BC Government funds Passive House education

Econ Group’s Marcel Studer was part of the ceremony in Victoria last week at which Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, presented a $100, 000 ICE (Innovative Clean Energy) grant to Canadian Passive House Institute West for their Passive House education and certification efforts.

“This announcement is an enormously significant, clear message that the work and education we all in the Passive House community have been up to in the Vancouver area for the past decade, is beginning to pay off,” says Marcel.  “It’s really an exciting moment to be involved.”

The grant will support increased training and certification opportunities for construction and design professionals so that they can build the most energy-efficient buildings in the world, right here in British Columbia. It will help sponsor and subsidize introductory or certification courses in Passive House design principles offered by CanPHI West for up to 200 qualified professionals in British Columbia.

Econ Group has been building to the Passive standard for over a decade, and actually built the first residential Passive House in BC. Our next Passive House project breaks ground in North Vancouver in April 2015, with two others on its heals in May and in the summer. Learn more about Passive House technology at my previous North Shore News article on the topic.

The international Passive House standard is the one of the most rigorous and advanced building performance standards in the world, achieving reductions in heating energy of up to 90% compared to other buildings.

Read the full article on BC’s Passive House funding at https://www.newsroom.gov.bc.ca/2015/03/province-funds-energy-efficiency-training-to-support-conservation-goals.html.

Passive House Catches On

Through the last decades, the notion of building homes in more environmentally friendly ways has become much the norm. Slowly but surely, at least here in Canada, the conversation has shifted onward from discussing why building technology needs to evolve to discussing how exactly building technology can evolve in order to most responsibly take on its own environmental inefficiencies. What once was considered alternative has now become quite mainstream.

Consider Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan target: “Require all buildings constructed from 2020 onward to be carbon neutral in operations.” Other municipalities around the world are setting the same tone: Melbourne officially became carbon-neutral this year, Copenhagen is pushing for the same by 2025, Seattle by 2050, the entire country of Costa Rica by 2021. According to Vancouver’s Action Plan, greening up construction practices here would mean big positive impact: “the electricity and natural gas that buildings use make up 55% of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions.” Essentially, we need to get building green, and get building green mighty quickly! But we’re in luck…enter, Passive House.

The initial principles that eventually gave rise to the Passive House movement were actually developed here in Canada as part of the Saskatchewan Conservation House demonstration project of 1978. And though the project also stimulated the creation of NRCan’s R-2000 building certification program, the technologies and methodologies were never adopted into any municipal building code, thus slowing the positive momentum inside our borders. Instead, the findings took root in Germany and Passivhaus was born into receptive hands. Today, thanks in part to stricter environmental regulations driven by proactive policymakers, there are about 50,000 Passive House units worldwide.

At the heart of Passive House is not an overly novel idea. Rather than using old tires or straw bales (like some of its green building cousins), and rather than tallying vast arrays of enviro-scoring criteria (like some other of its green certification relatives) Passive House aims to do one thing extremely well. And that is: keep heat where it’s supposed to be.

In order to regulate temperature within the home, a more robust envelope is needed to make the building essentially airtight. Standard framing walls (see my Framing 101 article from 3 July 2013) are made to be super-insulated and double or more the thickness, windows become triple-paned, and solar orientation becomes paramount to success. The need for fresh air and moisture control is managed by a low energy active heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system. The impressive energy savings potential of Passive Houses (many use 90% less energy than traditional, to-code builds) is at the concept’s core, however, neither comfort nor affordability are overlooked.

A Passive House, absent of typical drafts, is kept at a constant temperature ever replenished with fresh air. Warming up the space even further literally means either inviting over a friend, turning on another light, or even just lighting a candle! How’s that for comfort?

And the costs to build Passive are coming down (as with any other newer technology engaged in the process of catching on and becoming the norm). In places like Germany (the first real adopter of Passivhaus), the incremental cost to build Passive runs under 5% more than a traditional home built to code.

As a wholly performance-based environmentally aware building methodology, Passive House utilizes energy modeling software to accurately predict how heat and energy will behave in a given (and unique) construction scenario. The design is then honed to produce the most optimal result based on the parameters of the site, etc.

With 2020 around the corner for our Vancouver area’s target to build only carbon-neutral buildings, Passive House offers a proven platform onto which photovoltaic solutions or the like can be added in order to supplement the small amount of active energy input required to become Net-Zero or carbon-neutral. It is a no-nonsense, science-backed solution that reduces our housing footprint while creating homes and communities that are built to last.

For more information on Passive House visit the Canadian Passive House Institute West at www.canphi.ca.

Article penned by Econ Group’s Dalit Holzman and originally published in North Shore News.

