As television homicide detectives say: follow the money and it will lead you to the truth. We lag behind Europe in the adoption of energy-saving technology because they pay at least three times more for energy than North Americans do. Their priorities shifted a long time ago. Now, North Americans are starting to read their utility bills. "Our greenest house costs about five percent more, says home builder Jim Sirup, executive vice-president of Jayman MasterBUILT in Edmonton. "People nowadays are willing to pay up front for reduced bills later."
The Saskatchewan research inspired the Passivhaus standard, which architect Nancy Schultz used to guide the design of this home.
Building code changes At an October workshop on proposed Ontario Building Code changes, there was more discussion about building envelopes than mechanical systems. Envelopes will continue to tighten, not only because homeowners are voting for these with their wallets, but also because the law will require it. Other provinces are clarifying their priorities too. British Columbia wants its Building Code to require EnerGuide 80 energy performance in 2011, more non-potable water use and high efficiency toilets. It will require that homes are solar thermal-ready and will set performance targets for thermal resistance and air tightness. Code officials across the country plan to phase in increasingly demanding requirements, working towards energy neutrality by 2030. New window and insulation products and new thermal bridge reduction practices will become common or required. Code changes are being backed up by plan-approval bylaws passed by cash-strapped municipalities looking for ways to conserve against costly infrastructure expansion and maintenance. The age of green washing is likely to peter out too. Mechanical contractors and engineers will have to ensure performance. Proper balancing and monitoring of systems will not be an option. One contractor is even trying to sue the U.S. Green Building Council over the LEED program, based on actual building performance versus advertised building performance. The publicity is helping the industry understand that there's a difference between knowing how to work the LEED system and actually building well.
Considerable effort went into re-insulating this Ottawa home to bring it up to Passivhaus standards.
Passivhaus or passive house A super insulation standard developed in Germany by the Passivhaus Institut reduces the heating load by 85 percent or more compared to a conventional home. The standard was developed from research based on the Saskatchewan Conservation House built in Regina in 1977, a demonstration house around the same time at University of Illinois and research by Gene Leger in Massachusetts, who built several highly publicized houses during the period. The movement lost its steam when the 'energy crisis' passed and was written off as part of the ill-fated solar hype of the 1980s. But interest in super insulated homes is re-emerging. Under the Passivhaus building standard, a “passive house” must not leak more air than 0.6 times the house volume per hour at 50 pascals of pressure. This means a mega-tight envelope, R40 in the walls and about R60 in the roof and floor. In Europe the standard also says that a building must consume no more than 15 kilowatt-hours per square meter in heating energy per year (equivalent to 4746 BTU per square foot). Wood-framed homes built to the Passivhaus standard feature walls up to 17" thick, but otherwise look like the average Canadian home. They typically have double-stud walls or walls framed with vertical I-joists. They usually have triple-glazed low E argon windows designed and oriented to maximize gains and minimize cooling and heating losses. They can quickly become energy neutral or net producers with the addition of simple mechanicals and/or renewables.
The move to super-insulated homes began with the Saskatchewan Conservation House in Regina.
Achieving real results Although design software is used to plan a passive house, certification is about results, not modelling. There are many steps recommended, but only three that are absolutely required: pre-certification, as-built tests/declaration, and the final air-tightness test. In the first step plans are submitted and checked for errors. In the second step a blower-door test is conducted after the house is built, but before the walls are closed, so cracks can be filled. This is submitted with as-built photos and a declaration from the general contractor that the house is built per plan. The third step is a final blower door test to ensure air leakage below 0.6 x volume/hr at 50Pa. The final pressure test combined with extremely precise energy modeling software called the Passive House Planning Package ensures the house will need very little energy to heat and cool it. The software includes site weather patterns, house orientation, ventilation system design, construction materials, window designs and locations, total loads of appliances, lighting and mechanicals.
Building a passive house The renovation of a home in Ottawa by energy analyst Malcolm Isaacs' aims for R85 in the roof, R45-R66 in the walls and R45-R55 for the concrete slab. Passive House consultant Katrin Klingenberg in Illinois and Architect Nancy Schultz in Massachusetts are already living in high performing, certified passive houses built in the last few years. Klinginberg's roof is rated at R62 using 16" of dense-packed cellulose in rafter cavities plus two inches of closed cell spray foam and Tyvek on the underside of roof sheathing. The double stud walls are 24" on centre, filled with dense-packed cellulose and caulk-sealed airtight drywall for an R45 rating. Tyvek is wrapped around the rim-joists to prevent leakage beneath first floor studs. Basement walls are R35 using rigid board insulation on the outside of the concrete and on the inside between concrete and studs. The four inch basement concrete slab floor with four sheets of rigid board insulation beneath it achieves R34. The windows are triple-glazed Thermotech with foam-filled fiberglass frames. Schultz's house averages R90 in the roof and R55 in the walls and uses zero net energy, due to a complex but effective hierarchy of heat collection, heat storage technology and photovoltaic electricity generation. Vacuum tubes collect 172,500 BTUs per day and store it in a 500 gallon water tank and a 9,000 cubic foot rock and sand bed beneath the main footprint of the house. The backup boiler potentially powered by a series of back-up batteries has almost never come on, even on the coldest winter days. Twice the house went off-grid without the owners even noticing, once for a week in an ice storm and once for two-weeks due to a controls malfunction.
Here to stay A recent study of the tightest homes in Canada's frigid north establishes that heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) not only save energy, but also drastically reduce air quality health problems in children as long as filters are maintained. The new tight envelopes are probably here to stay and, as they improve, oversized heating systems will be difficult to justify. Mechanical work will be about expertise and precision and perhaps less hardware; or certainly different hardware. Isaacs says one of the building envelopes he is working on is designed to cut energy use by 92 percent. "We can heat the house with a coil equivalent to a hair dryer." He mentions a new HRV that is expected to deliver preheated fresh air at 17ºC when the outside temperature is -10ºC. And he's impatient with those who build poorly and overcompensate with mechanicals. "Even some of the celebrated 'green' pilot projects by the CMHC are full of thermal bridges."
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