News / Calgary

Calgary first Passive House takes insulation to the next level

The building method devised in Germany keeps residents warm without a furnace

Melissa Valgardson and her husband designed their Calgary home to be efficient by utilizing natural light, thick walls and solar panels.

Jennifer Freisen / Calgary Freelance

Melissa Valgardson and her husband designed their Calgary home to be efficient by utilizing natural light, thick walls and solar panels.

Melissa Valgardson's new home in Montgomery may not look all that different to the naked eye, but visit her basement and you'll notice something missing – the furnace.

"Most of the time we can get away with a 1500 watt heater," she said. "That's basically a hairdryer."

On really cold days – when the temperature dips to -30 – they have electric heaters on thermostats which keep the house warm.

Valgardson and her husband, both engineers, have been interested in energy efficient homebuilding technology. There's lots of ways to go about it, but after much research they settled on passive house technology.

The idea, which originated in Germany, is to take insulation to the extreme. Her house is basically air tight, although a high quality air exchange system keeps the air fresh.

She said it seemed like the best technology to go with, because it focused on the first and most important of the three R's – reduction.

Other homebuilders are working on net zero homes that produce more energy than they consume. A passive house focuses on eliminating the need for energy consumption in the first place.

"The easiest way to get to net zero is to build a passive house first," she said. "First reduce what you need to use."

There's no single way to build a passive house, according to Rob Bernhardt, CEO of Passive House Canada. His not-for-profit organization promotes the technology, and is holding seminars in Calgary this week.

"The material used is irrelevant – we’re looking for an outcome," he said.

The home has lots of light thanks to triple glazed windows, which are better insulated than the walls in some older homes, according to Valgardson.

Jennifer Friesen / Metro

The home has lots of light thanks to triple glazed windows, which are better insulated than the walls in some older homes, according to Valgardson.

Bernhardt said the passive house idea can be applied to buildings of almost any size.

He said as long as you nail that continuous, unbroken building envelope, you eliminate cold spots where heat would escape from a home.

"We call them thermal bridges – those don't exist in a passive house," he said.

The other most obvious thermal bridge in any home is the windows. Valgardson's house is still bright and open thanks to triple-glazed windows brought in from Europe.

"Our windows are better than some people's walls," she said.

Even on cold days, she said there's no draft or cold air coming from the windows. And yes, they can still be opened in the summer.

Of course there's the cost of doing a build such as this. Valgardson said there were few builders familiar with the idea when they started, and they had to make minor adaptations to get it done.

She said the cost is anywhere from 2 to 10 per cent higher than a standard up-to-code build.

"Even though it can cost a bit more to get to the passive standards – we chose not to have expensive finishing inside," she said.

Valgardson will be offering tours of her home this weekend. For information visit https://passivehouse-international.org/ and click the link for Passive House Days 2017.

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