Canadian Contractor

Towards the Passive House: A short history of energy-efficient housing in Canada (Part 3 of 5)

A look at the Daley House in Okotoks, Alberta and the Putz House in Regina, Saskatchewan. Plus: Stich Consulting and Design, Invermere, B.C.

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February 23, 2018 by Joseph Hough

This is Part 3 of Joseph Hough’s 5 part series on how the Passive House arrived in Canada.

To read Part 1 click here.

To read Part 2 click here.

In this part, Hough looks at a couple of modern day case studies of Passive House construction in Canada – and discusses the influence of some important Passive House educators.

The Daley House, Okotoks, Alberta 

Our first case study is about about a modern day Passive House, built in Okotoks, Alberta in 2016. The Daleys didn’t just opt to build their house as a Passive House but also decided to build their house from cross-laminated timber (CLT). Invented back in the 1970s, CLT consists of (usually three to seven) layers of wood stacked at right angles to each other.

Daley Passive House, Okotoks, Alberta.

Sheri Daley, both the owner and self-builder of the house, received samples of both Canadian and German CLT. “We compared the Canadian CLT with its German counterpart, and the Canadian had many gaps in between its layers,” Sheri said. Thus, the German product was selected.

The Daleys, together, assembled the house.”Some people would say that the house was prefabricated and, thus, had higher quality control,” Sheri said. “However, I find the word ‘prefabricated’ unsettling. The house, true, was custom-made, but it took us nine months to design it and 18 months to build it piece by piece. The only mechanical help we got was a zoom-boom to lift the walls.”

It was difficult to get a bank loan to build a passive (and off-grid) house – even more so with a substantial part of the structure  coming from Germany. “The vice president of the bank came and had a look at our passive house,” said Sheri. “The trick was to show [them] that we had a solid project going on.”

The real challenge for the Daleys, though, was what they called the “conventional mentality” of the trades. In a Passive House, air tightness is one of the main criteria. A Passive House must show an ach50 equal to or less than 0.6. “We found that all of the trades took extra time and material to deal with the constraints of an air tight envelope,” Sheri said.

Regarding the heat recovery system, Sheri said: “We hired a mechanical engineer to design the heating system. We’re off-grid and, thus, our HRV had to adapt to this condition. The house itself is very comfortable. The heat produced from our bodies as well as from the kitchen heats the house. The thing is that the heat recovery system must be precise so that no over- or under-heating takes place.” They are tweaking the system, as they go. “The goal is to have more manual control over the system so that it meets our actual energy needs,” says Sheri.

The Daleys’ Zehnder HRV system

The Daleys are living off-grid. How did the Daley’s manage to set up their system? First, Scott Daley, the husband, is an electrician. He designed and installed the electric work, and they didn’t have to pay the utility company to extend its service. Second, the energy generated in the Daleys’ house is mainly solar. The solar energy generates electricity as well provides hot water. There is a propane boiler to heat the slab in case of any emergency. They are using less energy than they expected they needed.

The Daleys speak proudly about their roof and its air tightness. Sheri Daley talks about the structure of the roof: “The CLT of the ceiling is covered by insulation, then wood fiber board on top, then there is the air-vapour barrier with airspace between the battens and counter battens and, finally, the roof metal sheet. This is all sealed, taped, and airtight. This system is 20.5″ thick and has an R-value of 60.”

“A normal attic space would be formed of drywall, then insulation, followed by sheathing and air-vapour barrier; then roofing. It lacks the air tightness to keep the heat inside the house, requiring constant additional heat throughout winter,” Sheri said.

Stich Consulting and Design, Invermere, B.C.

Stich Consulting and Design is the brainchild of Jasminka and Tomaz Stich. Tomaz is a trained engineer as well as a licensed carpenter. Jasmine presides over education, marketing and bookkeeping. Since their arrival in Canada from Germany in 2009, the Stiches have helped take the Passive House to new levels across their adopted country. They have designed and built Passive Houses in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta as well as in their native B.C.

