A Semi in Ottawa goes Passive House

Category: Uncategorized (page 2 of 3)

Door #8 – PHPP


What does this acronym stand for? It is in every passive house expert’s vocabulary: the Passive House Planning Package or Passivhaus-Projektierungspaket – Germans like their extra long words.

It is a massive excel spread sheet that according to the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt ” is an easy to use planning tool for energy efficiency for the use of architects and planning experts”. Basically it is an energy balance calculation in excel: it adds up all the energy losses in the building on one side and the energy gains like solar heat gains, appliances, people on the other side. The difference is your heating demand. This is a very simplified explanation….. There is a 260 page manual that comes with it as well. But trying to navigate this tool for the first time is a bit intimidating to say the least.

Luckily when you buy the software you get one version of the spreadsheet completed with the data of the very first Passivhaus in Darmstadt, Germany, a great reference for beginners. One cool thing to do is to change the climate data from Germany to Canada.  Often I get asked, does Passiv House even work here in Canada, where its is much colder that in Germany? What do you think? Well, it is actually easier to do a passive house here in Ottawa than it is in Germany. The weather in Germany in January or February often is overcast, grey and around 1 degree. Not very pleasant to do anything and certainly no sun to provide any heat gain for a house. Here in Ottawa on the contrary we get a lot of very cold (freezing!!) days with blue skies and a lot of sunshine. Great for heating up the building. The heating demand drops from 13 kWh/ (m² a) in Darmstadt down to 12  kWh/(m² a) in Ottawa.



Door #7 – Living in a Passivhaus

Ok, I have never lived in a passive house myself, so this short little movie gives some insight on the advantages. As I am getting excited about the prospects of a built semi-detached home -the city of Heidelberg in Germany has built 3000 apartments, a kindergarten and a museum….




Door #6 – Dredge Leahy Architects Inc.

Some of my readers know this, but I am not working all by myself in some basement – I am going to work every day! The only place I have ever worked since coming to Canada, the only office that was willing to hire me – despite my lack of Canadian experience. Not sure if they ever regretted this, but I guess not as I have been there for almost 10 years. I certainly never had any regrets – a great group of people we are there and we work on anything from a small office fit-up to a multi million dollar hospital project.

Now I am trying to convince them that Passive House is up and coming. I even dragged Michele Dredge, one of the partners to the North American Passive House conference in New York this year….


The exciting news are, that we made the change after Gord Erskine’s retirement to Dredge Leahy Architects Inc.

Congratulations to Michele Dregde and Steve Leahy and I am sure this will be a wonderful new era for the firm.

Door #5 – Windows


Good windows are a very important part of a passive house, as all element of the building envelope are to perform at their best. And poorly insulated windows are cold surfaces in the room and will need some sort of heat source nearby to compensate for the “cold draft”. The Passive House Institute certifies so called “warm” windows that fulfill the requirements for the passive house standard, in Europe there are around 60 manufacturers on the market. Four criteria are important: triple glazing, a  warm edge spacer, insulated frame and thermally correct installation in the wall.

One issue here in Canada is that these windows have to be imported from Europe, mostly from Austria, Germany or Ireland. And that certainly adds to the cost. So what is so different from typical North American windows? Once you have installed one or operated one you know. They are heavier, have more seals, typically they have a tilt and turn operating hardware and in closed position they are really air tight. They are the BMW of windows.

Well insulated windows are necessary to provide solar heat gain the winter, because remember the passive house doesn’t have a furnace…. that works especially well on cold and sunny days as we have them here in Ottawa quite often. This could be achieved with any window, but overall the window has to contribute to a positive energy balance – meaning the house gains more heat through the window than it looses.

So how well insulated are they? As a guideline the u-value of the window assembly  has to be below 0.8 w/m2K, the equivalent of R7.

Door #4 – If Cars were built like Houses


Door #3 – Room for improvement

There is a lot of room for improvement in the way currently buildings are built. Just a few months ago the new Rideau Centre expansion opened in Ottawa with a lot of new fancy stores. There is a huge glazed area with single glazed curtain wall facing Rideau Street. When I first saw this, I was shocked –  to say the least. Imagine the heat loss in the winter, when it is -35ºC outside. Probably some fancy energy modelling software made up for that loss at another location in the building, but imagine how much energy could be saved, if insulated, double (or triple) pane glass would have been used.


Door #2 – Passivhaus explained…


…by Adam Cohen.

Worthwhile watching, only 60 seconds long. Attending one of Adam’s presentations I learned that the passive house concept had made it to North America.

Door #1 – net-zero

Solar panel on a red roof reflecting the sun and the cloudless blue sky

There is a lot of buzz about net-zero energy buildings (NZEB). Buildings that only use as much energy  on an annual basis as is roughly generated on site. In my opinion the talk about net-zero is really a distraction. Theoretically any house – your house – could be transformed to net-zero if you install enough solar panels on your roof or in your backyard – if your roof is large enough that is.  But will that really reduce our energy demand, reduce the amount of power that needs to be generated in Canada? On cold and dark winter night, when the energy demand is probably very high, the sun isn’t shining, so the grid must still provide at the time of peak demand.