Proper insurance crucial when building a new home

Written by Econ’s Dalit Holzman and published by North Shore News August 2013

Within new home construction one of the most misunderstood matters of business is the area of insurance. For many of us, conversations centred around liability, deductibles and indemnification are invitations to the sweet Land of Nod; however, insurance is an undeniably crucial component of building a new home. Regardless of personal bent, it is vital for all the members of the project team (homeowner, contractor, subcontractor, architect, engineer) to educate themselves on the layers of responsibility (and resulting myriad policy types) involved in their specific build.

“Above all, it is essential for the homeowner to remember that he is ultimately financially responsible for anything that happens on his property,” warns Gord Thompson of gtinsurance.ca. “This isn’t to say that the homeowner is on the hook for the quality of the contractor’s workmanship, but it does mean that he has a highly vested interest to understand how to protect himself.”

During the initial stage of pre-construction (when the land waits patiently for design and permitting), the property owner holds Site Liability Insurance.

Once site preparation begins (see my stages of construction checklist from 2 weeks ago), the owner continues with her Site Liability Insurance and the Contractor and Subcontractors hold General Liability Insurance. The General Liability Insurance covers for bodily injury, property damage or personal injury occurring during the Contractor’s operations and on completed operations. This creates overlap with WorkSafeBC coverage (that must be held by every contractor and subcontractor working on a project) onto which the homeowner must be added as an “additional insured” party.

At the point that the site is fully prepped and footing/foundation framing is about to begin, Course of Construction Insurance must start. This policy will run throughout the project, past lockup until full completion, and protects against any direct physical loss to the building under construction. It covers construction materials stored on and offsite, as well as those in transit. The limit of insurance must be 100% of the cost to rebuild the finished structure, and it’s important to note their common clause invalidating the policy if no work is done for 30 days. A Course of Construction policy can be initiated by either the property owner or the builder; however, the cost of the policy, as well as the ultimate financial responsibility should inadequate coverage exist, are borne by the property owner. Upon completion of the project, the Course of Construction converts to standard home insurance held by the owner.

From Gord Thompson’s years of experience, he warns of what he sees to be the most common mistakes that property owners building their own homes make:

  • Not notifying the insurer about plans to build a new home: many home insurance policies can be extended to new construction

  • Not starting the insurance until after the home is framed: insurers will charge back to the date framing for foundations started, meaning no savings by delaying the coverage. (Fire hazard is highest in the period before the drywall and fire rated materials are installed.)

  • Failure to clearly identify who is responsible for initiating the Course of Construction insurance

  • Not obtaining proof of insurance from contractors. The homeowner should make sure she is named as an “additional insured” to all contractors’ liability policies. This proves to the homeowner that the contractor has insurance, and protects her from claims arising from the contractor’s negligence (to other parties).

  • Not getting WorkSafeBC certificates from all contractors: failure to do so could make the homeowner financially responsible if a worker becomes injured on the job

  • Not budgeting for the insurance costs which are higher than normal home insurance

Anticipate The Phases of Construction

Written by Econ Group’s Dalit Holzman and originally published in North Shore News July 2013

To anyone outside the construction industry, the process of building might easily feel daunting. As with any other field, terminologies and acronyms abound, making our lingo sometimes sound completely foreign to people outside the business. Over the next few weeks I hope to shed some light on the standard phases of construction in order to help readers feel a bit more at home with building a home. In this part I have used a sequential checklist format for your easy future reference.


Pre-Construction phase

  • Design process: a homeowner can work with a designer, an architect or even directly with a design-build construction company for this. (In the case of single-family residential construction within the Vancouver area, an architect’s stamp is not necessary from a Municipal point of view.) It is helpful to be upfront during this process with overall budget requirements so that the home being designed can best fit within them. In this regard, it is advantageous to have your builder selected early on so that their knowledge of real-world costs can be utilized during the design process.
  • Construction Plans are finalized
  • A builder is selected (visit www.tumblr.com/cliffhangerhouse for one North Vancouverite’s insightful account of “Choosing a Contractor”)
  • Homeowner begins selecting products in conjunction with the design team (you may or may not decide to bring on the services of an interior designer for your project)
  • Builder prepares home warranty documents for building permit submission
  • Plans are submitted to Municipal approval body
  • Builder prepares a line item budget (upon Municipal stamped approval of any design and engineering plans)
  • Budget is finalized
  • Homeowner secures project financing
  • Homeowner determines who will fulfill the role of Consultant and Payment Certifier during construction (this often is the designer of the home)
  • Homeowner, Consultant and Builder sign the Construction Contract after full legal review

