Tag Archives: ecohouse

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.


Building waste, reuse and recycling

Now we’ve finished all the basics, we’re back from being away, the snow has gone and the rain has finally stopped, it’s time to think about clearing the site, landscaping and planting. The immediate thing that strikes you is just how much ‘stuff’ there is that’s left over when you build a house. And this is even given all the steps we’ve taken to reduce waste, particularly with the insulation where the Chris and his crew were superb at making use of almost every piece of off-cut wood fibre. And yet… ‘Ecological’ products come wrapped in layers of plastic. Roofers leave inexplicably large pieces of off-cut steel lying around. Siding comes in job lots that always seem to require one more pallet than you thought you would need. And so on. It would be really nice if you could plan the entire house to be precise about the amounts of materials you would need and would fit with commercially-available quantities, but that’s just not feasible.

So after the trials and tribulations of building, the challenges, the fun and the romance, there seems to be a of ‘waste’ to deal with. And there will be more once we start demolishing the old house. Anything that’s unused or reusable, we’re going to store in the barn. Material that could be of use in maintaining the new house (like any uninstalled siding, decking planks etc.), we’ll keep. We also have some plans for greenhouses and chicken coops, and so there’s plenty of stuff we can use for those projects. Other material, we will offer to anyone who thinks they can make use of it. Some, we can recycle, but unfortunately there will be some sent to landfill – as little as we can, but it seems very difficult to do an entirely ‘zero waste’ build within the current system.

But first of all, it all this stuff to be sorted out. So that’s what I’ll be doing over the coming week!