Buildings We Love

The Heights in Vancouver finds efficiency in Passive House principles

At the Heights, among the largest Passive House buildings in Canada, sun shades and triple-glazed windows play major roles in the efficiency of the building. Show caption
Located at the corner of Hastings and Skeena streets in East Vancouver, the six-storey building boasts a reduction of about 205,00 kWh of electricity use over typical buildings. Show caption
Each suite in The Heights is expected to require about 300 Watts of energy from electric baseboard heaters, or about a third of that required by a typical hair dryer. Show caption
The tight building envelope allows for minimal use of heat, including in common areas. Show caption
Suites at The Heights range from 383-square-foot studios to 939-square-foot three-bedroom homes. Show caption
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Rental retail/residential building among largest of its kind in Canada

A recently completed building in Vancouver is taking a unique and advanced approach to energy efficiency. And while it swings for the fences on reducing GHGs and energy use, it's not at the expense of comfort or practicality.

The Heights, a six-storey, 65,000-square-foot structure, is among the largest Passive House buildings in Canada. The first floor is home to three retail-commercial operations and there are 85 residential units above.

Engineer Scott Kennedy is principal of Cornerstone Architecture and president of Passive House Canada. He had just returned from Vienna where he was attending a Passive House conference when he spoke about the project last year.

"Buildings are big consumers of energy," said Kennedy, stressing that because of this, the Passive House energy standard can yield big savings. For The Heights, that amounts to the eye-popping reduction of about 205,000 KWh in electricity use each year.

Ed Kolic, who is with Eighth Avenue Development Group, recalls that the idea to build a Passive House structure at Skeena and Hastings streets in northeast Vancouver came from Kennedy.

"It was a comment he made to me years ago that resonated," said Kolic. "Scott talked about liking things that are passive in nature as opposed to complicated mechanical things."

One "passive" option is the use of sun shades, which control light and heat that comes from the sun.

According to Kolic, building a Passive House project was a way to ensure the building's long-term value while keeping operating costs down. And like so many efficient homes, the savings at the Heights start with insulation. Keeping heat inside the building means that you don’t need to generate as much of it.

Small electric baseboard heaters do the job at The Heights

An 800-square-foot apartment, for example, could theoretically be heated with nothing more than an electric hair dryer. With the Heights project, the suites are equipped with small electric baseboard heaters that are easy to operate.

That means that the building owners benefit from a virtually maintenance free heating system, and tenants have control over their own comfort.

In addition to insulation, triple glazed windows help create a building with a tight seal, and high-efficiency heat recovery ventilation (HRVs) ensure that as much of the heat energy is transferred to fresh air coming in.

An additional benefit of the air transfer system that is key to a Passive House is the improved air quality and dramatic reduction of condensation. In other words, no foggy windows and mold.

The increased insulation, high-quality windows, and HRVs increase development costs, but Kolic said they will lead to a much lower cost of operation. So will the LED lights that are being used throughout the building.

BC Hydro’s New Construction program helped with design

The project team engaged the BC Hydro New Construction program in 2014 to work on advancing the design of the building. Through this collaboration it came up with the estimated energy savings (205,000 KWh a year) and – thanks to limited use of natural gas, only for heating domestic hot water - the seven tonnes of CO2 reductions.

True to its Passive House pedigree, the building exceeds the requirements of Step 4 under the new BC Energy Step Code, which was put in place by the B.C. Government in April 2017. The BC Energy Step Code is a voluntary roadmap that establishes progressive performance targets (i.e., steps) that support market transformation from the current energy-efficiency requirements in the BC Building Code to net zero energy ready buildings.

The project also exceeds City of Vancouver Rezoning Policy requirements, and also meets many of the City's future goals for low-rise buildings under the Zero Emissions Building Plan.

Kolic is pleased with how the Heights has come together. "It's not the lowest cost solution," he said, "but we, as a company, prefer to build a better quality building."

What makes a house Passive?

"Passive House is an energy standard,"explains Vancouver architect Scott Kennedy.

Unlike other building standards which may include guid elines for the likes of water saving, lighting, and construction materials, Passive House also considers occupancy comfort.

That comfort, according to Passive House Canada president Scott Kennedy, is the result of mimimal temperature fluctuations – even during extreme hot and cold periods – and significantly improved air quality in the home. It’s also about reduced noise levels and building longevity.

Passive House Canada is partnering with post-secondary institutions such as BCIT to provide trades training so that people doing the building and construction understand the principles and can put them into practice.