By Nathan Rudyk
They said it couldn't be done, and on a day that registered -21 Celsius on my walk into work, I can warmly report that they're wrong. Even in Ottawa, the world’s fourth-coldest capital city (after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Astana, Kazakhstan and Moscow, Russia), Ross Elliott of Homesol Building Solutions has proven that green architectural designer Chris Straka has built a house 90% more energy efficient than a conventional house.
Chris, Principal at Vert Design, didn't necessary start out to build a Canadian First. When he looked into the possibility of meeting the Passive House Institute's energy efficiency standard, he was advised to back off – that Canada's climate was too cold, and it would take a whack of European technology that he couldn't necessarily afford. So he dropped the Passive House idea altogether, and set out to simply build the best green building he could.
When his house, a three-storey, 1,650 sq. ft. per side duplex, was completed, Chris called his colleague Ross Elliott at Homesol Building Solutions Inc. Ross's company has provided energy auditing services for thousands of homes across Canada, from LEED Platinum to tract housing.
Last week I toured Chris's home from top to bottom. The four (count em) four university degrees on his office wall, culminating in a Master of Environmental Design from The University of Calgary, were not in vain (we mean it, Mom). His house includes a 1200 sq. ft. green roof with 12 inches of soil for a vegetable garden, radiant heat floors, a geo-thermal heating system, a high efficiency heat recovery ventilation system, plus room for a cistern for rainwater collection. A solar power system will be installed in the spring.
“My goal was to build a building I could be proud of, not necessarily to build a Passive House,” says Straka. “I knew that a very high performing building could be created using Canadian materials and mechanical systems. You don’t need to look overseas to satisfy the demands of a North American climate. I focused my attention on the building’s envelope, using triple-glazed windows, a combination of foam insulations, and I sealed the house carefully to avoid thermal bridges that would transfer energy across the outer walls. All of this plus a south-facing rear wall of windows overlooking the Rideau River, keeps the cold out while inviting heat inside.” As it turns out, Straka’s subterranean heat pump system is barely needed because the house is so efficient.
Straka says it costs about 10% more per square foot to build this passive house than a conventional house, but the energy savings are significant enough that any additional up-front costs can be recovered in 6 to 10 years. “Any custom home in Ottawa will cost about $225 a square foot to build. For $250 a square foot, you can have the ultimate in energy efficiency.”
According to Elliott, Straka’s certification achievement is an important milestone. “Several other houses are underway across the country, so this landmark certification will pave the way for the expansion and legitimacy of Passive House construction in Canada,” said Elliott, “Chris Straka has proven it can be done.”
It is being done elsewhere in the world. Passive or low energy houses are quickly becoming a European standard. All new buildings in the European Union must be nearly zero energy buildings by 2020 and member states will set intermediate targets for 2015. “Nearly Zero Energy Buildings” are similar to Passive Houses in that they require only a very small amount of energy input. By 2018, all new public buildings in the EU will also be Nearly Zero Energy. Canadian-born celebrity homebuilder Mike Holmes calls Passive House “an up-and-coming design standard.”
If Mikey likes it, it's gotta be good!