Walton's Lees to build Huron's first passive house - Spring Home and Garden 2017
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BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Chris and Judy Lee of Walton wanted to curb their impact on the environment so they’ve decided to build a passive house later this year.
The Lees have lived just east of Walton for decades in a house built in the 1880s. Around the home they have crafted an expansive and extremely modern motocross track that is known throughout North America.
As life advanced at the motocross course around him, he would return home at night to a house with technology over 125 years old. Lee recounts a conversation he had with a dairy farmer who felt he was in the same boat, saying he would employ robotic milking and the most advanced technology in his farming operation, but return home to a house stuck in an era generations earlier.
Last year, as succession planning at the Walton property began to pick up speed with the Lees’ son Brett taking over the raceway’s day-to-day operations, the Lees started looking to build a new house at the east end of the property, near the newly-installed Edge of Walton Challenge Course. Chris’s curiosity about building an efficient home took him down a rabbit hole where he would eventually end up considering a passive house as an option.
The initial concept of a passive house dates back to the late 1980s in Germany, where the first “passivhaus” was built in the early 1990s. The term pertains to a voluntary standard of building applied to a house that makes it incredibly energy efficient and requires very little heating or cooling.
Due to the orientation of the building, strategic placement of elements such as windows and awnings and extremely efficient insulation in the walls, roof and windows, there is no need for a furnace or air-conditioning unit. It does, however, use a heat recovery unit (HRV), which provides the inside with fresh air without letting the house’s heat escape.
A properly-constructed passive house is said to use 90 per cent less energy than a standard house built to today’s building code. The remaining 10 per cent of heat can be provided by body heat, the sun, appliances, light bulbs and electronics.
Currently, the number of passive house structures (the term “passive house is not restricted to houses, but can be used for commercial buildings, office buildings and apartment buildings, etc.) number in the tens of thousands around the world, the vast majority of which are in Europe.
The standards for a passive house are laid out, chapter and verse, in the Passivhaus Planning Package, meaning that while many environmentally-efficient structures may use elements from the passive house concept, a structure must meet certain goals in order to be certified as a passive house.
First, the building must be designed to have an annual heating and cooling demand of not more than 15 kilowatt-hours per square metre per year, or be designed with a peak heat load of 10 watts per square metre.
Second, total primary energy consumption must not be more than 60 kilowatt-hours per square metre per year. And third, the building must not leak more air than 0.6 times the house volume per hour at 0.0073 pounds per square inch as tested by a blower door.
When Lee first wanted to build a new house, he wanted it to be as energy-efficient as possible. He says that North Americans have a great environmental responsibility and he wanted to do his part.
He began looking into environmental standards like R-2000, the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index or LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which is a standard to which the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity in Blyth will be built. However, as he kept researching and trying to find more and more efficient ways to build a new house, he found the passive house concept and it just made perfect sense to him.
Working with a passive house engineer in Guelph, the Lees have begun work on designing a passive house for their Walton property. They hope construction will begin later this year with the exterior to be completed by the winter and the interior finished over the course of the winter.
One of the critical factors of a passive house, Lee said, is to only build the house as big as it needs to be. The more space in the house, the harder it is to heat and to retain heat throughout its entire square-footage.
For a retirement home, Lee said that he and Judy only need the basics, but soon wanted to expand the home slightly. They got to the point where they were going to be able to, by design, add a smaller second floor to the house and not lose any efficiency.
The house is essentially flipped, he said, where they’re adding a basement on the top of the house, but with windows and a view.
While the exterior design of the house has changed drastically during the process, the interior has remained relatively consistent. This is the part of the process Lee says has been easy, because the construction process for a passive house isn’t much different from that of a code house – most of the differences are materials.
Scott Tousaw, Huron County’s Director of Planning and Development, has completed a number of courses on the passive house concept on his own time over the years. The concept has been a passion of his for years.
He says he’s very excited to see the Lees build what he believes will be the first certified passive house in Huron County.
And, like Lee, Tousaw has confidence that because passive houses focus more on being sealed tightly and insulated to a greater standard than most code houses, many Huron County builders will have no problem building houses to passive house standards with simply a little education.
In fact, he said, many of the building code changes are already leaning towards passive house standards anyway. Many European countries already have passive house standards written into their building codes, he said.
The project has not been without its doubters. Lee says it took a while to convince Judy that a passive house was the way to go and when he told his father, he said that house sounded great, but that he should leave enough room to build a furnace, because he’ll need it.
However, for Lee the need to build a passive house runs much deeper than saving money on the monthly hydro bill.
Born in England, Lee became a Canadian citizen in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, and since then he has become immensely proud to be a Canadian. However, he says that the North American share of energy and resources is so disproportionate that he feels he can no longer ignore our need to improve the environment.
Last year he took his cues from Canada’s most prominent politicians. In speeches both by Premier Kathleen Wynne and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, they hinted at leading Canada away from its dependency on oil.
Lee says he feels this isn’t simply something to ease carbon emissions or to stimulate the renewable energy economy, but rather highlighting the lack of sustainability of the world’s energy landscape as it sits right now.
Much of that energy consumption comes from the day-to-day running of an average residential house, he said, in addition to cars, machinery and industry.
“We take that energy and we blow it out the walls of our homes,” Lee said. “We can’t keep living that way indefinitely.”
So while he said he felt he was doing his part by recycling and cutting energy consumption when he could, building a passive house is a way to take a huge bite out of what had been his family’s carbon footprint for decades.
For more information on the passive house concept, visit the Passive House Institute’s website at www.passivehouse.com.