Jasminka believes that a Passive House will remain an enigma until one has experienced it. “The comfort offered by a Passive House is unparalleled,” she says. “You have to experience it yourself to know what a Passive House really is. We have done it in residential as well as commercial settings. For instance, one of our major commercial renovations was the warehouse of Hermann Timbre-Frame Homes in Ontario.”

The Stiches organize yearly tours of Passive Houses. Besides teaching the official certified passive house courses at The Canadian Passive House Institute to professionals and pro contractors, Jasminka and Tomaz dedicate the time and effort to teach the same concepts to homeowners as well.

According to the Stiches, there are two challenges facing Passive Houses in North America: knowledge and products.

There is still the widespread belief among professionals (and tradespeople) that conventional, unsustainable methods of building can go on forever. “This is not true,” says Jasminka. “We are having limited resources with ever-increasing energy prices. Thus, spreading [this] knowledge among all building professionals is a must.”

“In the Netherlands,” Jasminka continued, “there are specific Passive House courses targeted to specific professionals. For instance, the designers have special Passive House design courses, the engineers have specific Passive House engineering courses, the tradespeople have hands-on custom-tailored courses, etc. This helps raise the bar in every aspect related to building, including products. [But in Canada] a lack of knowledge [contributes to] bankers’ unwillingness to finance green building. In the same vein, it’s difficult to convince the inspector or the insurance broker to accept or insure Passive Houses. Lack of knowledge is ubiquitous and it is responsible for the uphill fight against the conventional environmentally-unfriendly methods of building.”

The Stiches lament the state of Passive House-certified products in North America. “The windows produced in Europe are cutting-edge products,” Jasminka said. “If you want one-sided or double-sided wooden windows, you can easily find them. If you want aluminum or plastic or wood or a combination of all these, you can find them. Not to mention that you can find all the colors you need. [This range of products] is not readily available in Canada.”

Jasmine says that, when the couple show their clients samples of building products made in Europe and those made in Canada, and ask them to choose, invariably the clients opt for the European products. North America is yet to catch up with the European quality, she believes.

Also, there is a strong culture of prefabrication in Europe. “Prefabrication offers an excellent chance to build with efficiency,” says Tomaz. “You’re proceeding in a step-by-step manner in a controlled environment, where no weather intervenes and nothing is hidden. Everything in a prefabricated house could easily be inspected before delivery. Once delivered, it is assembled in a systemic way.”For the Stiches, prefabricated houses are much cheaper and faster to assemble. The only costly affair may be transportation. But still prefabrication offers many advantages over conventional building.

Piller & Putz Construction, Regina, Saskatchewan

Adam Putz, Piller & Putz Construction is a consummate  building professional. He says he wanted to build a Passive House from the beginning, but his Passive House ended up being a net zero house using Passive House principles.

Adam describes his “strategy” in these simple words: “My goal was to build a family home for myself, my wife, my two kids and the dog. We wanted a house that is energy efficient, comfortable and a good investment. I also wanted it to be an example of how homes should be built in our climate in Saskatchewan. It had to be built with durable products that were relatively low maintenance, so we could spend more time enjoying the outdoors than maintaining our home.”

Interior of Adam Putz’s house in Regina

And Adam has what it takes to build such a house. “I always worked in construction,” he said. “After graduation, I worked as geologist, but soon decided to start my company with my cousin Luke Piller. If I take care of the construction side, Luke takes care of the marketing side. Both of us manage our projects and work on the tools whenever possible.”

Adam was always aware of the Saskatchewan Conservation House, which – as mentioned in Part 2- was built in Regina. “I opted to build a Passive House,” he said. “I did an extensive research on that and decided to go for the Passive House courses. The courses were practical and informative.”

However, the courses proved to be different somehow from reality for Adam. Because of the high cost of insulation, Adam decided to try his own approach, which would fit nicely with his own budget. “The creative builder will always find a way,” he said. “Quality is never cheap, but there is always an alternative for a good product at a more reasonable price.”

