Insights from industry

Constructing North America’s Largest Commercial Passive House

Homesol CEO and President Ross Elliott talks to AZoM about energy efficiency in USA and the materials required to construct a ‘Passive House’.

Could you provide a brief overview of Homesol and the industry that it works within?

Homesol Building Solutions Inc. is one of North America’s leading providers of residential energy design and green building consulting services for builders, designers and homeowners. Founded by my wife and I in 1999, Homesol’s six-member team’s passion for sustainable building established the company as the real deal in the world of residential energy efficiency. With over 30 years experience as an energy evaluator, green rater, contractor, designer and trainer, I first qualified as an energy auditor in 1980 and R-2000 builder in 1983.

My team verifies approximately 1,200 buildings a year to R-2000, ENERGY STAR®, LEED and Passive House standards. As a Certified Passive House Consultant and Trainer, I have earned professional qualifications from both the Passive House Institute of the United States and the Passivhaus Institute in Germany. I also “walk the walk” as my own home is built to Passive House standards.

Homesol consultants assist the growing number of advanced green builders, designers and homebuyers, who realize the future is here now. Not only is it possible to design to a much higher standard of sustainability today, this standard is the most economical and common-sense way to build and renovate.

Homesol is currently involved with a project that seeks the “prize” of being North America’s largest commercial Passive House – Could you give a brief overview of this project and the history behind this?

Le Belvédère is a wedding, meeting and corporate events facility in Wakefield, Quebec, just minutes north of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. It is built on a challenging rock outcrop overlooking the majesty of Canada’s Gatineau Hills. This project incorporates state-of-the-art construction techniques and ultra energy-efficient mechanical systems to reach its goal of Passive House certification. For example, the building’s entire concrete slab, footings and foundation are insulated with 12 inches of polystyrene insulation. Pre-fabricated walls, floors, interior partitions and trusses were delivered to and quickly assembled on-site, sealed airtight and fully insulated to avoid any thermal bridging.

Homesol is the consulting firm for the project. My team is responsible for guiding the project to meet Passive House criteria and to gather all the necessary energy data to be submitted for certification. It’s an intense Quality Assurance process to ensure that all buildings certified as Passive House actually meet all the criteria. In this instance, the Passive House Institute (PHI), in Germany, will give final certification.

Brian Fewster, Le Belvédère’s visionary owner, chose to pursue Passive House certification without hesitation. He knew that for about 10 per cent more in building costs, he’d recoup his money in 10 to 12 years. If energy prices go up, his return on investment is quicker.

With capacity for 150 dinner guests, the high-ceiling 8,000 square foot Le Belvédère has an interior volume of 150,000 cubic feet – equivalent to a 15,000 square foot house – nearly six times larger than the average American home built in 2011, yet is expected to have an annual heating bill of less than $600.

Le Belvédère is located in an area that records winter temperatures colder than Moscow, Russia, and yet we’re very confident we’re going to meet or exceed the Passive House standard.

What is a Passive House? What standards must it adhere to?

Passive House design represents the world’s highest energy standard for residential and commercial construction, and delivers energy cost reductions of up to 90 per cent with construction costs that are usually no more than 10 per cent higher than conventional building. Passive House standards are focussed on energy efficiency, requiring an annual heating energy consumption of less than 15 kWh/m2/yr.

How are LEED and Passive House different?

LEED is an excellent scorecard of all aspects of a building’s sustainability and includes dozens of environmental measures including energy, water, materials and location. However, a building’s biggest impact on the environment is its energy usage. Passive House building costs are about the same when compared to LEED Platinum. LEED buildings typically use 25-30 percent less energy than non-LEED buildings. Passive House buildings can slash the heating energy consumption of buildings by up to 90 percent, and overall energy consumption by 60 to 70 percent.

What materials or features were important in Le Belvédère’s construction?

Some of Le Belvédère’s energy-saving features are:

  • R-117 cellulose (recycled newspaper) attic insulation, more than twice the 2012 building code
  • 18 inch thick, R-71 walls (insulated with rock wool, a recycled product) at least triple the 2012 building code
  • Foundation insulation that exceeds R-60 including under the footings
  • European Passive House triple glazed ultra-high-performance wood windows
  • Cold weather Mitsubishi air source heat pump for heating and cooling
  • Less than 0.5 ACH50 air-tightness, about seven times tighter than typical new construction
  • Custom built 2,200 cfm enthalpy recovery ventilator (ERV) with 90%+ heat recovery
  • Recovered heat from cooling systems recycled for hot water and space heating
  • LED lighting throughout, which alone will save an estimated $4,000 per year on hydro-electricity costs

Could you tell us more about the attic insulation?

The attic has almost three feet of blown cellulose insulation, achieving R-117 with recycled newspaper. The trusses are designed to allow full-height insulation right to the outside of the walls, where they meet with the 4” outer layer of rock wool board insulated wall sheathing, forming a continuous thermal-bridge-free layer.

When are you aiming for completion on this project?

Le Belvédère is complete and operational, but is still fine-tuning the mechanical installation. Completion is due in the coming weeks and then data analysis and the exacting certification process can take a few more months.

In your opinion, is enough being done in the building industry to improve energy efficiency in buildings in North America?

To answer that I’d need almost an entire other interview! Let me say this: As a Canadian Homebuilders Association (CHBA) member, I’d like to provoke building industry policy makers to aim higher, like Le Belvédère, for achievable cold-climate efficiency targets. I challenge CHBA and any other North American homebuilder’s association to tell its members why we’re still building houses to lowest common denominator standards for comfort and energy efficiency, while ecosystems are being decimated and wars are being fought over energy security.

The simple truth is that our industry can build better houses right now, and the economics prove beyond any doubt that it’s simply common sense to build tomorrow’s houses today. Why are we satisfied with buildings that leak air and waste energy? Le Belvédère achieved a Canadian standard EnerGuide Rating of 95, which is approximately 90 per cent better than 2012 Canadian standard building code.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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