Lighting

Lighting is one thing we had really left along while we finished the construction. The electricians just fitted basic fittings and whatever bulbs they had to hand – basically whatever enabled the electrical work to pass the inspection – and we didn’t really touch anything until recently.

The exceptions were the bathrooms where we got the electricians to fit water-safe Light-Emitting Diode (LED) lights and places where we had already bought fittings from Ikea that were code-compliant (Francis’s bedroom, the kitchen, pantry and outside). We also replaced most of the bulbs with LED bulbs, and now the whole house now has LED lighting. LED-based lights should last for 25-30 years without needing to be replaced and will use a tenth of the electricity of conventional filament bulbs, without the levels of mercury in Compact Fluorescents (CFLs) – which also don’t last anyway near as long and are nowhere near as energy efficient as LEDs. People used to be worried – some still are – that LEDs give a ‘harsh’ of overly blue light. That might have been true several years ago, but now LEDs can be found from this bluer end all the way through to warm yellow-orange that looks and feels like filament bulbs (and there are even LED bulbs that physically look like vintage bulbs too). Of course the great thing about LEDs is that they don’t have to look like bulbs at all. They can come in strings, or flat, or almost any shape.

However, there remained the question of proper fittings, in the main parts of the house and other rooms. Our friend in the island built a house a few years ago, and she struggled for months to find light fittings she liked. The truth is that contemporary lighting in Canada, and not just at the more affordable end of spectrum, is really bad. Terrible design, cheap materials and poor manufacturing in mostly in uncertain conditions in China, are the order of the day. Most of the lights are poor imitations of ‘antique’ designs or fake art deco. None of the lessons of the modernist movement in terms of functional and good design for everyone, appears to have been learned. Certainly there is a wide range of affordable lighting but it’s all, without exception, bad. Ikea has offered some options – and we taken a few of them – but even theirs isn’t that good and they appear to have almost given up on doing simply things well in terms of lighting.

Added to this is the fact that Kayo and I don’t have exactly the same tastes. I tend to like a greater range of modern lighting, and particularly the more colourful. Kayo is more minimal. But we have enough overlap! We particularly wanted a couple of pendants to go over our dining table and some kind of modern triple, descending pendant for the stairwell, as well as something interesting for the lounge area, and something actually Japanese for the tatami room upstairs.

Unsurprisingly we got the latter from Japan, a simple washi paper shade, and found the interesting light for the lounge from the same maker, Toshiyuki Tani, this one made from shaved birch-bark laminated with clear plastic on a metal frame.

For the others (and also for furniture, about which there will be another post in future), I had been spending some time lurking on eBay, etsy and European vintage sales sites like vintg.com (formerly RetroStart) for the last couple of years, trying to pick up some bargains from the era when lighting really was well-designed, namely the mid-20th century, particularly in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and Italy. I picked up a few NOS (new old stock) Danish pendant shade kits, which were quite common at the time, but it doesn’t look like we’re actually going to use more than one so we’ll probably sell the others on. But we managed to find what we wanted for both the stairwell and dining room.

For the dining table, we were lucky to find a pair of genuine ‘as-new’ Louis Poulsen PH 4/3 lights for less than half the new price. I love Poul Henningsen’s designs, and it doesn’t matter how many of them you see, the simple PH 4/3 still works in almost any setting. It’s an almost perfect design.

For the stairs, we had a lot more trouble as it’s difficult to agree on one piece for such an important setting and difficult to find anything affordable that’s so big. Because the stair rail is steel, I really wanted something that echoed this and provided further contrast to all the wood. We eventually settled on a triple Star pendant designed by Dutch architect and designer, J.J.M. (‘Jan’) Hoogervorst for Anvia. It’s got an industrial feel but also creates a really beautiful light and works very well in the space. The black and white enamel finish is a little battered but it’s even better for that and rather than restore it, we’re going to leave it that way.

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Update: Mid-2017

It’s July and the house is performing as well in this season as it was in the winter. We are loving living here! The joy of actually being able to live normally without building, and the fact that we had no more money to spend on it, had meant that we’ve slowed down on the things we still need to do. However, now the house is built and habitable, it’s been valued and the bank has decided that it’s worth a lot more than they estimated before we started, so they are now happy to lend us a little more to do the various things we need to do.

Here’s a quick summary of what we have been doing and when we expect other things to be done:

  1. Lighting. Finally, I’ve got around to installing all the light fittings we had picked out for the place that the electricians wouldn’t install because they weren’t Canadian-certified. There will be a post and pictures very soon.
  2. Site clean-up is proceeding, but slowly… we have plans for landscaping but only plans, so far. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the wildflowers proliferating around the house. We are hoping we might get started on this before the end of the summer, but who knows?
  3. Furniture. We have some things arriving soon and are still looking for others. There will be a post about all this probably late August.
  4. Shelving and storage. We have a lot of books, which are still in piles in the old house. We need shelves, but we want good built-in shelving, and we have to wait for our friend and skilled carpenter, Jeremy, to have enough time to do this, which will not be until September. He’s also going to do the closet in the entryway and some other things in the kitchen.
  5. The Japanese room. Again, we had to wait on the availability of another exceptional woodworking friend, Joe, who’s very interesting in Japanese joinery, to get this finished. He’s also going to be working on this in the autumn. Hopefully both this and the other woodwork will be finished by the winter.
  6. Power. The project was always about more than meeting Passive House standards. One major aim was (and is) to be net-zero, i.e. to produce at least as much energy as we consume. However, there’s a huge transformation in both solar and wind generation going on right now, and we’ve decided to wait for at least another year to see what comes onto the market and whether, for example, home batteries and lower-priced PV panels, as well as new wind generation systems like the local start-up, RidgeBlade, become more widely available in Canada. So we’re looking at a 2018 installation at this point, but we’ll see.