Adam Putz’s house exterior

Adam opted for a simple design: modern farmhouse in the exterior and midcentury modern style in the interior. Some unique features were incorporated into his new house. These features include the southern orientation of windows with a roof overhang of 4-feet past the south windows, German triple-glazed windows (Aluplast Energetic) and a Polish overhanging garage door (Krispol) with double seal for more airtightness.

Adam described his approach to the windows and doors: “I was approached by Neuluxe Windows and Doors to use their products. I was happy to support a Saskatchewan business and they have a very good customer service. The windows were about $21,000. They are very competitive with quality windows sourced locally. The exterior doors cost me about $7,000. The garage overhead door was about $5,000 without any openers. I’ve to admit, these doors are very impressive. There was no door I could source in North America with the same level of performance. These doors are a necessity if you plan to heat your garage space.”

Krispol garage door

When it comes to heating, Adam uses a radiant heating panels to heat his house. “The heating panels are very cheap and simple to meet our heat demand. Also, they don’t cost too much to maintain. I’ve the radiant heating panels in my garage too; however the garage is also traditionally-heated. The cost of heating the garage will be offset by the solar panels. When it gets down to -40 Celsius in winter, heating the garage to park my car is a luxury I am willing to pay for.”

Adam’s house is powered with a 16kW SolarEdge solar system. He receives a rebate of 20 per cent of all costs incurred in installing this system from Saskpower (the main electricity supplier in Saskatchewan). The name of this rebate program is “Net Metering Program.” Also, this program includes electricity “banking.” If Adam generates 100 kWh of electrical power per month, and uses 70 kWh, the 30 kWh left will be “banked” cumulatively for Adam to use within one year.

Solar Edge system

I asked Adam about his “miracle” ceiling that was built to an R-value of 95. “It is not rocket science,” Adam said. “I know that a major portion of heat escapes through the ceiling. The design of my ceiling is simple. My roof trusses have a 20″ raised heel. I used Intello Plus membrane as an interior air/vapor barrier. The membrane was strapped with 2x2s. Next, blown cellulose was added. I also avoided all ceiling penetrations, with the exception of low profile LED spot lights.”

In the same vein, the wall Adam built was simple in its structure: a 2×6 wall covered with a 5/8″ plywood taped at the seams. Then, 8″ of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) strapped vertically and horizontally with 1x4s was added. The wall cavities were insulated with fibreglass batts.

Sample of Adam Putz’s wall structure

I asked Adam to share some of the his most important tips for designing and building extremely energy-efficient housing. There are four…

1) “Choose a wall design that allows for robust and simple air sealing, as well as, foundation design. Using a split wall design (i.e. a wall built with two different materials) is a fantastic option. Double-stud walls are also an effective way to build a high performance wall. However, they can be more difficult to air-seal if there is an absence of service cavity. Harold Orr’s “Prairie Passive Wall” is a great double-stud wall, but it requires a very hands-on approach when working with the framer.”

2) “Design a simple shape, and add details to the home with landscaping, siding, and exterior finishing. There seems to be a trend to build homes with complex rooflines and complicated footprints. All these things add cost by way of material and labour, and greatly reduce energy efficiency. There is something beautiful about a simple design that represents efficiency.”

3) “Do not over-design the heating and cooling system. When designing the system, look at upfront cost, as well as, maintenance costs. We kept our system simple. It has low upfront cost and little ongoing maintenance costs. If you want to offset the extra budget that was spent on insulation, you have to keep the mechanical design simple. This is what Passive House design is based on. There is an inflection point based on the mechanicals and amount of insulation.”

4) “Most importantly, you have to run the numbers and see what makes sense for your climate. Do not get hung up on Passive House, net zero, or any specific program. You have to design a house that makes sense for your family, your energy goals, your environment and your long term investment.”

Next week: Jason Szacaksi House, Peterborough, Ontario