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.

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.

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The New RS-1 Housing Type: How deeper consideration equates to innovation and sustainability

It’s a new approach on an old theme: build a property for the long-term. Incorporate the family’s needs now, the kids’ future needs as they attend University in 10 years. Build it for the grandparents now and the homeowners as they age. By incorporating three livable units, the architecture evolves with the people who inhabit it.
- Kenneth Chooi, DSK Architecture

 

GENERAL PROBLEM DESCRIPTION

In the second-least affordable major city worldwide in which to buy a house, Vancouver homeowners and homeowner-hopefuls are faced with the very real question of if and how they can afford a home. In 2011 Mr. and Mrs. Average Vancouverite paid $678,500 for their home with their annual income of $63,800 (that’s a factor of 10.6%, second only to Hong Kong’s staggering 12.6%), so it’s no wonder that inhabitants are constantly on the lookout for novel ways to make homeownership financially feasible. Generally speaking, the hot housing climate has forced Vancouverites either up or out. Housing “flips” have increased the cost of housing (while funding many a Vancouver homeowner up the financial ladder), and sales to foreign wealth (by those leaving the Vancouver market) have done much the same. So what happens to a family who is growing out of their dilapidated teardown of inflated value within the neighbourhood they have always lived, have always loved? Especially when their zoning says no to stratifying in order to sell off a chunk? What happens when the family considers fully the future impact of the home in which they live, both environmentally and sociologically? When they are aware of life cycles of not only the building materials but also the building inhabitants: grandparents, parents and children alike?

SOLUTION

With greater housing density and affordability a key component of any vital city within our modern day, the City of Vancouver shifted RS1 zoning in 2009 to allow for legal basement rental suites and legal laneway rental houses. For our case study Point Grey family, this change in zoning translated to positive potential in the way of cash flow and made staying in their neighbourhood financially feasible. “The zoning changes inspired a new housing type for the Vancouver area,” says Kenneth Chooi of DSK Architecture and designer of the home. “In the short term, the couple and their children will inhabit the main floors of the main home and rent out both the basement suite and laneway house. In the long term, all three spaces within the open, flexible plan will evolve as its occupants grow and change. The suites can accommodate any family member at any stage of life: from retired grandparents to growing children in need of future habitation. In this sense, the property becomes inter-generational.” Within the award-winning micro-community (Built Green’s Most Innovative Home 2012) outdoor garden spaces and courtyards are shared by all occupants, serving as centerpieces to the community. Healthy spaces (the children’s garden, playroom, under the stair nook) inspire discovery and imaginative play, while the main house’s top floor relaxation room and deck garden afford privacy away from others. Furthermore, the inter-generational house is designed to respond to the climate, site and needs of the occupants. Based on passive concepts of energy use, its form was borne of the need to maximize incoming solar energy, utilize natural ventilation and capture mountain views through the orientation of windows, rooms and livable cool rooftop areas. Natural and stack effect ventilation provide passive cooling throughout the house, window openings allow summer breezes to enter the garden and houses but are protected by overhangs to minimize summer sun / maximize winter sun, south facing concrete floors serve as thermal mass, and cool/green roofs harvest rainwater for irrigation use. “Before even considering all its modern environmental bells and whistles (from its state of the art HRV to its LEED certification underway), the Inter-Generational Home is ecologically remarkable due to the optimized way it was constructed,” offers Marcel Studer of Econ Group Construction and Development Ltd., builder of the home. “Instead of erecting the property’s wall, floor and roof systems over a six week period, we were able to do it in 4 extremely rainy days. By prefabricating panels offsite we were able to build to a higher quality, more quickly and with less waste; this translated to less carrying costs and financing charges for the homeowners during the building process.” In one of the most beautiful cities in the world, constrained geographically by the mountains and ocean, this new, environmental spin on an old theme of living together as families, may very well be just the solution to typify Vancouver’s future.

TECHNICAL DETAILS

Econ Group Construction and Development Ltd. is a Vancouver-based, medium sized design-build firm in its 13th year of business, positioned as the only explicitly modern residential contractor in the Lower Mainland. By executing minimalist details of modern architecture through a lens of environmental responsibility Econ Group actualizes low-impact, simple beauty. Its core commitment to sustainability and balance extends to the atmosphere of its workspaces.

Merging the Greens: looking longer at Vancouver housing affordability

It’s no news that Vancouver’s average monthly carrying costs for a new home far exceed the 30% of household income mark of housing affordability. As RBC’s Economics Research arm reported in March 2012 owning a home at current prices would still take up a huge chunk (86% in the case of a bungalow) of a typical household budget. And while it is astonishing that Canada is still the only G-8 country with neither a National Housing Strategy nor a coordinated strategy on affordable housing, we are pleased at our City’s recent reinvigorated efforts to tackle housing affordability.

As a modern residential contractor doing business in Vancouver, Econ Group is well aware of the financial challenges in not only owning a home, but also in the underlying process of its construction. We live and work in a place where labour is not cheap, construction regulations are time-consuming and climate constraints are structurally demanding. In a nut-shell, and as elementary as it may seem, what is inexpensive to build in Regina might never be inexpensive to build here in Vancouver.

However, thanks to Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan we now all have a shared mandate which we must meet in order to even move forward with homebuilding. From 2020 onward all new buildings constructed in Vancouver will be required to be carbon neutral in operations. With 55% of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions caused by the electricity and natural gas that buildings use, this requirement will be of enormous positive impact. What’s more is that while some may see this (“yet another”) requirement by the City as a further financial burden negatively impacting the bottom-line of affordability, Econ Group sees it all as an incredible opportunity to merge the two greens: dollars and ecology.

As with all other building materials, the costs associated with the wares of environmentally responsible construction are determined by the laws of supply and demand. The quicker that early adopters (both home-owners and home-builders alike) of the carbon-neutral mandate fully embrace utilizing materials standard to Passive House and Net-Zero building methodologies, the quicker the costs will come down to light the way to a future we all can truly afford.