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.

Passive solar heat ideal

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

Over the last few weeks, it seems like the days have been spent less in shorts and more in woollen long-johns, the children scurrying off to school sack-packed with muddy-buddies and rain boots. Ahh yes, truly summer has officially waned and autumn is here. Time to bring out the knitting, the hot water bottles, the novel abandoned back in June. Finding warmth is now at the top of my biological imperatives list. In this installment, I’ll shed a bit of (vitamin D filled) light on some home-heating options (other than layers of wool sweaters) readily available to us here in the Pacific Northwest.

Passive solar heating is, by far, the most ideal and most efficient option available. Rather than relying on solar panels (used in active solar, or photovoltaic, electric generation), passive solar is achieved through the direct heating of thermal masses within the home. The warmth absorbed by these masses while the sun is shining is then radiated out as the ambient air temperature cools (and the sun goes down). (Anyone who has sat on the sandstone beaches of our area after sunset can attest to this effect.) Whether it’s the floor, the walls, or a giant decorative black boulder that sits in the centre of your living room floor, as long as the envelope and windows of a home are robust enough (recall the Passive House principals I described 2 months ago: double wall thicknesses, triple-pane windows), then the warmth will be absorbed and re-radiated as described. While there is no downside to this carbon-neutral and zero-cost heating method, relying on it for your home’s heat does require specific building positioning to the sun and the incorporation of the previously mentioned robustness. I encourage anyone seriously considering passive heating to familiarize themselves more broadly with Passive House design principles. (Please do not hesitate to email me directly for more.)

Geothermal heating is another efficient option for some in our area. The process operates from the heat differential that exists between the temperature of the air and the temperature of the land just below the surface. With the aid of an electrically powered ground source heat pump, the energy is extracted and the home is heated (or even cooled in the summer months). The downside of this technology is that it relies on long runs of pipe. People living rurally may not have a problem with running 1500+ feet of pipe 4 feet deep, while urban counterparts might find the four 300 foot deep holes necessary (due to lot size constraints) rather cost prohibitive. 

Radiant heating is experienced via radiators (hot water or electric), masonry stoves (in Europe mostly), and, most popularly these days, through electric or hydroponic in-floor systems. If radiant heating is incorporated within a passive solar or geothermal system, or more holistically within a Passive House model, the amount of power it requires can be greatly reduced.

Keeping its inhabitants warm and dry is every home’s chief objective. Home design focused from its outset on achieving warmth (or cool depending on the season) has a better chance at long-term success and sustainability than design that treats it as an afterthought. The cost of heating its interior does not have to be the greatest (and most wasteful) operating expense of owning a home.

If you’re keen to know more about what makes Passive Houses so energy efficient, how they can literally be heated with candles, I encourage you to check out the Passive House North 2013 Conference going on this Friday and Saturday (the 27th and 28th) at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver. For more check out http://www.passivehouse.ca/conference-2013.

Building by design: Wifi and EMFs

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

Sitting at my kitchen table off Grand Boulevard in North Vancouver, my laptop picks up three wireless networks. When I lived in a high-rise near Park Royal, I routinely would see 20 or more pop up. If I take a stroll down Lonsdale, it seems like just about every business has its own; plus my Internet provider has blanketed the area with its wireless network making it ever easier to jump online. The convenience is remarkable. But still, I can’t help but feel wary. All of these signals, bouncing around: wireless coverage, lightning speed cell phone networks, Smart Meters, standard EMFs…our bodies sitting in the middle. 

Most of us are not strangers to the Smart Meter debate. I walked by a home the other day with 8 “no Smart Meter” signs on its various doors. The group Citizens for Safe Technology has created action kits for Wi-Fi, Smart Meters, cell towers and cell phones stating its concern about the exponential increase in public exposures to harmful wireless technologies. However, BC Hydro defends its technological achievement, stating that “the exposure to radio frequency from a smart meter, over its entire 20-year life span, is less than a single 30-minute cell phone call”. 

Many, including the WHO, deny that we are at risk within our modern world. The World Health Organization publicly states: “Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.”

And it’s the gaps that worry me. I am certain that when I turn down the dimmer switch in our bedroom, the light actually buzzes, and am pretty sure I detect a high-pitched ringing when my cell phone is on charge. These items are dwarfed by our very near future filled with smart networks, sensor networks, smart buildings and self-driving cars. From my perspective, the “gap” WHO mentions is that all of these technologies have not been around for long enough to know the greater effects on our collective health.

