Local builder provides Passive House concept
By Darren Lum
Published Aug. 10, 2017
When Minden’s Marci Mandel and her husband Alan Clark were considering a home for their golden years they never thought of the Passive House standard until a local builder started offering the service, steps from family living in Minden’s downtown.
“We first learned about Quantum Passivhaus when they introduced themselves to the community. We own a property next door where Alan’s mother lives so we were curious what business was going in,” Mandel wrote in an email.
Quantum Passivhaus (quantumpassivhaus.com/about-us) is a new design and building company that was started this year to bring the Passive House standard to the Highlands and the province. It is run by Minden couple Abby and Angie Xerri, who are raising their two children here.
Passive House (PassivHaus in German) concept is a voluntary approach to building homes that adheres to a set of stringent energy efficient standards that offers improved air quality, low costs related to heating and cooling which was started in Germany and known as PassivHaus there. The idea was modelled from the Saskatchewan Conservation House. It featured airtightness, five times the insulation of homes of that time and a heat recovery system, which was designed and built by a team led by Canadian Harold Orr in 1977. The building was contracted by Saskatoon’s provincial government because of the energy crisis related to skyrocketing oil prices. It was sold two years later, but helped to lead to a change in insulation standards and influenced the construction of R-2000 (developed by Natural Resources Canada) homes – certification that ensures a home is built to be energy-efficient with high levels of insulation and possess features for clean air and considerations to protect the environment.
There are Passive House built structures around the world, mainly in Europe with a few in North America. There are close to 30,000 built and this includes single-family dwellings, multi-unit residences, commercial and institutional. So far the Minden-based company has nine projects.
The Xerri’s said when building they consider seven main elements: the insulation factor, the shape factor, which ideally is to have less surface area; reducing the chance for thermal bridging; properties of the windows and doors made to “high energy standard;” the home’s use of a mechanical ventilation system (required for air tight homes), the Energy Recovery Ventilation system, which is also known as an air heat exchanger that removes the interior air with fresh air from outside and it manages humidity and keeps it at a comfortable level; foundation that protects from heat loss and moisture build up; the solar orientation, and air tightness that rivals the R-2000 homes.
The company is located at 8 Peck St. and has nine full time staff members (as of a few weeks ago). This location is fully capable of being able to make the walls, framing, sheeting and insulation. They hope to also offer training and education, teaching the concept from the location in their front area. Close to 35 architects, home builders and designers from the Greater Toronto Area made the trip up to Minden to visit the company location and the under-construction model home at 9 Highland Gate Boulevard, as part of a day-long tour organized by Passive House Canada (www.passivehousecanada.com) that included stops at Passive House certified buildings such as the Swegon ERV plant and a residence, both in Innisfil back in June. This tour and seminar offering was organized by the not-for-profit association Passive House Canada that advocates for, trains and educates about the Passive House standard. This association, which started as Canadian Passive House Institute West in 2013 and became Passive House Canada in 2016, boasts Passive House buildings consume up to 90 per cent less heating and cooling energy than conventional buildings.
Abby acknowledges the model home, which features greater insulation, thicker walls and windows (partially shielded from the sun from above by an overhang, but not straight on so it can still gain heat in the winter, doors that seal perfectly. The model home does not perfectly adhere to the Passive House concept since it has just one single floor and has a small envelope, does not completely face south (although this is not a “huge requirement”). However the building still yielded impressive results for not having a heat system this winter. The average, he said, was from 16 to 18 degrees Celsius despite the feeling it was warmer than the measured temperature due to the environment and the humidity level. The model house is a one-floor home, measuring 1,596 square foot of interior space and 1,932 square foot of exterior space. The budget for the home is $345,000. The Xerri’s and their two young children are expected to move in later this summer. Quantum’s owners said the heat and cooling savings make up for the initial pay out related to the high quality and well-engineered walls, doors, and windows imported from Austria, which feature greater thickness and the ability to prevent heat loss with multiple points of sealing.
The Minden company designed the house in adherence to the PHPP (Passive House Planning Program) – once a design is completed it is run through the PHPP, which provides information about how to build the home pertaining to details such as specific wall thickness and how to eliminate “thermal bridging” by choosing the correct doors and windows to conform with the specific area.
In the company’s marketing literature, the house’s heating cost is $164 a year to maintain 20 degrees Celsius. This home boasts a variety of features from it being fully accessible home with its “curb-less showers” to very strong R values – a measurement of insulation. It boasts a roof with 100 R value, walls with an R value of 79 and a floor with an R value of 60 that outclass conventional components.
The initial intention for Mandel and Clark was to build a home with the philosophy of The Not So Big House, as promoted by Sarah Susanka, which Mandel characterizes as “have less and enjoy it more.” Their original plan for a home included using the southern exposure to take advantage of passive energy, but it did not consider Passive House. Mandel said after learning about the Passive House concept she felt “like this was the answer to my dreams.”
“I talked further with Abby and Angie Xerri and knew this was the way to build to be respectful to the earth and our great-great-grandchildren. We need to be thinking long term and building sustainably, and not relying on natural resources if we want a world our great-great-grandchildren will flourish in,” she said. “This style of building may cost more up front but quality and intimacy are what we value. Quantum Passivhaus, a local business we are thrilled to support, are the type of people – from top to bottom – we are so excited to work and design with. We have complete trust in there style of business and the product they are bringing to our community. For a new build, this was the best option that fit with our values and style.”
By making the components of the house off-site, it prevents construction delays related to weather and to meet schedules. From design to completion, a home can be built from 10 to 15 weeks, Abby said.
Angie is credited with bringing up the idea to Abby, but can’t remember where she learned of the concept. It didn’t take too much convincing for Abby, who saw the benefits for the environment and the reduced cost of heating and cooling, particularly for our community. He said in regards to the challenges meeting heating costs was a primary motivator.
“When Angie brought that to me that was one of our focuses. The more I was seeing this I was like it’s got to be crazy to have a house that doesn’t require a heat system,” he said. “But then on top of that it gives you all these measurable high quality conditions of air quality, thermal and comfort. We were just thinking: how do we do this now?”
Angie said this concept is well-suited to the area because of its effectiveness to operate off-the-grid. However Minden has proven to be challenging relative to other areas, particularly when compared to places in British Columbia where winter is not as harsh. With Passive House, Angie said the walls feature a cellulose characteristic that enables the passage of air and humidity to keep them free of moisture.
“With our cold we have to watch for hygrothermal modelling – it’s making sure that there is not a dew point in your walls so there is never moisture in your walls,” Angie said. “So that makes sure that in winter there isn’t any water condensing in your walls and providing opportunity for mould.”
This approach extends to under the roof where there is an opportunity for airflow.
Abby said the company wants to collaborate with other trades people and professionals interested in building. Angie pointed out their business is fully capable of building a “turn key” home made from beginning to end, or can just sell a package and the components specific to the location for other home builders to complete a structure according to the Passive House standards dependant on the client and their needs.
What remains the focus of the company, Abby said, is to be able to provide affordable and quality homes for retirees. He’s confident in offering this new approach to building, which will benefit.
“The biggest thing for us is we’ve put a lot of due diligence and assembled a great team to be able to bring this type of innovation and home to anyone relatively anywhere and we’ve done that by achieving price points, timelines and a construction and design standard that has no compromises,” he said.