lowered development charges .
After the visit we went to check out both properties in Midland where my company KMD Group will be developing the houses we are working on. Of course we had to fit some photo time in between the visit. Below you will also find some images we took back in the fall with my KMD Group Team Members.
I would like to thank both Alex and Ben for having this discussion with me about Passive House. I was able to get an insight into the field and I believe what they are both doing is important work for the future of the building industry. I am excited to be starting this new chapter with KMD Group in Canada. Through my over 33 years experience as an architect in Costa Rica (running my firm www.katiamartenarq.com) I have been able to experience the many sides of project development from an architectural point of view, and now in Canada I am excited to be developing projects and experiencing the process as a developer. In Canada I am currently working with well experienced and qualified professionals on KMD Group’s development projects. To learn more about my firm KMD Group Canada please visit our website at www.kmdgroup.ca
Until next time, love and light always!