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Passive Houses make science, not 'fancy finishes', the priority

The Barnhardt Passive House in Saanich is so energy efficient it's heated by two small 500-watt heaters through the coldest part of winter. Photo by Derek Ford.
The Barnhardt Passive House in Saanich is so energy efficient it's heated by two small 500-watt heaters through the coldest part of winter. Photo by Derek Ford.

Saanich home could be Vancouver Island's first Passive House

There's a science to building homes, especially environmentally efficient ones such as the Passive House. Just ask Mark Bernhardt.

After earning a science degree in geography, Bernhardt moved from providing environmental assessments to the oil and gas pipeline industry, to construction and renovation, to home-building.

"I've always been interested in taking my science background and applying it to building," says Bernhardt, president of Bernhardt Contracting Ltd. in Victoria. "It's taken a few years for us to build the business, but now that we're set up and functioning we can start to take on projects that are really exciting because of the science behind them, not just because they're big or have fancy finishes."

Bernhardt started the company six years ago, and is focused on commercial renovation and construction. He has since brought his dad, Rob, on board as project manager. Rob Bernhardt is also president of Canadian Passive House Institute (CanPHI).

"You can get to all of your other sustainability goals by tackling the energy efficiency first," he says.

Passive House energy standard a leap beyond R-2000

Passive House is an international standard that was inspired by the housing research done in Saskatchewan in the 1970's, picked up and refined in Germany, and now increasingly being employed here.

Canada used that same Saskatchewan research to develop the R-2000 standard. Although they are different standards they both focus on reducing heat loss through the building envelope. The Passive House standard sets limits on how much energy can be used to heat and cool the home, the energy performance of the windows, how much air can leak through the envelope and the total amount of energy that the local power company uses to produce energy for that home.

CanPHI states: "The primary goal is to achieve a superbly well-insulated and tightly sealed building envelope, then introduce fresh air via a very high-efficiency heat recovery ventilation system."

The homes can also employ technologies such as geothermal heat recovery and solar hot-water heaters, although such technology is often not required to achieve the desired efficiency.

The Passive House standard's primary focus on energy efficiency means it doesn't compare directly to standards such as LEED or GreenBuild, Bernhardt says, but neither are they competitors. Passive House methods make it easier to achieve LEED energy targets, creating an affordable and  sustainable  building. (Compare home building labelling programs [PDF, 104 KB].)

Because heat isn't constantly escaping, the Bernhardt Passive House relies on its big windows to make the sun the primary source of heat. Photo by Derek Ford.
Because heat isn't constantly escaping, the Bernhardt Passive House relies on its big windows to make the sun the primary source of heat. Photo by Derek Ford.

Add $134 to monthly mortgage; Save $185 on energy costs

Spending more on better windows, insulation and air-tight building envelope construction means a reduction in other big-ticket items such as expensive heating and cooling systems. The payback for homeowners starts immediately.

Bernhardt should know; he lives with his wife, two sons and parents in what they hope will be Vancouver Island's first Passive House, a duplex built by his company. (They're currently waiting for certification.)

"You pay a little bit extra at the outset but by day one you're paying less on your utility bills," says Bernhardt.

He figures that the additional cost on his family's monthly mortgage payments is more than offset in savings on his energy and maintenance bills. (Passive House Cost Comparison)

Energy efficient building technique offers better comfort and few drawbacks

Bernhardt says there are other reasons to consider a Passive House.

"We started doing this because of the energy efficiency and now that we've actually lived in it, it's the comfort that motivates us," he says.

Passive houses are also quieter than conventional homes, with little noise from outside because of the high quality windows and thick walls.

As for drawbacks, there aren't many, according to Bernhardt, other than a function-first approach.  You're unlikely to find items such as fireplaces, as most aren't energy efficient enough to meet the rigid Passive House standards.

"There's no reason to have a fireplace because you're not cold," he says.

Interest in better building is infectious

Bernhardt says although there's a market for single-family homes, he's thinking bigger. "We are currently applying to the City of Victoria for a development permit for a six-plex. We see developers very interested in economical high performance developments.

"With larger projects we achieve economies of scale that make this not just environmentally sustainable, but more economically sustainable as well."

Bernhardt says the interest in building better is infectious. Although Passive House building-envelope design requires less in the way of mechanical systems, Bernhardt has found mechanical companies are not concerned about a drop in business.

"They're really keen to get into the science of this and try it, because it does make for a more comfortable living environment and there are certain techniques that are unique to building a Passive House," he says. "For them it's a new challenge, despite the fact we're maybe spending half as much with them as we might with a normal house."

Energy-efficient homes can be more rewarding

Building to the Passive House standard is one of many pathways to building an energy-efficient home. An energy-efficient home that achieves a certain EnerGuide Rating can be even more rewarding – eligible for financial incentives available through the Power Smart New Home program.