Construction phase

  • On-going: Builder tracks the timeline and budget, updating the Homeowner regularly
  • On-going: Change Orders issued and approved (to request major modifications)
  • Trees and plants protected as defined by Municipality
  • Site is mobilized with temporary power and on-site equipment storage/office facility
  • Site is surveyed/pinned for excavation
  • Road access is created
  • Site is prepared: demolition, excavation and blasting
  • Temporary de-watering put in place if needed
  • Footings are poured with subsequent Municipal, engineering, geotechnical inspections
  • Foundation is poured with subsequent Municipal, engineering inspections
  • Exterior concrete (stairs, walkways, etc.) are engineered
  • Homeowner is now eligible to receive “first draw” of construction financing upon bank appraisal of jobsite
  • Frame is built with subsequent Municipal, engineering inspections
  • Roofing and deck are installed
  • Mechanical Trades phase: HVAC (heating, venting and air conditioning), plumbing, electrical
  • Windows and doors are installed
  • Envelope and rain-screen are built
  • Municipal and engineering inspections
  • Homeowner is now eligible to receive “second draw” of construction financing upon bank appraisal of jobsite
  • Insulation and drywall are built
  • Homeowner is now eligible to receive “third draw” of construction financing upon bank appraisal of jobsite
  • Interior finishing is built: floors, lighting/plumbing fixtures, painting, millwork, kitchen/bathroom cabinets, tile, etc.
  • Exterior finishing is built: siding, painting, railings, etc.
  • Exterior pool is built if necessary
  • Appliances are installed
  • Property is landscaped
  • Final Municipal inspection carried out to secure Occupancy Permit
  • Homeowner/Builder walk-through and final approval
  • Homeowner is now eligible to receive “final draw” of construction financing upon bank appraisal of jobsite

Post-Construction phase

  • Builder provides Homeowner with Project Binder noting all relevant contacts, products, finishes, maintenance procedures
  • Home warranty document enrollment and activation

Framing the present

Over the last few months my coworkers and I have been delving into the innards of a lovely 100-something heritage home in North Vancouver. The process of renovation (vs. new construction) is, as anyone who has ever had the opportunity knows, a journey all its own. Surprises and head-scratchers abound, the handiwork of ancestors (and all of the decades of well-intended homeowner patches along the way) offering us so much from which to learn.

The formal dining room, the fireside nook, the ample porch: these, the elements we celebrate as gems pre-dating the open-concept of today. And then there are others: the lack of insulation, the single-pane windows, a foundation with no footing placed on non-bearing materials, the lack of structural redundancy that leads to sagging, sloped floors, out-of-plumb walls. These, the elements that remind us how cheap oil must have been (!) and of the true infancy of our regional method of building.

Think of how long it took for the ancient Greeks to hone their art to the point of the Parthenon, the Norwegians their stave churches, the Egyptians their pyramids. Though wood has been used in Post and Beam construction for thousands of years throughout the world, Balloon Framing (which eventually gave rise to modern Platform Framing) has been used only since the 1830’s in North America.

Framing 101. A frame is the skeleton of a building onto which outside and inside walls are attached, and on top of which the roof structure is placed. Briefly, there are 3 types of construction framing: Post and Beam, Balloon and Platform.

Post and Beam (or Timber) Framing relies on big, beautiful, heavy spans of timber (in other words, often times whole trees) carved and joined in beautiful and complex ways (called dovetails, mortises and tenons, et.al.) by highly skilled craftsmen (or, these days, by highly specialized machines). No nails are needed in this marvel of (heavy frame) construction.

Balloon Framing utilizes thinner, lengthy continuous spans of wood (studs) running vertically all the way from the very bottom to the very top of the structure. From the early 1800s until the 1950s Balloon Framing was the go-to method for building homes in North America quickly and inexpensively, because although lumber abounded, skilled labour (the kind needed for complex Post and Beam joinery) did not. With the advent of Balloon Framing and the nearly simultaneous invention of inexpensive machine-made nails and water-powered sawmills, any settler or farmer could build his own buildings. Hence, the quick construction of the boomtowns on which our great land was built.

So, in Balloon Framing, the vertical studs run all the way from bottom to top, with the floors actually hung into and nailed to them. This means scaffolding (extremely tall depending on the desired building height) is used for workers to stand on in order to build in each subsequent next floor.

The second type of light frame construction (Balloon being the first) is Platform (or often “Stick”) Framing. As with Balloon, thinner spans of dimensional lumber (most often 2x4s) are utilized to frame the wall and floor structures; however, in Platform Framing one complete storey (1st storey walls with 2nd storey floor joists hung into the top of them) is built at a time, hence creating a platform on which to stand for each subsequent storey upward. The rise in popularity of this more convenient framing method has translated to safer, speedier construction (with less structural vulnerability for sagging and fire spread).

Through the convergence of regulated environmental consciousness and stricter safety/seismic requirements, present day construction methodologies are being forced to evolve more quickly than their traditionally laggard tendencies. And as evolution develops, so do prices: climbing at first, but then leveling out as demand grows. We’re now on the cusp of large changes in the energy efficiency of building, and it’s toward this subject matter I will turn in two weeks time.

Article penned by Econ Group’s Dalit Holzman and originally published in North Shore News.