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Shelley Willson
Shelley Willson

SHELLEY WILLSON

Earth Day: Let’s build ‘passive’ houses with an eco-punch Add to ...

Critics of high-efficiency homes often argue that the cost of building to a higher standard cancels out any economic benefit. Recent, affordable technology proves them wrong.

In fact, there are now more than 40,000 houses in the world built using a German technology that cuts household energy consumption by 90 per cent. And they have been built at a cost of about $200 per square foot – similar to existing construction costs without those features.

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The “passive house” is a revolutionary new eco-building standard where the house heats and cools itself using passive solar and smart building technology. A superbly engineered and heavily insulated building envelope means that the house acts like a Thermos flask. It’s warm in winter, cool in summer, and boasts much fresher indoor air through the use of an advanced heat recovery ventilator.

The passive house mostly eliminates utility bills, massively reduces GHG emissions, and works with either new build or retrofit.

Passive houses have been built everywhere, from frigid Alaska to sweltering Arizona. They also boast massive savings in operational costs. In Whistler, B.C., for example, a 2,700-square-foot passive house public building needs no furnace.

In transitioning to a low-carbon economy, the biggest bang for our buck is firstly to cut energy consumption. But it’s not about having less; we all want “hot showers and cold beer,” as sustainability author Chris Turner puts it.

In other countries, the passive house is becoming the legal building standard. In Europe, by 2010, all new publicly funded buildings were required to be passive houses. By 2020, all new buildings will need to make the grade – not only residences but commercial buildings. In the U.S., they are springing up like mushrooms. Even the U.S. Army has just built a passive house facility in New Orleans. Yet Canada seems to be lagging behind.

The biggest barrier in Canada is probably a lack of awareness, together with the popular misconception about huge additional building costs. In fact, in Europe, the additional capital costs of 2 to 5 per cent are recovered by much lower operational costs. Although energy is relatively cheap in Canada compared to Europe, provincial carbon pricing already in place or planned will create financial incentives for the consumer.

Canada has laid some good groundwork. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has sponsored a number of successful “EQuilibrium” demonstration homes that achieve near net zero (energy produced equals energy consumed). LEED environmental standards for commercial buildings have become de rigueur. And the Canadian Passive House Institute (CPHI) is training architects, builders, planners and homeowners across Canada.

Here’s a modest proposal. Why not build on the best of each approach to create an impressive, hybrid “made in Canada” building standard? A home could be passive house ultra-low energy; LEED standard for low water use and eco-friendly materials, and net zero by installing solar panels for the small remaining energy requirement. We would gain world-class technology and skills that would be exportable, creating jobs, increasing our economic competitiveness, and improving our environmental reputation.

We don’t need to pour a lot of money into this; the federal government simply needs to create the right incentives. First would be a policy framework to co-ordinate provincial carbon pricing, while working with the construction industry to set the bar higher.

The prize is big and the opportunity is here. Earth Day is a fitting time to start the discussion.

Shelley Willson is a columnist who specializes in sustainability issues.

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