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Builders tour Canada’s largest ‘Passive House’ in Vancouver

85-unit apartment building under construction in East Vancouver to reach near-zero carbon emissions.

Cornerstone Architecture principal Scott Kennedy stands beside an example of the ultra-efficient insulation that will surround a new Vancouver apartment building like a "sweater" during a tour of the Passive House-certified project Tuesday.

David P. Ball / Metro Order this photo

Cornerstone Architecture principal Scott Kennedy stands beside an example of the ultra-efficient insulation that will surround a new Vancouver apartment building like a "sweater" during a tour of the Passive House-certified project Tuesday.

Have you ever seen an apartment building wearing a sweater?

It’s not as wild an idea as it sounds, according to the Vancouver architect behind what will be the country’s largest near-zero emissions building when it’s finished.

The 85-unit, six-storey rental apartment building, located at East Hastings and Skeena streets, meets the European-pioneered Passive House standards, the highest environmental certification in the world.

“The first thing you do is put a really good sweater on the building,” explained Cornerstone Architecture principal Scott Kennedy, “that keeps the cold out in the winter and keeps the cold in in the summer. The idea is to actually moderate your climate better than a typical building.

“It's what we call an 'envelope-first' building.”

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That translates into 80 per cent less energy use than conventional buildings, according to the Pembina Institute, and brings it in line with Vancouver’s Zero Emissions Building Plan to cut new building emissions to zero by 2013.

Kennedy, who is also chair of Passive House Canada, told visitors during a tour of the building site that the end-product will save on heating bills and greenhouse gases at the same time, thanks to thick insulation, extremely high-efficiency windows and a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) system which can keep 85 per cent of the building’s heat from escaping.

That HRV system, he said, pre-heats incoming fresh air from the outside with the hot exhaust from indoors.

“You're actually recovering the heat from the outgoing air,” he said, “while bringing in fresh air all the time.”

Doug Wilson, president Peak Construction Group of Companies, discusses the Passive House-certified building at 388 Skeena Street, a six-storey, 85-unit, market-rental apartment project known as The Heights, during a tour Tuesday.

David P. Ball / Metro

Doug Wilson, president Peak Construction Group of Companies, discusses the Passive House-certified building at 388 Skeena Street, a six-storey, 85-unit, market-rental apartment project known as The Heights, during a tour Tuesday.

According to Dylan Heerema, an analyst with the Pembina Institute — which released a report Tuesday on the progress of Passive House construction — in North America the number of housing units meeting the high energy standards has quadrupled in the past year alone, from 500 suites to more than 2,000, he said.

Fully one-in-four of those units, thanks to the new project, are in Vancouver.

“It's a path-breaking green building, and a blueprint for what's going to become the new normal in building construction,” he told touring visitors Tuesday. “It's the most comprehensive standard on the market for buildings that are low-emissions, comfortable, healthy and affordable to heat.

“In less than 10 years … buildings like this one will be commonplace in Vancouver and beyond.”

It’s not the first Passive House-certified building to rise in Vancouver, though it is the largest of two projects in the city. Another large-scale Canadian project is set to provide affordable housing in Ottawa, too, with the top-level certification.

Cornerstone Architecture principal Scott Kennedy leads a tour of the Passive House-certified building at 388 Skeena Street, a six-storey, 85-unit, market-rental apartment project known as The Heights, during a tour Tuesday.

David P. Ball / Metro

Cornerstone Architecture principal Scott Kennedy leads a tour of the Passive House-certified building at 388 Skeena Street, a six-storey, 85-unit, market-rental apartment project known as The Heights, during a tour Tuesday.

Doug Wilson, the president of the project’s contractor and development partner Peak Construction Group, said learning how to build to the standard has “been interesting.”

“From a construction perspective … I quickly started to realize this really is a very intelligent way of building a building like this,” he said.

He estimated costs to be only roughly two per cent higher than conventional construction thanks to keeping the “design simple” and having most sub-contractors build to normal standards — and the Passive House-specific components done by his own staff, some of whom undertook the B.C. Institute of Technology (BCIT)’s trades course for Passive House building.

That helped “to keep the costs as low as possible,” he explained, and so “when they're on site, they understand what we're trying to achieve and what the goal of Passive House is.”

Meanwhile, in Pembina’s new report, Accelerating Market Transformation for High-Performance Building Enclosures, the environmental organization argued that Vancouver has become a “hotbed” of green construction — but that federal policies need to shift to encourage even more buildings like this one.

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