And of course all that technology that you have to install comes at a price. There was an interesting feature on this on CBC a few weeks ago. It was estimated that a NZEB would cost 15% more. I wouldn’t really want to pay that much extra for my new house either and energy in Canada its still too cheap to make this an interesting calculation.

But if you want to turn a Passive House into net-zero it starts to make sense, after already reducing the heating load by almost 90% , only a small amount of solar panels are required, much cheaper. And the house will provide superior comfort – very hard to put a price on that.


Advent Calendar


advenrWell, I have been very quiet on this blog and it has been a long time since my last post – somehow I lost momentum and my excitement about my project was affected from the process of getting a demolition and building permit: I am still trying to get all the utilities disconnected, very lengthy process, I had to get a hazardous materials report done, I got word from the city that my parking spots were not compliant with the zoning, so I need to make some changes to the design – thankfully I am my own client – so I can only get mad at myself to have missed that.

But it is almost December and we had the first snow fall already here in Ottawa. Last Sunday was  the first advent with one candle lit on our “Adventskranz”, a German custom to mark the four Sundays before Christmas. In the past we also always had an advent calendar for my kids – often home made with little presents or candy. Now my kids are older – so they are out of luck this year. But I will have one for you – the first Passive House Advent Calendar, with 24 posts until Christmas. Everyday you will learn something about my project or passive house – I hope it will be interesting for everyone. And it will force me to overcome my writers blog…

A Logo and Comfort

My daughters ringette team is looking for sponsors for the upcoming season. So I decided to be a sponsor and get my logo on their shirts, that they will be wearing from now on until March. Hopefully that will get me some additional attention. But what logo?? I spend a day with Illustrator and came up with one.


I got some input from my friend who is coordinating the fundraising and is not an architect or designer. Which is probably a good thing. She was wondering if I could add an explanation of Passive House to the logo in 3-5 words. Because there are a lot of people that don’t know what that means. HA! Not that easy. I asked if I could get half the shirt to explain that a Passive House is a super-insulated building, very airtight, you can basically heat it with the equivalent of your toaster, it has triple glazed windows, it doesn’t need an air-conditioner, it is quiet, it provides comfortable living throughout the entire year, it has superior air quality, especially beneficial for people with allergies, it is affordable, it is the most rigorous green building standard in the world, it can be applied for renovations….well by now I might have covered the entire t-shirt… And even for the sake of saving the planet – every sponsor gets the same amount of space.

While trying to come up with a three word definition for Passive House, one quality of this building standard came up most: COMFORT. And this might get your attention even more than energy efficiency: A Passive House is really comfortable to live in.

I will quote British architect Elrond Burrell and his post Passivhaus; Comfort, Comfort, Comfort, Energy Efficiency  on his excellent blog to try to explain this.

“….energy efficiency is actually only part of passivhaus. People don’t often realize that the Passivhaus Standard is also a rigorous comfort standard that ensures a building is free from drafts, free from cold spots, free from excessive over heating and provided with a constant supply of fresh clean air. And it does so with the minimum amount of energy.”

The standard for airtightness (0.6 air changes per hour) makes the house completely draft-free. Since the windows are so good, designed to have interior surfaces that are within 3°C of interior temperature, there are no cold drafts off the glass like there are in most conventional houses. (That’s why typically in your house duct vents are placed under windows, to counteract this). It also means there are no cold spots.

“Windows that are much colder than the room temperature are also uncomfortable because we experience them as cold spots. The glass acts like a radiator in reverse, drawing warmth away from our body. And the reverse is true in summer; the glass acts like a radiator adding unwanted heat into the room. The effect of this is a band of discomfort around the perimeter of a room where convection currents and cold spots make the space too uncomfortable to enjoy and make use of.”

Of course in such an airtight building you need to provide fresh air.

“The Passivhaus standard requires that the ventilation system provide 30m3 of fresh air, every hour, for every person in the building. This can be provided all year round by a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery so there are no uncomfortable cold draughts from the ventilation. Alternatively it can be provided by ’natural ventilation’ in summer and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery for the rest of the year.”

This is one of the reasons I really like Passive House. Everyone can design a net-zero building by adding enough solar panels on the roof or adding an expensive geo-thermal system. But the house might still be drafty, have cold spots in the winter and overheat in the summer due to too many south facing windows.

Or imagine you renovate your house and add a nice new extension for a family room in the back. I came to the house of a friend of mine for the first time, they live in a very nice neighbourhood in Ottawa, they renovated their house, upgraded the kitchen and did an addition in the back. I really liked it, I walked around, looked at every thing (like architects do) and commented on the great new family room with a window seat overlooking the backyard. She said: “Yes, it is great, but we can’t really use it in the winter, it is too cold next to the window.” Well that is terrible! And really shouldn’t happen. If people ask me how expensive it is to build a Passive House, I like to bring up this example, because that really is expensive to build a space that is not comfortable to  live in year round.

And if you happen to see a ringette team with my logo at an arena around Ontario, why don’t you ask the girls if they know what a Passive House is? And if you are willing to sponsor the team let me know, there is still room on the shirts as I didn’t add any explanation to my logo.


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