In the meantime, there are a handful of principles commonly used to limit EMF, wireless and radiation exposure when building a new home. People embarking on construction should have a thorough discussion with their contractor to communicate their wishes, understanding that their desires will certainly translate to extra project cost. 

The safest option to decrease EMF exposure is to distance oneself from it as much as possible. This can affect not only one’s decision on where to build his/her home (in relation to transfer stations, cell towers, etc.), but also how the home is laid out within the interior. The kitchen and media room are a home’s technological epicenters, while the bedroom is traditionally designed to function as a safe-haven from technology. In this regard it is best to keep the kitchen, media room, office and mechanical room grouped together within the home, and sitting as far away (vertically and horizontally) as possible from the bedroom(s). 

Furthermore, the permeability of the house’s membrane affects the overall shielding to exposure. As builders, our company has experienced that steel cladding and roofing can virtually eliminate radiation, wireless, cell coverage and EMFs from external sources. On the interior of the home, limiting exposure can be achieved by hardwiring your computers, using corded phones, eliminating dimmer switches, installing master kill switches (used to turn off circuit zones during sleep hours, etc.), and running wiring through well-shielded rigid conduit in patterns that do not encircle bedrooms.

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.

Adaptation key to affordability

Written by Econ’s Dalit Holzman and originally published by North Shore News June 2013.

Vancouver and our beautiful North Shore are expensive. Not really news right? We’re all fully aware of the ranking that puts our lifestyle-rich region almost at the top of the world’s least affordable in which to own a home, of the trade-offs we make in order to wake up each day in this most special of spots. But really how do all the stats and figures translate into relatable bits across the generations who constitute our community? Well, let’s bring out the apples and compare them shall we?

When my parents were my age (almost 40 in 1986), the price of a bungalow in Vancouver was $117,100 and the median total income for a family of 2 or more was $30,660. Simply put, the 1986 bungalow cost 3.8 times the annual income of the average family. Fast forward to 2013. The same bungalow now costs $786,200 and the median total income for the 2+ person family hovers around $57,000. This constitutes a whopping factor of 13.8 (up from the 3.8 back when I was dreaming sweet dreams of Expo ’86).

Simply put, either the price of a detached bungalow in our area needs to drop to $216,600 or me and my partner need to get more than hefty raises to make a combined $206,895 per year in order for things to be akin to how my dear parents had it. Adaptation has now become key and though some do contort themselves to fit within the financial strain our present in-affordability creates, at some point, many just give up trying for blood from stones. Many downsize (think Surrey’s newest micro-lofts at 297 square feet for $109K), many move ($220,400 buys that same detached bungalow on Canada’s other beautiful coast), many rent (opting for greater liquidity, private education, retirement savings). And then there’s a surprisingly growing number who are “moving back to Mom’s”.

Now, when I say intergenerational cohabitation, don’t think couch surfing, joblessness, and a nutritional regimen centered on cereal and instant noodles. Imagine instead sunny backyard afternoons with the grandkids, gaining an onsite handyman, sharing some meals, many stories and laughs together. Zoning varies depending on where you live on the North Shore; however, in every area, a secondary suite for family members is allowed. The details on the shape it all takes from there, of course, vary widely depending on the family members’ needs. A home may mean the young family of 4 downstairs with full and easy access to the backyard and all its opportunities. Or it may mean Grandma and Grandpa downstairs with no more stairs to climb and less space to maintain. Regardless of the iteration (and there are so many to explore), one thing is indisputable: 2 families contributing within a big house makes living a whole lot cheaper for everyone.

The financial model the new relationship creates also is a point of consideration, fully customizable to your family’s unique needs. Will it be a straight “standard rent” arrangement? Will there be an element of “rent to own” or perhaps an element of barter for property upkeep and maintenance? Might it constitute part of an early inheritance? As stated, the specifics will make themselves known as your family’s conversation evolves over the course of time, and it is time you should give it. The move toward living under one roof is not to be taken lightly; sharing space (even if the spaces are fully self-contained) can create challenges after having lived separately for a decade or more.

But homes are usually incredibly adaptable to the desires we all share. Even hundred-year-old Heritage Homes can be lifted to accommodate full-height, light-filled suites and soundproofed to keep conversations contained. Even across our generations, in a culture that holds “self-made” so high, we can lift ourselves toward sharing space and embracing community.