I’m also writing a wrap-up and reflection on the project for Green Building Advisor. There’s going to be one more (slightly late) regular installment in their series of edited excerpts from the blog first, and then this wrap. It’s going to be very much a case of ‘lessons learned’ and what we would do differently if we were to start again knowing what we know now. I’ll post a notice here when the final edited blog is published and reprint the entire reflection here as well as on GBA.

Wolfe Island Passive House Performance – Final Report

We have received a copy of Anthony Mach’s final report on our place, part of a comparative study that also looks at another passive house project in Peterborough, Ontario. We’re not going to comment on the Peterborough project because we know very little about it and it’s very different to ours so, with Anthony’s permission, I will just highlight some parts of the report as it relates to this house.
Anthony’s report compares our Passive House to the new highest Canadian code standards. Bear this in mind, because the average Canadian (or US) house wouldn’t have been built to anything like those latter standards, and as for the average older house on Wolfe Island… well, let’s just say, you could probably punch a hole through the wall of many houses here, our old one included!
I think Anthony has been somewhat conservative with his estimate of the R-value of the walls and ceiling, which based on the whole assembly (including the CLT, which has an R value of 4-5 on its own, and siding) would be nearer 50 in my view. But conservative estimates are better than exaggerated claims for testing efficiency. This leads to some estimates for the house’s performance:
I’m also surprised by how much heat loss there is through the walls in these estimates, but apart from my feelings about R-values, I don’t have any basis for challenging this – it just seems like more than I would have expected. But the important thing is that our energy consumption is reduced dramatically.
I think here there is a little more erring on the side of conservatism here – basically Anthony has estimated the energy consumption of our appliance and lights to be the same as the 2017 Code standard, but we are using all LED lighting now – although we weren’t all the time when the measurements were taken in the winter as the electricians had just used a whole range of conventional bulbs – and we have fewer, smaller and more efficient appliances compared to the average household. We will have to test this empirically through the year via our bills! Anthony’s current estimate for our annual electrical bills has them at almost half the best you would get from a 2017 Code-standard house:
Of course, one of the problems with bills is that you can only reduce them so far: the majority of our bill is not use charges but fixed fees and delivery charges, over which we have no control, unless and until we are totally off-grid, which brings us to…
Green House Gas Emissions
On Green House Gas emissions, I would imagine that once we’ve installed the Solar Thermal and Solar PV panels (probably this summer, although it depends on costs), and possibly some other wind-based generation, this will further reduce our electrical draw draw from the grid and our costs, and therefore also our GHG emissions. Our eventual aim is to have zero energy bills and net zero GHG emissions.
Winter Performance
You can see more detail about the winter temperature and humidity in the preliminary results. While, as Anthony notes, we found the house perfectly comfortable over the winter, I think the house will be a little warmer next time around. Because it was uninhabited until late November and there was no heating for a while after that, the house never really built up the sustained warmth that would thereafter be preserved to a greater degree by the insulation etc. We shall see!
NB: the December average is significantly different because note that we were away for much of the second half of the month, and had the HRV set on its lowest setting and the thermostat at around 13ºC.
Summer Cooling
Anthony’s report doesn’t just cover what actually happened over winter, it also uses PHPP (Passive House software) modelling to estimate what would happen in the rest of the year. Of particular note is that the model predicts mechanical cooling will be necessary in July and August.
The HRV certainly does not function effectively as a cooling system so far as we can tell. But I’m yet to be convinced by the need for mechanical cooling. Although the primary rationale for the orientation of the house and the window size and placement was Fall-Winter-Spring heating, the house was also designed to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction and for both effective stack and cross-ventilation. Simply by opening the windows (and turning off the HRV), we think we will be able to create significant cooling. Indeed that’s how things are working now (late June) even though we are only opening the windows on the tilt setting to minimize the chances of insect entry until we have had the screens manufactured (very soon). So I think we might be able to manage without any mechanical cooling. The PHPP calculations done by Malcolm Isaacs prior to the building had said the same thing – his solution was to have a large fan which we could place temporarily at one of the attic windows in summer, and use occasionally to do an almost full-house air replacement. This may be as far as we go…
The Verdict
There is a lot more in the report, but overall, Anthony characterizes our project as a successful one, and having been here, we know he like the place!
We are really grateful to Anthony for carrying out this research, as we never would have had such a detailed understanding of the house without it.